It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Believe
Adam Lashinsky’s new book Inside Apple offers lots of intriguing material about Steve Jobs and the strategic choices, design principles, and business tactics that created the most valuable company on earth. But for all of Lashinsky’s behind-the-scenes material about Apple’s legendary leader, it was a public story about Apple’s new leader, CEO Tim Cook, that captured my attention — and offered a powerful insight for leaders everywhere looking to create value in their organizations.
The story goes back to January 21, 2009, during Cook’s inaugural conference call with investors after Jobs announced his medical leave of absence. The very first question, Lashinsky reports, was from an analyst who wanted to know whether Cook might replace Jobs permanently and how the company would be different if he did. Cook did not respond with a detailed review of the products Apple made or the retail environments in which it sold them. Instead, he offered an impromptu, unscripted statement of what he and everyone at Apple believed — “as if reciting a creed he had learned as a child” in Sunday School.
“We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and that’s not changing,” Cook declared.
“We believe in the simple not the complex…We believe in saying no to thousands of products, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us,” he added.
“We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in ways other cannot…And I think that regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well,” he concluded.
It’s not what you sell it’s what you believe. If there is one principle that explains why some organizations — Apple, Southwest Airlines, USAA, Cirque du Soleil, the Marine Corps, Pixar — consistently and dramatically outperform their rivals, it is that every person in the organization, regardless of job title or function, understands what makes the organization tick and why what the organization does matters.
Roy Spence, one of the toughest-minded business thinkers I know, is a cofounder of GSD&M, the legendary advertising agency based in Austin, Texas. In a provocative and saucy book, It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For, Spence explains the unique beliefs behind many of the one-of-a-kind organizations he has studied or worked with over the years, from BMW to Whole Foods Market to Southwest Airlines. Sure, these and other organizations are built around strong business models, stellar products and services, and (of course) clever advertising. But Spence is adamant that behind every great company is an authentic sense of purpose — “a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world” — and a workplace with the “energy and vitality” to bring that purpose to life.
In a chapter on the mission and culture at Texas A&M, the huge (48,000 students), rabidly conservative, steeped-in-tradition university that traces its history to 1871, Spence and his coauthor, GSD&M “purposologist” Haley Rushing, highlight a saying about the school that students have been reciting for decades: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” That’s a neat way to capture how it feels to change the sense of what’s possible in your field — and a reminder of why so few leaders muster the commitment to build an organization with a unique sense of itself. “The unique culture you encounter when you step foot in ‘Aggieland,'” argue Spence and Rushing, “is like nothing you’ll experience on any other college campus.”
That’s the same feeling I get when I step foot inside business organizations that stand for something special in their field. I’ve written before about the one-of-a-kind strategy and culture at Umpqua Bank, a fast-growing financial-services company in the Pacific Northwest that has reimagined how a bank can interact with its customers. Umpqua’s branches are unlike anything you’ll find from other banks, and the culture is rooted in a commitment not just to serving customers but to entertaining them, surprising them, going beyond their loftiest expectations. This approach to retail and customer service is not just about business strategy, though. It’s about a set of personal beliefs that define why the bank does what it does.
Umpqua’s corporate “manifesto” explains that what makes the company tick is a “state of mind,” not just a strategy. “It’s constantly surprising the world with what a bank can be and how a bank can actually be part of a customer’s life.” It’s “equal parts checking account and knitting club, commercial loan and local music source, IRA and Internet café.” It’s “building something that’s never been built before.”
What do you promise that nobody else in your industry can promise?
What do you deliver that nobody else can deliver?
What do you believe that only you believe?
The organizations that can answer those questions crisply, clearly, and compellingly are the ones that win big and create the most value.