a guest blog by Richard Clarke
Every company nowadays seems to have values, but how many actually live and die by them, how many put them before anything else?
In 2014, we launched our company, Secret Source with a single purpose: to make people happy, our team, our clients and anyone we worked with. A bold ambition. For many years we thought we were living by our values, we thought we were being true to ourselves. Until one moment when we were given a choice, we were put in a position where we had to choose how important our values really were. Would we really put our team’s happiness above everything else?
There are companies with values and there are values-led companies, in 2019 we transformed from a company who said happiness was the most important thing to one who actually put happiness above everything else. This is our story.
In 2014 I read the book “Start With Why” and I realised, at that point, my company and my work didn’t have a purpose and to succeed I needed a reason to run my business besides making money. The inspirational owner of Patagonia and author of “Let my people go surfing” had shown me that companies didn’t have to exist just for financial reasons so I set about finding my purpose, my “why”. After months of deliberation I realised that what motivated me, what got me out of bed every morning was making people happy, so we decided to build a company where happiness was at the centre of everything. And from that moment on, when people asked me why I had set up the business, I said “to make people happy”.
For many years I believed we were living by our values, we created a family culture where kindness and collaboration were at its centre. We had flexible hours, remote working, holidays on your birthday and ticked all the boxes for “a good employer”. We were very proud of the company we’d built. We believed that happiness in the workplace was the key and we did everything we could to make it the happiest place it could be.
And then in 2019 we had a dilemma.
Our biggest, most profitable client made our team unhappy. Our team didn’t enjoy working on the project. They enjoyed working in our company, they enjoyed spending time with their teammates but they didn’t enjoy working on this project.
We tried for months to adapt but it seemed we just weren’t a great fit. As the owner of the company, ultimately responsible for our finances, I didn’t want to lose our “best” client so I did all I could to make the best of a difficult situation.
And then one day one of our project managers looked me straight in the eye and said “if you really believe in our values, then we should finish with this client, if not, then don’t say that our team’s happiness is the most important thing, as it clearly isn’t.” It was a gut punch. She was right, if happiness was the most important thing then it must be the priority. We ended the contract with the client the following month and have never looked back. That project manager later became our CEO.
That was the moment we changed from being a company who said that happiness was important, to a company where happiness is more important than anything else. It is a subtle difference, but a difference that changed our company forever.
Now, every decision we make, whether it is our policy on remote working or deciding whether to take on a new client we ask ourselves, will it make us happy? Will it make our clients happy? And if it doesn’t we don’t do it, even if it means we lose out financially or limit our growth. Our “happiness first” policy means happiness really does come above everything else.
You would think that becoming a values-led company would be difficult. Balancing your values and growth ambitions is hard, sometimes you have to make sacrifices to your values when the business needs it. However, we have found the opposite. We have found it truly liberating. Being led by our values has given us a direction and purpose we didn’t have before. Decision making and strategy is so much easier. Every year we ask ourselves, what can we do to make our team and clients happier? And from that we build our strategy. Being values-led doesn’t mean you have to suffer financially or limit growth, in 2021 we grew by 50% but we grew because we thought that would be better for the team, we wanted more diversity, we wanted more career opportunities. But, having said that, many of the decisions we make can limit our growth if we don’t think it is for the good of the team or our clients. Values first is a difficult concept to understand as it seems to be contrary to what people think “good business” is. Obviously the company needs to survive, it needs to make a profit, but the difference is, it doesn’t exist to make a profit, it exists for the values, the profit is just a nice side effect.
Once we’d decided that happiness defined our success, we needed to better
understand how to make people happy. Before we’d simply worked through the standard “how to make your team happy” checklist; flexible hours, remote working, medical insurance etc. However we soon realised that building a happy workplace and happy relationships with our clients was more than just material offerings. Our learnings of the last three years would fill many books, you need to build a culture of positivity and gratitude, you need to be more empathetic and listen better, building diversity and celebrating it has a huge effect, the list is endless, however if I was to choose the three things we changed that had the biggest impact they would be:
1: Make sure your team (including your clients) feel psychologically safe all the time.
This is obviously a huge job and could involve big culture shifts, but without true psychological safety, in my opinion, you will never have a truly happy workforce.
2: Build a culture of respect, trust and ownership
In addition to psychological safety, your team needs to feel respected, trusted and have a sense of ownership. We found that once our team understood what ownership really means and that we trusted every decision they made, it was like we’d pressed a turbo button in the company. Performance, productivity, innovation all increased, but above all their feeling of happiness improved as they felt more in control of their own destiny.
3: Measure your team’s and clients’ happiness regularly.
We collect our team’s happiness weekly and our clients’ monthly and the data we collect decides our priorities and our strategy. But measuring is just the start. You not only need to see how people are feeling but you also need to act on the information you get from it. You need to use your happiness data as part of your company reporting every management meeting, every board meeting and every strategy meeting. If happiness really is important to you then your team and clients’ happiness data should sit next to your P&L and balance sheet.
So, yes, while work benefits like remote working, team building and even bigger policies like 4 day weeks will certainly contribute to building a happy workforce, by themselves they will not create the culture needed for a truly long lasting legacy. If you really believe that happiness is important then make it one of your values, put it front and centre of your company, shout it out and then make bold moves to show you really mean it, moves that show that happiness does take priority. It’s not easy and does not come naturally, but once you create that culture and live by it every single day, working in it is a truly wonderful experience.
Over the years we’ve made some really tough decisions, decisions which, at the time, we didn’t know if they really were in the best interests of the company. But at every point, we stuck by our values through thick and thin. And now, when we tell our team and our clients that their happiness is our top priority they believe us. Yes, we still make mistakes and things don’t always go right but when you have a team and clients that know deep down that we have their best interests at heart, it makes it so much easier to get through those tough times as they trust us. I believe, becoming a values-led company instead of a company with good values is the secret to our success …