What is the ‘secret sauce’ of this company’s success?
I was at a gathering where the topic of ‘secret sauce’ came up in the context of the ‘secret sauce’ of the company’s success. After the main forum I ended up in a conversation with two colleagues – one of whom (D) had posed the ‘secret sauce’ question and other of whom (J) has been working with me on a recent consulting engagement. Talking about ‘secret sauce’ J pointed out what he sees as my secret sauce: analytical skills, financial skills, workshop facilitation skills, consulting skills, being straight with clients, articulating my point of view, getting along with people……
What is my ‘secret sauce’? Is it what it seems to be?
Does my secret sauce come down to a bunch of skills, behaviour, frameworks and tools? Is it possible that what J is pointing at are simply the visible aspects of the iceberg and the ‘secret sauce’ is hidden from view especially from those with a scientific orientation which neglects the inner dimensions of the human being? If I have a ‘secret sauce’ then it lies in my inner dimension – my being, my stance, the context from which I operate, how I see myself.
What if I told you that my ‘secret sauce’ is CARING? I care deeply about this client – the people who have placed their trust in me. I care deeply about the what we (the client and I) are up to – the project we have taken on, the outcome which we wish to manifest in this world. I care deeply about the impact this will have on the lives of prospects and customers who touch this business. I care deeply about how it will impact/improve the lives of the people who work within this business;. And I care deeply about excellence – doing great work impeccably.
What if I told you that my ‘secret sauce’ is the conscious choice to operate from a context of service and of contribution – of making a difference to the quality of our lives and the ‘workability’ of the world that we share? Yes, I am straight with people and that includes sharing/disclosing what they do not necessarily want to hear. What J does not see is that I can only be straight because this being straight arises out of this context of service. What J does not see is that when it does not matter, when it does not contribute to the game I am playing, I strive to keep my mouth shut. Furthermore, what J does not see is that in my consulting work I operate from the educational/coaching paradigm: I help clients see, explore and get to grips with the options that are available to them and once this is done I make it clear that the responsibility for choosing the path lies with them as it is ‘their baby’ and I am simply the ‘midwife’ – they have to live with the consequences of their choices whereas I can walk away.
Am I sharing this with you because I am on an ego trip today? Possibly and I hope not. I am sharing this with you to point out the following:
- We live in a culture where the default is to look for success recipes that take away the inherent uncertainty, unpredictability, messiness of life and replace it with certainty, security, guarantees;
- The number of explanations for anything that shows up is limited only by the number of worldviews / ideologies / perception filters that are available and used to make sense of the ‘situation/data at hand';
- We live in a culture where our search for these recipes is often only on the outside – that which is visible to the naked eye;
- Often the recipes don’ work out because we only looked at the surface and did not dig deeper to get at the true ‘secret sauce’.
This probably occurs as ‘abstract and intellectual’ to you so let me share some example with you to make it more concrete. Lets start with Honda to show how smart people can come up with multiple interpretations based on their worldview or the secret-sauce they want to promote (because they have a vested interest in promoting it).
Honda: what was the secret sauce behind Honda’s successful entry into the US motorbike market?
What accounts for Honda’s successful entry into the US motorbike industry back in the 60s/70s? The answer depends on the worldview that you hold, the lens that you use to pose that question and dig around for answers. Here are three different answers due to three different lenses:
“The first is the BCG Report  story of Honda’s cost advantage, developed (the story goes) by the successful exploitation of scale and learning, and of the “segment retreat” response of British and American competitors. Anyone who received an MBA between 1979 and 1985 was almost certainly exposed to this version of history.
The second, explicated by Pascale , offers a revisionist account of Honda’s motorcycle success.’ According to Pascale’s interview with six Honda executives, the company’s early scale in Japan came from its having a better product, flowing from design skills. Furthermore, Honda did not “target” specific market segments in the U.S., but rather showed an ability to experiment, to learn quickly from mistakes, to rapidly revise design problems, and thereby to discover opportunities.
The third, described by Prahalad & Hamel [1989, 1990], couples Honda’s success in motorcycles with its successful entry into the U.S. automobile market. Here the center of the story is Honda’s remarkable ability to go from “nowhere” to prominence despite the earlier entry of very efficient competitors like Toyota and Nissan. Prahalad and Hamel have given the names “intent” and “stretch” to the processes which underlay this success and the name “core competence” to the central skills and abilities that Honda built upon.”
If you want to read more then check out / download the following: HONDA Enters Into US
Zappos: what is the secret sauce?
If you read about Zappos the taken for granted answers are: culture and wow service. One or more astute observers have also noted logistics – Zappos wow service is enabled in part because Zappos has a finely tuned logistics operation that can get goods quickly to customers. So is that the secret sauce?
I say that these are simply the visible manifestations of the secret sauce. I say that if you read “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh you will find that the secret sauce is Tony Hsieh. Tony has a particular philosophy: living a meaningful life, an affinity for people, an affinity for fun, strongly family ethos, a desire to get into and be a part of the nuts and bolts of business, getting that when you create happiness you are the first one to be lifted by this happiness. And everything that is visible at Zappos is a manifestation of Tony Hsieh.
Starbucks: what is the secret sauce?
Is it the quality of the coffee? Is it the location of the stores? Is it the layout / feel of the stores? Perhaps it is the baristas that serve customers? Maybe it is the machinery and the processes?
From where I stand I am clear that the secret sauce is Howard Schultz. Go read “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At a Time” and “Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul”. Read deeply enough and you are likely to find that Starbucks is simply the manifestation of Shultz’s love of coffee, the coffee experience and his stance/relationship towards ordinary people.
Schultz knows first hand what happens to people and families when people are not treated well, recognised, acknowledged, not given an opportunity to develop, to progress, to shine. So is it a surprise that he fought so hard to give the barista’s – part time employees – pay and rights (including medical coverage) that were unheard of in the retail industry?
What happened when he handed over the reins? Starbucks did lose its soul – the person who replaced Shultz was not Schultz and did not live Shultz’s philosophy when it came to the quality of the coffee, the coffee experience, how people should be treated….. Incidentally, I do know that Howard Behar and is philosophy about people and relationships complemented and made a big impact on Schultz and how he ran Starbucks.
Be skeptical of any and all ‘secret sauces’ that are put forward. Why? For any phenomenon a multiplicity of stories can be constructed to explain and give meaning to that phenomenon. The number of stories is limited only by the imagination and the number of voices that get to speak and be heard. Furthermore, perhaps the challenge is to come up with, create, construct ‘secret sauces’ rather than find existing ones. Where would Apple be if it had looked for the ‘secret sauce’ rather than invented it? Where would Starbucks be? Where would Facebook be? Where would Google be (remember that Yahoo was the master of the online universe then)?