Key ingredients of an outstanding secret sauce for your business

THA Crayon Box Image of Todd Herman

Last month's e-newsletter, Don't Change the Secret Sauce, struck a chord with many people – I received one of the largest number of replies and comments ever! Why? Perhaps it was the catchy title. Perhaps folks could relate to the examples. And perhaps it was because people work for organizations who didn't know they had a secret sauce, and made changes that hurt the business!

May I let you in on a secret? I'm not exactly sure what's the recipe for the "secret sauce" of Todd Herman Associates. I am, however, happy to share what I view as the recipe's key ingredients.

Key Ingredient for Success

The key ingredient in my sauce – having incredibly talented people! These people are the "meat" of the sauce. They are smart, hardworking, nice, reliable, entrepreneurial, self-managing, self-actualizing individuals. If it sounds like I'm bragging, I apologize – they really are very impressive. Every one of them. The client-facing folks get the most press, but don't forget the behind-the-scenes folks who provide the business development and practice management support necessary to make everything work.

We take personnel management very seriously. These practices are the "stock" of the sauce, holding all the ingredients together.

  • Candidates are thoroughly screened, ranked, interviewed, and selected.
  • Successful candidates receive job aides, on-the-job training, and structured feedback to ensure they quickly meet our high expectations.
  • Weekly check-in sessions allow me to quickly and efficiently touch base with everyone, and ensure they have everything needed to serve clients and perform projects well.
  • Performance of all personnel (myself included) is planned quarterly to include challenging goals, and then rigorously reviewed against these plans.
  • We create much of our CPE, enabling us to tailor both our technical and interpersonal skills development to the needs of our business.
  • We use ourselves as guinea pigs to test new ideas for leading and managing people. For those that work well, we then seek to apply them to our client projects.

When we look at client projects, it is through a three-piece lens of People, Process, and Technology. Focusing this lens on the firm itself, our incredibly talented people correspond to the People lens, while Process and Technology combine for successful personnel management. Of course, lots of companies have both incredibly talented people and effective personnel management practices. How is Todd Herman Associates different from these other companies?

Environment Provides Valuable Support

I suspect it has to be the environment, which I see as the "seasoning" that unlocks the unique flavors of the meat. More precisely, I would say "Creating an environment where talented people can perform really great work for amazing clients" – but I'll never be able to prove this. I can, however, share some examples to support my suspicion.

Right now, the tenure of our client service personnel is the longest I can ever recall – six years is the shortest such time with the firm! This six-year period did see changes in my consulting personnel, and both "boom" and "bust" business cycles. Yet, this group remained. Why? Because I believe these folks have chosen to be client service professionals. Client service is very demanding, because clients expect us to keep our commitments and help them improve their business.

Delivering the Intangible

Think about it – we are in the business of professional services, which are intangible. On top of this, our deliverables are "technology" and "process" – which are themselves intangible. Our entire reputation – indeed, the entire Todd Herman Associates brand – is built on how well we intangibly execute delivery of intangibles against intangible client expectations. Quite the tightrope to walk!

So the recipe of our "secret sauce" seems to come down to execution – and I can only control some of this. Ultimately, it's up to our talented people to want to provide outstanding service. My contribution? Providing the environment for them to succeed. As I see it, elements of this environment include:

  • Meeting their financial needs.
  • Providing them opportunities for growth and development of not only technical skills, but also of "soft skills."
  • Ensuring our clients appreciate us for who we are – professionals who treat clients and others with respect, and expect the same in return.
  • Securing interesting projects for them to work on.
  • Developing a culture based on excellence in all aspects of work – not only in client service, where we celebrate the opportunities to crawl "in the foxhole" with our clients, but also in how we nurture new business and run our internal operations.
  • Delivering feedback – both compliments and suggestions for improvement – which is accurately and positively stated, and shared with an attitude of helpfulness, encouragement, and sincere concern for people. (For more on "good feedback," see my comments in "Todd's Results" for 2009 on my experiences applying concepts from the book Formula 2+2: The Simple Solution for Successful Coaching, by Douglas B. Allen and Dwight W. Allen.)

Underlying all this – the incredibly talented people, personnel management, and environment – is a spirit of fun and playfulness, and I believe this stems from me. I'm fond of telling my folks, "I don't ever want to get a real job!" But Todd, don't you work a lot of hours? Yes, I do – and I enjoy every minute of it, because I'm engaged and energized by both the nature of the work and the people who work here.

Hugh MacLeod captures this spirit in his wonderful book, Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity. His seventh key is this – "Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten." He explains how things change after kindergarten:

...they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the "creative bug" is just a wee voice telling you, "I'd like my crayons back, please." ... Your wee voice doesn't want you to sell something. Your wee voice wants you to make something. ... Go ahead and make something. Make something really special. Make something amazing that will really blow the mind of anybody who sees it. ... If you make something special and powerful and honest and true, you will succeed. ... Your wee voice came back because your soul somehow depends on it. (pages 26-28)

Encourage Your Employees to be Creative

There you go. Hugh said it perfectly! My folks have listened to their wee voices telling them that Todd Herman Associates will allow them to succeed – because the firm allows them to be creative and make something really special; because they get to "wow" our clients; and because they are permitted to be true and honest to themselves as artists producing business results, using process and technology as their tools.

So, as far-fetched as it may seem, here is what I view as the key ingredient of the "secret sauce" for Todd Herman Associates – I give crayons back to the creative, wonderful kindergartner hiding inside each of us, who desperately wants to get out and have fun at work.

Read more on finding your company's "Secret Sauce"

Todd L. Herman

Todd L. Herman