The dynamics of running a business have drastically changed over the past few years. Despite the opportunities it brought, the unprecedented pandemic has challenged business owners in many ways. To outsmart the competition, businesses are looking for solutions that cut down costs while increasing revenue. To survive and thrive in these times, businesses are turning towards management consulting as a solution. The demand for management consulting services has thus witnessed an upsurge in recent times.
Catering to this rising demand, Totem is helping its clients implement actionable solutions that address business challenges while building workforce capacity. Established in 2018, it is a Native-American-owned management consulting firm that serves a blend of commercial and federal clients.
The D.C.-based firm was founded by TJ Londagin and Jennifer Duff—two seasoned management consultants with more than 45 years of combined consulting experience at both big and small management consulting firms. The duo came together to create a “shape your experience” culture for its people. Totem aims to help clients solve people-focused challenges while modeling a culture’s many possibilities.
Overcoming the Initial Blues
When Totem was founded, they knew that they were competing with numerous management consulting firms with similar solutions, structures, approaches, and methodologies. The biggest factor that distinguished Totem from the rest was its culture. Right from the start, the firm ensured that its culture was very intentional.
Its leadership had learned what worked well and what they would like to leave behind from their previous jobs. Totem was established as a firm that focuses on individual choices and needs—letting employees determine how fast they want to grow their careers, convey what work-life balance means to them, and find their own priorities.
“The client’s happiness and success are ultimately the only measures of our success.”
Alongside setting a unique culture, coping with the competition is also a daunting task for a small business. To survive on a larger scale, businesses have to compete on factors like price. When Totem started with a few very seasoned professionals, its rates didn’t always allow it to be as price-competitive as larger companies. Until the firm achieved the Small Business Administration (SBA) minority-owned, 8 (a) certification in 2020, it worked primarily as a subcontractor to larger firms.
The 8 (a) program helps disadvantaged consultancies compete for federal contracts by setting aside work for like-sized companies also in the program. It helped Totem get its footing so that it could grow, bring on a more diverse blend of staff, and win contracts as the prime vendor.
Furthermore, deciding when and how fast to hire is also tricky at the start. Besides focusing on business growth and direction, leaders often need to serve the clients themselves to cover their expenses. Determining when to bring on its first hire was a delicate balance for Totem as well. The firm wanted to make sure it was on solid footing before putting someone else’s livelihood in its hands. From there, its growth has been organic and responsive to the work it has won. As a small business, this continues to be a challenge. Totem aims to grow at a healthy pace that allows it to sustain the culture that it has created.
The Turning Point
The initiation of the Small Business Administration (SBA) 8 (a) program in December 2020 greatly fueled Totem’s work in the federal space. The firm won its first competitive federal contract as a prime in 2021 and its growth suddenly took off. Shortly after, it hired its second and third person and witnessed immense growth since then.
This has allowed Totem to invest in new areas like DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility) services, and invest more into its people by hiring an operational lead to focus on its own culture, staff development, recruiting, and similar areas that are vital for its work with clients.
People, Change, and Measured Impact
Totem focuses on the intersection of people, change, and measured impact. In other words, it specializes in ‘people challenges’ as well as understanding and measuring how these challenges either contribute to or hinder the realization of business goals. The firm primarily offers,
- Human Capital: Assessments and solutions for how people work, their levels of engagement, and their personal growth. This comprises areas like culture, strategic communications, performance management, leadership development, strategic planning, workforce planning, organizational design, career pathing, training, team building, etc.
- Organizational Change Management: Strategies and implementation to bring solutions to life, whether they are human capital solutions or transformations to technology, process, or customer experience. Totem understands the theory behind how people change and makes tactical decisions to seamlessly carry people, systems, and organizations through those transitions.
Continuous Growth Curve
Totem’s revenue has grown 200-300% each year since its inception in 2018, which is a great testament to its work. A majority of its projects come from client referrals or follow-on work with satisfied clients. In 2021, Totem’s staff grew by 150%, followed by a staggering 340% in 2022. The firm is not growing for the sake of growth, it is keeping pace with the client demand—an exciting and grateful position to be in.
