Let Your WHY Guide Your Business When Your Values Are Tested

By Chris Olsen

I was seated at a quaint table in the corner at a dimly lit restaurant, ready to enjoy dinner with one of my favorite clients. My work tote bag was on the floor next to my chair. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my silenced phone was illuminated inside the bag. I ignored it. I didn’t keep my phone at the table during meals, especially while meeting with clients. But as we placed our drink orders, perused the menu and debated about appetizers, the light from my phone continued to shine like a beacon in the dark. “Would you excuse me a minute?” I asked my client. “Someone keeps calling.”

As it turned out, it was another client with a PR emergency. I stepped outside and called him back. He was being hounded by TV reporters for a statement regarding his company and its partnership with an event. While this client had retained me to build his company’s online presence, handling crisis communications was not part of our contract. I told him I’d make a call to a former colleague who could help and advised him not to make a statement until we could devise a plan.

In the coming days, I’d learn that this client had not only broken his agreement with the organization that managed the event, but he’d also broken the law and put the public’s safety in jeopardy. The organization severed ties with this client. And in the days that followed, my gut told me to cut ties as well. He wasn’t owning up to his mistake. He continued making excuses for his actions. The experience and how he was dealing with it revealed that his business practices conflicted with several of my core values.

Let Your WHY Be Your Guide

As I thought about parting ways with the client, there was one big consideration—he was the friend of a friend. She had connected us in the first place. I’d been clear on my WHY—empowering women in business—since launching my social enterprise that year. Working with a company founded by a man, and one that didn’t have a mission I believed in, was an exception I made as a favor to my friend. Today, I rarely deviate from my WHY. Once you know your WHY, think of it as your North Star and let it guide you in making all of your business decisions from the people you work with (clients, employees, vendors, investors, etc.) to your impact in the community and beyond. Keep it in mind when leading your business and living your life every day.

Use Your WHY to Get Back on Course

The situation with the client continued to get worse. The media unearthed information about his business that he never shared with me. In the midst of it all, my friend and I stopped discussing the situation. I had no idea what information she was privy to and I didn’t want to get between the two of them. Eventually she stopped speaking to me altogether. Our friendship was lost in the wreckage. It was painful. And it ended up being a huge learning experience for me. In life, things don’t always go as planned. But you can always count on your WHY when you need to get back on track. It can be especially helpful to revisit your WHY after your values were tested.

Getting Clear on Your WHY

Before you can lead with your WHY in life and business, you must get crystal clear on it. Doing so is a process that involves looking at your upbringing, values, personality, strengths and the people and events that influenced where you are today.

The best place to start is by making a list of your top 10 values. Then do this Values in Action Tracker activity, which will help you narrow your list to five by looking at exactly how your values show up in your day-to-day life. Next, connect those values to how you’re serving your target audience in your business. For example, two of my top values are empowerment and education. My Founder Story’s target audience is women business owners. When I connect those values and my audience, my WHY becomes clear: empowering women business owners through education. This Tiny WHY Statement activity will help you make quick work of articulating your WHY.

The Bottom Line

Your values are bound to be tested. No matter who you are or where you’re from, your values will play a part in the choices you make every day. They will impact your decisions about relationships, work and the direction your life takes. And just as your values are central to who you are, they are part of your company’s DNA. They’re not merely marketing buzzwords on your website or a plaque on the wall. They’re directly connected to your WHY. Your WHY is your values in action. It’s your internal compass. It helps ensure you know which way is north and points you in the right direction when you’re off course. It restores hope. As an entrepreneur, it’s the fuel that keeps you moving forward despite the obstacles.

About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose.” Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support women-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.

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