Richard Clarke: “Happiness is like world peace: everyone claims to care but few really believe in it
Updated: Sep 29
Richard Clarke wanted to start a company that makes people happy, and his IT outsourcing firm Secret Source did just that. Now his company is running on its own, spreading happiness and IT solutions, and Richard is looking to share his secret sauce with new audiences.
Richard has tried many things in his life. When his friends got fancy graduate jobs in the city after university, Richard traveled the world and took on random jobs. Later on back in Britain, he also worked six months for a multinational company and managed Asian-based IT teams for UK-based clients for a few years. Richard’s year teaching water-skiing in Turkey might have been the best year of his life, but the work didn’t feel meaningful enough for him to stay. Meanwhile, multinational corporate life just wasn’t for him, nor did he particularly enjoy managing the remote IT teams. Even worse, he suspected the developers and the clients weren’t enjoying themselves, either.
Richard knew things could be better: he had seen how the employees of his parents’ small business enjoyed their work. In order to find his own happiness, Richard realized he needed to make others happy. After moving to Gran Canaria with his family, Richard founded an IT nearshoring company, Secret Source, and made happiness its goal.
“Our people learn to build psychological safety for clients”
Social relationships are at the core of happiness, Richard explains. Secret Source swears by psychological safety within a team: people need to feel they can ask questions, challenge others, and make suggestions without fearing negative consequences. Happiness starts with the employees, but it doesn’t stop there. Secret Source’s business model is to create teams that work in close collaboration with the client, which puts the company in a great position to spread happiness within the client organization. In addition to creating IT solutions, every Secret Source employee has the stealthy responsibility to build psychological safety within their team and with the client.
This may feel like a tall order for your average software engineer, but Richard says their employees receive regular training and support. Furthermore, when Secret Source creates a new team for a client, they make sure to include one or two experienced staffers to help the newbies. By the time they start, all new employees have seen enough on social media to know what they’re getting into when they apply for a job at Secret Source, Richard points out. However, he admits that it did take some time for the early hires to accept this unusual job description. One developer in particular couldn’t see the point in spending so much time talking to the client about things that had nothing to do with the task at hand. But after having seen the results of all this talking, this developer now frequently initiates new colleagues into the company philosophy as one of the most tenured employees.
“Too many leaders see happiness as a nice-to-have”
At Secret Source, taking happiness seriously means measuring it regularly and taking actions based on the results. The company measures each team’s happiness on a weekly basis, and if one team shows a negative trend, the leaders bring it up with the team and the client. If no solution is found, there will be business consequences.
In the grand scheme of things, convincing employees of the importance of happiness is not all that difficult. The challenge is getting other companies to take happiness seriously, Richard bemoans. Sure, leaders gladly paste happiness into company values and website copy – and then continue doing everything just the way they’ve always done. When a business leader needs to choose between employee happiness and short-term money, they choose money. Yet employee happiness is proven to result in better business outcomes in the long run, Richard points out.
Secret Source has many happy tales of clients convinced and friendships forged; yet they also have examples of difficult decisions. One client was very excited about the idea of happiness as a key performance indicator when they signed the contract, Richard remembers. Yet when the collaboration began, the team’s happiness measured consistently low. The developers couldn’t get enough time with the client to build a relationship; they weren’t even allowed to ask questions, only receive instructions. When Richard approached the client, he got a stunning response: “With all due respect, Richard, your team’s happiness is not really our problem”. Secret Source ended up terminating the contract.
“After 10 years, workplaces will be nicer”
Two years ago, Richard’s oldest daughter casually mentioned that she would have only four more summer holidays with her father before she would move out. This cold fact hit Richard hard, and he decided to spend the next four summers with his children. He stepped down as the CEO and left his company in the hands of the then-COO, Rachel Manley. Letting go was incredibly difficult and took many months, Richard admits. But now the company is run better than he ever could have done, while staying true to his value of optimizing for employee and client happiness.
Phasing out from Secret Source and focusing on his family is by no means a step towards retirement, Richard reveals. Instead, he has his eyes set on the next level: bringing more Secret Sources into the world. He wants to spread the winning formula to as many other organizations as possible. Richard is working on a book based on his learnings with Secret Source and the science of happiness. To make it easier for leaders to make their companies happier, he has drafted a three-step program.
The first step is to really believe that happiness is important. This might sound simple, borderlining silly, but Richard assures very few at the helm have actually reached this. Second, the leader must start measuring their company’s happiness to understand what is really going on. There are already a lot of available tools designed for this purpose, Richard promises.
The third step is to take tangible action to improve the now-measured happiness. Richard recommends taking advantage of the U.S. Surgeon General's well-being framework: it recognizes five essentials to tackle for workplace well-being. First, leaders need to train their employees to recognize and build psychological safety. Second, companies must make an effort to build a community, where people can feel like part of a team. Third, employers have to ensure work-life harmony. Fourth, everyone needs a purpose, a feeling that their work matters. Fifth, employees should have opportunities for personal growth within the company.
Richard is optimistic: there is a lot of research around the science of happiness, and in ten years that research will have turned heads. More and more companies will recognize the value of happiness and put more focus on it. As a result, we’ll get to spend a greater portion of our lives in nicer places.
This article is partially based on this podcast episode.