“Our goal is to help clients solve people-focused challenges while modeling a work culture’s many possibilities.”
The secret to Totem’s astounding success, according to the founders, is the authenticity and levity it brings to client engagements. The firm hopes to rebuff the stereotypes that sometimes plague consultants by offering a curious, fun, and diverse team of consulting partners to each of its clients. Team members bring empathy to each engagement, openly recognizing that not everyone is thrilled by a consulting firm’s arrival. Totem focuses on active listening to create trust with its clients’ staff upfront and never misrepresents why they are there.
“Our client’s happiness and success are ultimately the only measures of our success,” says TJ Londagin (Co-founder).
A Veteran Leading from the Front
TJ started his career as a consultant. He spent time with big and small firms and spent a few years internally with a large, national non-profit. He also worked as an independent consultant for more than six years, but always found himself more satisfied as part of a team.
Human capital and change management emerged as TJ’s specialty early on. Perhaps the reason he was drawn to working with teams, he felt something was fascinating and immensely rewarding about tackling the people side of organizational challenges. As a fresh consultant, he learned the basics of organizational change management, including training and communications, and deepened his knowledge from there. In his illustrious career, TJ has served customers in commercial, U.S. Federal Government, pharmaceuticals, non-profit, biotech, hospitality, and e-commerce industries.
TJ attributes his success to the variety of women who raised him, including his mother, sisters, aunts, and grandma. He also greatly admires his Totem Co-founder, Jennifer, for her endless wisdom, spiciness, and company leadership—which is why he enthusiastically went into business with her.
“This collection of women helped to shape who I am today and continue to define who I will be tomorrow,” he asserts.
TJ’s Philosophy of ‘Doing it Right’
In TJ’s words, the following are the primary responsibilities of an entrepreneur.
- Do right by your people: Recognize that work is not life. Your people are here because they want to be, but mostly to fuel and fund a whole life outside of the workplace. At the end of the day, that always comes first. Vacation and downtime are not earned privileges, they are absolute necessities that should be respected, modeled, and deeply ingrained in your culture.
- Do right by your clients: Aim to do the right thing, even if that means pivoting during a project or facilitating a difficult conversation about what you are observing. Serve your clients in the spaces where you can do your best work and don’t be too rigid to a subscribed method or endpoint. Sometimes that 180-degree turn takes you to a better destination.
- Do right by yourself: Be authentic to your own desires for the business you are creating. And be intentional about caring for yourself as the owner, always creating a healthy relationship between you and your business. It’s a “can’t pour from an empty cup” sort of a thing.
Investing in People
TJ leads a strong team of professionals who are committed to achieving Totem’s mission and vision. “We don’t make a widget. Our people are our service,” says TJ. Just as a company would painstakingly invest in and foster the quality of its products, Totem invests in and fosters the personal and professional priorities of its people. This takes the form of fostering inclusion, being open to unique professional paths or work arrangements, and bringing levity and authentic connection to each of its team meetings.
Plans for the Future
As Totem looks to evolve its service offerings in the future, it aims to focus on co-creation. The firm does not subscribe to a design-and-dump model of consulting. It works with its clients, carrying the workload on its shoulders, but engaging their leaders and project teams as active advisors. The client sees iterations of what they will receive throughout the project, so the firm can eliminate any surprises and validate satisfaction throughout the process.
“We do not subscribe to the design and dump model of consulting. We work with our clients, carrying the workload on our shoulders, but engaging their leaders and project teams as active advisors.”
Over the past year, Totem has expanded into DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) assessments, planning, and change management. The first opportunity arrived and the firm originally brought in specialists who deeply knew DEIA to implement its own staff’s expertise. One year and several projects later, Totem has fostered and hired more DEIA expertise in-house. As a Native-American, LGBTQ-owned business, it is proud to be able to bring these services to clients, often to complement and enrich the human capital solutions it is already providing them.
The Success Mantra
The approach of a leader plays a vital role in helping businesses cope with intense competition. TJ has a unique way to handle the competition.
“I try not to take myself or our job too serious. I believe levity is a great shield and a sword that can keep clients happy and ground employees. It’s only work, after all,” he concludes.