Meeting Simon Sinek: The Most Challenging Meeting So Far

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar June 26, 2016

Last week we find ourselves flying to the USA to start our trip along a range of our Bucket List heroes. We arrive in New York City and settle down in an Airbnb apartment in Brooklyn. After a first attempt to shake off the jet-lag we leave the apartment to meet up with one of the hotshots of our bucket list: Simon Sinek.

After a big American breakfast we take a metro to Manhattan and find our way to the offices of Next Jump on Fifth Avenue where we'll be meeting with Simon. Simon is an inspiration to us, and many others, mainly due to his world-famous TEDx talk. In some of our previous visits to pioneers in the field, we've learned that Simon's work has been a great source of inspiration to them and literally helped them towards creating their own happy workplace. We're excited and can't wait to learn more about Simon.

Start with why

There's a lot being said and written about Simon Sinek's work. His simple and clear theory continues to inspire lots of people around the world. For the ones who are not familiar with his work, there's only one real way to quickly understand it. It's the thing it all started with for Simon and it's the thing that inspired us too. A definite must-watch is his world-famous TEDx talk:

The ultimate goal of all our meetings is to discover the person behind the success. We're curious of the person behind the work we admire so much. So far, we feel we've always succeeded to reveal the personal aspects of the person in front of us, partly due to our personal approach and improvisational style of interviewing. You might call it unstructured or even unprepared, but it’s the style that fits us best and a style that often allows our heroes to share their personal story in an intimate manner. ​After the first part of the interview, we realize that for Simon Sinek this clearly doesn’t work. Our improvisational style of interviewing doesn’t allow us to discover the person behind the public figure that so many of us know. For 45 minutes we try hard to find a sweet spot to open up the conversation, but we fail utterly. We don't get any closer than the one-liners and theories we've read in his books or heard in his talks. After 45 minutes, Simon tells us he has to leave soon and allows us 5 more minutes to finish the meeting.

Lesson 1: Ask feedback, even when you know it’s going to hurt

We feel we screwed up and start to ask ourselves many questions. Are we just two amateurs wasting somebody’s precious time or is Simon Sinek blinded by his own success? Would Simon Sinek and his Golden Circle be all but one big marketing fairy tale? We don’t want to accept the uncomfortable situation and frankly ask Simon for his honest feedback on the progress of the meeting. We address the awkward tension in the room as to better understand him and to personally learn from it. It is a bold and risky move, but it’s our last resort to save the meeting.

From the moment we ask Simon to reflect on the situation, he comes to life. One thing you can definitely say about Simon is that his feedback is both sharp and honest. The exchange of feedback is the turning point in the interview. Simon opens up as soon as we allow him to ventilate his opinion. Asking direct feedback and advice can be painful, but it is often the best way to learn from failure or misunderstanding. In this case it cleared the air and it allowed us to continue the conversation on a more engaging level.

Lesson 2: Stay true to your why

We continue the conversation with renewed hope and remind Simon about our unusual approach and our intentions for this meeting. We tell him that we want to stay true to our purpose, that we want to discover the real person behind the public figure and that we want to share the unique inspiration that we derive from it.

Simon explains that the search for his personal purpose all started with an obsession. He is obsessed by finding his own ‘why’ and discovers his Golden Circle theory over time. He asks himself questions like: "What drives and motivates me?", "What are the things I am most proud of?", "Where do I add the most value?" and "What makes me happy?". To find satisfying answers to these questions, he repeatedly asks himself "Why?" to his answers. At first he shares the theory with friends and family who all respond positively to it. His theory organically develops into a side business; in the early days Simon would help anyone to find their ‘why’ for a $100 consulting fee. Soon after, a friend of Simon provides him the opportunity to apply his theory within a company. Once again his theory turns out to be a success. He then decides to write a book about it and calls it ‘Start with why’.

Once again we witness one of our early discoveries: "Every theory reflects its creator". Simon's personal search results in his "Golden Circle" theory and is the key to his success. It's amazing to see the amount of inspiration that can be derived from a personal journey like Simon's. Not only did his talk inspire lots of people around the world, it also helped organizations like Van Loon and Voys to radically change the way they do business.

In an attempt to strengthen his theory Simon claims that "this model has never been proven wrong" and "it's all grounded in biology". We believe these claims to be rather far fetched and there didn't seem to be room for discussion. Even though we are no big fans of such claims, we do believe in the power of his ideas as we've seen the results of his inspiration in real-life examples. The simplicity and elegance of his ideas are highly contagious and therefore a great source of inspiration to many, including us.

Simon’s major breakthrough happens when a local TEDx event decides to invite him to share his theory. There are only 50 people in the room to witness an almost historical moment. The video of how Simon passionately unfolds his Golden Circle theory goes viral on YouTube and TED and turns Simon Sinek instantly into a management guru. It is the blend of luck and persistence that brings Simon the success that he is bearing the fruits of right now. Over the years, it turns his early $100 consulting fee into a successful business that is helping lots of organizations do more meaningful work. Simon claims that always staying true to your ‘why’ is the recipe for success. He is definitely not alone in this; more people have taught us this lesson. Frederic Laloux spoke to us about the importance of an ‘evolutionary purpose’, Aaron Hurst speaks about the ‘purpose economy’ and Dan Pink just calls it the ‘purpose’.

Lesson 3: Duo leadership is a powerful thing

While the interview progresses more naturally, Simon tells us that he could never do this all by himself. He admits there has always been a strong partner next to him. His partner prefers to be anonymous and therefore stays out of the media. He respects that choice and acts upon it. Simon strongly advocates that the duo leadership structure is extremely powerful. It is therefore not surprising that he is attracted by the fact that we do our search as a duo. According to him it is "this tandem structure that enables us to go the extra mile, it is what makes us strong". With this comment Simon shows once again that his theory and advice are a reflection of his own experiences and personality.

We discuss the duo leadership further and discover that Simon is highly inspired by Next Jump leaders Charlie Kim and Meghan Messenger. It’s a perfect example of a duo leadership structure where both leaders complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We meet with Charlie and Meghan the same day and will tell you all about that meeting in our next blog post.

Mixed feelings

We're happy to have met one of our great sources of inspiration who is heavily influencing the way we do business. He inspires people and organizations to find meaningful work and to pursue their 'why'. We believe he therefore helps to change the world for the better and we've seen real-life examples of how his ideas are coming to life.

At the same time, we realize it was a challenging meeting in which we struggled to find the right conversational flow. The feedback and the turning point in the conversation were extremely helpful and have taught us some valuable lessons. We've experienced how another cliche-sounding quote comes to life on this incredible adventure: "there's no shine without friction".

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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