9 minute read 7 Jun 2018
Humpback whale

Why Simon Sinek believes uncertain times require certainty of purpose


Hank Prybylski

EY Global Vice Chair – Transformation

Committed to building a better working world by helping clients grow, improve and protect their businesses through innovation and transformation. Husband, father, mentor and lacrosse fan.

9 minute read 7 Jun 2018
Related topics Advisory Purpose

A conversation with Simon Sinek, best-selling author and eternal optimist.

We live in a world where what worked yesterday isn’t necessarily going to work tomorrow, or next week and almost certainly not next year. Knowing this, EY and Simon Sinek joined forces to lead companies in the activation of their purpose in order to provide a lasting superior employee and customer experience and confidently navigate this Transformative Age.

We recently sat down with Sinek to ask him about whether uncertain times need the clarity of purpose, and how companies can maintain their commitment to purpose in a future where uncertainty will be the norm rather than the exception.

EY: In 2006, you made a discovery that profoundly changed your view of how you thought the world worked and the way in which you operated in it. What prompted the discovery?

Sinek: When entrepreneurs choose to quit their well-paying jobs that have full benefits to go do something with no benefits and no pay, they are aware of the statistic that more than 90% of all small businesses fail in the first three years. When I quit my job to start my own business, I made it through the first three years and I was still alive; it was a wonderful feeling. However, my fourth year was very different. The joy and passion I got from coming to work was replaced by the looming reality of trying to build a business for what could be the rest of my life. I was embarrassed to say out loud that I wasn’t excited to go to work anymore. I spent my days pretending that I was more successful and more in control than I actually felt — until a friend of mine came to me and said: “Something’s different, something’s wrong. I’m worried about you.” She didn’t dismiss me. She expressed empathy and concern for me and I came clean. All that energy that I used to lie, hide and fake could now be invested in actually solving a problem. That was where I realized there was more to this. I was very good at what I did and I was very good at how I did it. But why I was doing it eluded me.

EY: So, let’s talk about purpose. You discovered what the “WHY” meant for you. What does it mean for organizations? Why does it matter?

Sinek: The reason companies need to understand their purpose is because companies are nothing more than a collection of human beings that have the same desires. Companies are the modern tribes. We spend more time with that tribe than any of the others. Companies that have their sense of purpose offer the opportunity to belong to those in their company. When human beings achieve a sense of belonging and purpose and feeling that their work matters and that all the sacrifices are worth it, it becomes a win-win for the individual and the business.

There is a cost for the money we make and sometimes the cost is not worth it. That goes for companies and individuals.

EY: Purpose, when you describe it, sounds altruistic. Does purpose always have to be altruistic? Does it have to be tied to social responsibility?

Sinek: Let’s not confuse these two things. Purpose is always about service, but social responsibility has nothing to do with being purposeful. I know some companies that totally lack purpose, that have very, very robust corporate social responsibility programs. And I know some remarkable, very purpose-driven organizations that have little to no corporate social responsibility programs. There is no correlation between corporate social responsibility programs and purposeful companies.

Does a purpose-driven organization have to be altruistic? It has to be of service. When companies say our purpose is to be the best, that’s not purpose, that’s entirely self-serving. True service is about a world view and the willingness to commit to that world view, to build a better working world. To inspire people to do what inspires them. To challenge others to think differently. To offer people freedom. To provide a space where people feel at home. All of these things have application in product, inside culture and to a customer. And that’s my test. My test, when a company reveals its purpose to me, is can I apply it equally to a customer and an employee because there is no difference between a customer and an employee. It needs to be equally relevant to an internal and an external audience. If it’s only external, then it’s not truly a purpose.

Building a better working world means that the work that EY does for its clients should be with an eye of changing the way the business world works for the better. Oh, and by the way, we’ll help your company work better, too. Internally, it means the leadership here is devoted to helping their people thrive and provide a place that people want to come to work and feel like they can be themselves.

“A company’s purpose has to be as relevant to every employee, regardless of their job, and every customer, regardless of what they buy. If it’s only relevant to one or the other, it’s not there yet.”

EY: The word uncertain is often used today when describing the business world. Why do you think this is? What, if anything, is uncertain about today’s working world? And how is it different then say 20 years ago.

Sinek: Some companies get lazy when the economy is good. They falsely believe that times are certain. That’s like saying because we have calm waters we’ll never have a storm. We don’t prepare our crews for rough waters, and then when the rough waters hit we talk about these uncertain times.

Purpose is important in all times because all times are uncertain. That said, people seem to be feeling more pressure to articulate purpose now because the uncertainty seems to be right in their face. Companies with a clear sense of purpose are as confident in good times as they are in the hard times because they know where they are going. The company with a sense of purpose is confident when they go slowly in the right direction, versus the company with no purpose that’s excited because they are rushing off in the wrong direction or panic because there’s a blockage. Purpose provides confidence in any situation. This is my favorite thing about purpose; that in “these uncertain times” all the purpose-driven companies are just fine.

EY: Can organizations create more certainty simply by finding their purpose?

Sinek: Of course. It’s called direction. Companies need to have vision. It is literally the definition of the word vision; it means seeing. Our company’s vision is to be the best. That’s not seeing. Seeing is about describing a future state that does not yet exist in the world and working to use the company and all it does to help advance that vision of the world. Vision is something, when properly articulated, allows others to see and believe in it – customers, employees, anyone.

EY: What difference have you seen in organizations that have chosen to be purpose-led. Not necessarily the innovators and early adopters, but more so the early to late majority. Or are we there yet?

Sinek: I’m not sure we’ve reached the tipping point yet. I don’t think we have the number, and of those who say it, there is a disconnect between how many of them actually believe it versus it simply being a marketing exercise.

I think to reach the tipping point we need more early adopters. And I think partially it’s a generational thing. I think for the most part baby boomers still run a lot of large companies. I think not until Generation X and Generation Y (older millennials) really start taking over companies will we start to see shift, and that’s starting.

EY: Some companies will argue that in times of uncertainty their ability to maintain their commitment to purpose is a challenge. How can organizations maintain their commitment to purpose regardless of what’s going on?

Sinek: What if you say to your spouse, “I’m really stressed out so I don’t know how you can expect me to be loyal to this marriage.” It’s the same thing. I actually spoke to a large organization once where somebody said: “All of this leadership stuff is really nice, but you have to understand we’re at war and I don’t have time for this.” If you’re telling me you don’t have time for this stuff now, my question is: what were you doing during the times that didn’t feel like war?

There’s no right or wrong time. Just start. Better now than later and better late than never.


Companies with purpose create a sense of belonging for their people and relevancy with their customers. In today’s uncertain times, the clarity of purpose is critical; the time to commit to it is now.

About this article


Hank Prybylski

EY Global Vice Chair – Transformation

Committed to building a better working world by helping clients grow, improve and protect their businesses through innovation and transformation. Husband, father, mentor and lacrosse fan.

Related topics Advisory Purpose