“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This is the mantra of optimist and organizational leadership author Simon Sinek. It’s a pretty trite little motto, and although the message probably isn’t unique, it is certainly memorable (especially because Sinek is British, and anything quoted over and over again in a British accent is always fun to say…). The point is that although we don’t always realize it, our philosophy of business, ministry, or education is far more of a draw than our product. Customers, clients, and/or stakeholders will rarely say it, but deep down, they are more concerned with “why” we do what we do than with “what” we do. Now, let’s not be naive—people do care a lot about what we do. Customers expect great products, clients are disappointed with unexceptional service, and people will decide to go elsewhere if the “what” is not all that impressive. However, it’s also true that not all the organizations, businesses, ministries, or schools that offer the same or similar “what” are equally profitable or successful. So what is it that sets the successful ones apart from the rest of the herd? It is purposefully choosing to sell and communicate the values of the organization more than the product.

Here’s one example: El Patio–my favorite Mexican restaurant of all time. It’s a pretty small dive in our neighborhood that sells great food at decent prices. In those ways, El Patio is like a dozen other Mexican restaurants I could choose from. There are On the Border, Jalapenos, and Mexico Lindo, to name just a few, all with good food and fine prices. So why am I faithful to El Patio to the exclusion of all others? Because they value speed. Somewhere back in the la cocina, those amiable hermanos at El Patio have decided that besides serving really good food at great prices, they will also be the fastest Mexican place in town. And it’s no joke, I’ve timed it. Our family of seven can enter the front doors and be enjoying fresh, hot food in under 4 minutes. We barely have time to scarf the chips and salsa! It happens every time and it’s amazing. Sure, I’m buying what they do (chimichangas) but I frequent el restaurante mostly because of why they do it (to make us happy really fast). It’s a great strategy and it’s given them many loyal customers.

Now, I doubt the guys down at El Patio are in the back watching Simon Sinek videos before work, but their approach to service is a great example of what we all ought to be doing in our organizations: Communicating values on purpose. After all, this is why parents bring their kids to us. Sure, the programs, sports, field trips, and extracurriculars help sweeten the deal, and these showpieces attract attention. But while practically no one would ever come right out and say it, deep down, it is the values of the organization that the right people will stick around for. The peripheral tack-ons will come and go as budgets and populations rise and fall, but people with their heads screwed on tight will understand that it is the values, not the programs, that will help their kids turn out right.

In fact, intentionally communicating the values that make us, us, is the most important duty we have before those who are attracted to our organization.

At our ministry and school this year, we have made an attempt to do just that. We determined to do a better job of verbalizing our culture and then to spend more time communicating the values that make us who we are. Our staff began last year by creating about fifty short “value statements” that describe our ministry’s philosophy, habits, and values that we want to communicate. Several we borrowed, but many we came up with ourselves. Here are just a few:

  • God made you to do (hard work, diligence)
  • Reflect Christ, not chaos (grooming, cleanliness)
  • What a privilege (service)
  • Raise the praise, minimize the criticize (positive attitude)
  • Attitude check (complaining, negativity)
  • Name that fruit (fruits of the Spirit)

Many of those early values statements were left on the cutting room floor as our staff refined and edited the list. A real benefit of the process was getting our staff involved. We built a little more team unity, and our teachers seemed to appreciate the opportunity to get involved in weighing in on the philosophy of our ministry. Our administrative staff took the list over the summer, winnowed it down to about twenty values statements, and selected ten to discuss at our staff orientation in the fall.

The main fruit of this initiative has been a new program called LIFEtime we use to verbalize our culture and communicate the values of our ministry to the children and parents we serve. LIFEtime has four themes:

  1. Leadership (how we influence others)
  2. Integrity (who we are as individuals)
  3. Fellowship (how we relate to others)
  4. Evangelism (what we do to tell others about Christ)

We assigned two staff members to each theme, and we meet four mornings a week with all our students for about ten minutes. In these sessions, we have a variety of activities to reinforce specific values within these themes. We’ll play a game, sing a song, watch a video, make a craft, or watch some other illustration the teacher has prepared. It’s been a lot of fun, and one of the other benefits is that it has also pushed our teachers to be creative. These folks are pulling out all the stops to make their lessons unique and memorable. It’s been a lot of fun!

Here are a few examples of values we have verbalized and reinforced so far this year:

  • Leaders are readers
  • Leaders are singers
  • Leaders make things better
  • Leaders are listeners
  • Leaders are givers
  • Integrity is being kind
  • Integrity shows gratefulness
  • Integrity is a witness
  • Integrity helps others
  • Integrity shows Jesus
  • Integrity is friendly to others
  • Fellowship with friends
  • Fellowship with God
  • Fellowship’s language
  • Fellowship has a soft answer
  • Family fellowship
  • Evangelism shares the Good News
  • Who are Evangelists, Missionaries, & Pastors?
  • Evangelism’s Alpha and Omega
  • Evangelism’s fishers of men
  • Evangelism’s change

I’m really proud of our teachers for taking on LIFEtime with enthusiasm and originality, and I have learned a lot from their lessons! Now we admit, there is a good chance these beliefs might have been discussed in our classrooms without this program. However, with LIFEtime, we’re taking the initiative to make sure our values are discussed on purpose, for these are the values that make life worth living, and these are the values that draw people to our organization.

We realize that not every family will necessarily buy into the philosophy we are selling. And that’s ok. But for those that do, we’re going to make sure to communicate the why behind the what.

After all, why is what they have come for!