Heath Slawner, one of the lead teachers for Simon Sinek—the visionary voice behind the concept of WHY—specializes in strategic communication and leadership and has built a career sharing his insights with leading organizations around the world.
In his keynotes, workshops, and training sessions, Heath uses stories, studies, and basic biology to demonstrate that trust and purpose—based on a palpable concern for others—are instrumental to high-performing teams. Recently, Kate Green Tripp, Managing Editor at 1440 Multiversity, spoke with him about how much of healthy aging is truly within our personal control:
1440: What does it mean to find your WHY?
Heath: To find your WHY means clarity and confidence. The clarity part comes once you have found or discovered your WHY. That gives you a filter through which you can make decisions and determine whether an opportunity or a piece of advice or a suggestion is in line with who you are and who you want to be when you’re at your best.
Your WHY is really a tool. You can find it and do nothing with it, or you can find your WHY and do something with it and that’s where the clarity comes from. Once you have clarity, it helps guide decisions and opportunities. It informs the direction you want to take, the type of companies you want to work with, where you want to invest your time, and what kind of community involvement you want to engage in.
It may even help you decide who you want to be friends with, the kinds of people and relationships you want to invest in, and even where you want to live.
Our hope is that once you have your WHY, you’re going to be in a better position to put yourself in situations and spaces where you can thrive.
Because your WHY isn’t just your purpose. It’s also an articulation of who you are when you’re at your best.
People sometimes think the WHY is marketing—that it’s a mantra or motto that has to sound good. We would argue that it really doesn’t have to sound good, it just has to feel right.
One thing I love about the WHY Discovery process is that it’s really an experience of identifying your peak moments and periods of feeling flow and being in the zone. Imagine that instead of those moments being random occurrences, once you know your WHY, you can make choices that sort of push or pull you in the direction of those spaces and situations.
So that gives you clarity. Then the second part, the confidence, helps you elevate your game.
Of course, a key part of the WHY is that it needs to be in service to something more than just yourself.
1440: Let’s talk about the relationship between an organization’s WHY and an employee’s WHY.
Heath: Ideally the two are what we call nested and overlapping. When you see a connection between what matters to you and what matters to an organization, meaning your purpose and the organization’s purpose or your cause and their cause overlap, then you are likely to think, This is something I want to invest my discretionary energy in.
The same is true in our personal lives. If you are someone who wakes up in the morning to exercise, it’s because you care about it. You wake up at 6:00 am and you make that sacrifice of discretionary energy because being healthy is important to you.
When we give people something to care about at work—in other words, when the leadership is clear about what a company stands for, and when they behave and act in ways that align with that sense of caring, that sense of purpose, that sense of cause—it inspires employees to want to show up every day and really bring their gifts to work.
I think the successful organizations of today and of the future are the ones that recognize the need to create environments where people can learn and grow and fail and pick themselves up and feel safe doing so and take risks and share their feelings.
Because, let’s face it, the demographics have completely shifted.
It used to be that you got married when you were 25, you had kids, and then you had your family unit at home and your job was only necessary so you could build your family. Now people are not getting married until their 30s. They’re not buying houses because they can’t afford it until their late 30s. And so now, work is family.
And so, we want and need those work relationships to be healthy and strong. We want and need to be able to raise issues with people and not get thrown under the bus for being the squeaky wheel. I think that’s what people want and that’s what businesses want. Everywhere I go, people are saying we need to move faster and make decisions quicker and be more innovative and respond to all of the changes in our market and our environment.
Working at that speed only happens when people trust one another.
1440: That reminds me how you often say “when people feel safe, remarkable things happen.” How do institutions cultivate this safety?
Heath: Simon introduced the concept of the circle of safety in Leaders Eat Last. The basic idea is that we need to have a balance between the selfless and the selfish, and a lot of companies are built around being selfish—you know, silos, forced rankings, etc. There can often be built-in systems that discourage people from sharing information and building real, genuine, deep relationships with one another.
Companies also often lack mechanisms for giving timely feedback because everyone’s so busy being nice and they’re afraid to confront and have the necessary difficult conversations. People are kind of tiptoeing around issues, which can make employees bad at receiving feedback.
At a time when we have never been more connected, all I hear from people is: I’ve never felt so alone.
Leaders need to set the tone by being willing to say I need help here or I screwed up. That gives permission and inspires everybody else to take the risks that build a circle of safety.
I was working with a team recently where someone in finance was so afraid of admitting what they didn’t know and what they couldn’t do that they just kept it to themselves. By the time they finally raised their hand and acknowledged an ongoing struggle, it took six months to fix the problem. Had that person felt safe enough to raise their hand earlier, it could have been solved in two weeks.
This is what happens when people don’t feel safe. People need communication and they need leaders who walk the talk and set the tone.
1440: What are the urgencies and trends in the workplace you and Simon and team most often witness and hear about today?
Heath: From where we sit right now, the biggest challenge or what’s bubbling up is that large organizations are awakening to this new way of thinking, this new way of being, because they recognize that if they don’t create environments where people want to do their best work, those employees are going to go somewhere else.
We’re seeing really large organizations—companies with 80,000 people or 300,000 people—want to bring about a cultural transformation as a way to better engage not only their employees but also their stakeholders, partners, vendors, suppliers, and customers.
Leaders are asking: How can we create an improved environment?
They are recognizing it’s not just the right thing to do from a people point of view, but ultimately, it’s going to make the company more productive, more innovative, more creative, and more profitable. It will actually return more to the bottom line over the long-term.
I can’t prove that a cultural shift will make a company more profitable in six months, but if you want to be around in 60 years, you better be investing in your people.
You better be clear about what you stand for and live up to it, or at least try to live up to it every single day.