The 4 Secrets Of Superengaged Employees

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar December 08, 2018

Brighton is arguably Britain’s most progressive city. There seems to be a place for everyone. It is almost impossible to be a misfit here. And it’s a vibrant hotspot for start-ups in the UK.

But that’s not all. Brighton is also home to a company that is serious about superengaged employees. The company is a marketing agency, Propellernet, whose principles are: making life better and making dreams come true.

So we travel to Britain’s south coast to spend a few days with CEO Nikki Gatenby, and founder Jack Hubbard. Happily, this coincides with the release of Nikki’s book: Superengaged, how to transform business performance by putting people and purpose first.

So, what are superengaged employees? And how do you create a company with a business plan that reads like a bucket list of employee dreams?

What are superengaged employees?

This is our natural first question.

According to them (and the engagement experts from Then Somehow)...

  • A superengaged employee knows the organization cares for them, and is doing its utmost to ensure their emotional and psychological well-being.
  • A superengaged employee has complete faith that the organization will tell them the truth, and be faithful to its core principles (which, in turn, they feel deeply aligned to).
  • A superengaged employee feels challenged, enjoys appropriate training, is supported to take on challenges, and has a clear sense of how they can progress.
Superengaged employees (1) know the organization cares for them, (2) have complete faith that the organization will tell them the truth, (3) and feel challenged.
Click to tweet

How to get superengaged employees?

That’s all nice, but what is Propellernet doing in practice? The answer is, a lot! And too much to list in one blog-post. (For the full picture, get a copy of Nikki’s book.)

Here are the four ideas that inspired us the most.

1. Putting people before profit

When founders Jack Hubbard and Jim Jensen started their business adventure in 2005 they weren’t particular clear about what to sell, but they were pretty clear that they wanted it to be a brilliant place to work.

Both had worked in traditional firms before, and been disappointed. They wanted to create a company that was good for all the people who worked there—not just the faceless shareholders or unapproachable bosses. Thus, the well-being of employees became the core of the business—not external shareholder value.

Propellernet’s purpose became simple and inspiring. They want to make life better for their clients, their customers, their team and the community. As part of this, they’re trying to build an environment that encourages employees to do world-class work.

Nikki Gatenby: “It’s pretty simple really. We want to be the best place to work in the world. Yep, the world. Not Brighton and Hove. Or England, the United Kingdom or even Europe. The World. Why? Because our people are worth it.

We spend a massive chunk of our lives working—almost as much as we spend sleeping—and even more than we spend watching Netflix! So, we owe it to ourselves and our people to make it as much fun as possible.

So how do we do it? Well, it’s not about funky bean bags, table football and free Dolly Mixtures. It’s about an environment that encourages individual growth and personal connections, and a culture to shout about.

A company in which employees have a sense of pride and investment, and which they excitedly describe as The best I’ve ever worked for. A place which recognizes that we are human beings first and foremost, with lives on the other side of the office door, and which seeks to make these lives better in every way possible.”

We spend a massive chunk of our lives working—almost as much as we spend sleeping—and even more than we spend watching Netflix! So, we owe it to ourselves and our people to make it as much fun as possible.
Click to tweet

2. Limiting size with an open mind

Like many other bucket-list organizations, Propellernet decided to limit their size. In their case the limit is a maximum of 60 people—to force innovation in growth (as they put it).

Jack Hubbard: “We learned the hard way to hire people for chemistry, not experience. You can show someone how to do a job but you can’t change a personality.

We want people to join Propellernet because there is a party on the bus, not because of where it’s going. And because we don’t want the party to stop, we get protective about every seat on the bus.”

Despite their limited size, they give employees choices about how, when, and where they work. And they are transparent and open: open to discussion, open to new opportunities, and open to different ways of doing things. They even open up their office-space to like-minded individuals.

They believe that being relatively small gives them the space to have time for each other, and to build trust and engagement—which they think are the foundations of great work.

Nikki Gatenby: “We don’t want to wonder who the people in our building are, or struggle to communicate with each other because we feel like strangers. So we’ve chosen to avoid the trap of bigness, and set ourselves the magic number of 60.

We believe that, when it comes to ambition, it’s not the size of your business that matters, it’s what you do with it. We’re plotting our own route, based on our belief that small in number does not mean being small in ambition, or positive global impact.

The route we’ve plotted, and the way that leads us to run our business is clearly working. We outshine much larger companies on key metrics such as engagement, margins, sickness, turnover and internal-only funding.

Of course, one size doesn’t fit all and there are many other approaches to growth out there. But for us, people are our strategy. So our business is all about growing people, both personally and professionally, so we can have a bigger positive impact on the world.”


3. Making dreams come true

Propellernet is deadly serious about making dreams come true. They love seeing other people’s dreams become reality. For this purpose they developed their own ‘Dreamball Machine’. This is an old-fashioned bubble gum dispenser into which employees put their dreams in ‘Dream Balls’.

When the agency hits a certain target, wins an award or excels in some way, they draw a ball from the ‘Dreamball Machine’. They put their money where their mouth is, and bring the dream alive.

For example, two lucky ones attended the World Cup in Brazil and another crossed Africa on a motorcycle. Which is why Propellernet’s business plan is often described as a bucket-list of employee dreams.

Nikki Gatenby: “The idea is to help employees live their dreams and give them the freedom and trust to make them come to life. That is what creating superengagement is about. It is about making life better and daring to dream.”

4. Having fun

And last but not least, Propellernet puts fun on the agenda—seriously. They get their staff to try things like jet-skiing to work, drawing in caricature style, sculpting portraits, Tuk Tuk racing around Brighton, and launching a band of renegade creative freedom fighters to put on immersive theatrical events at events like Glastonbury.

Just because they can. They think it’s better to fail having fun than succeed in misery.

Nikki Gatenby: “If you don’t have fun and fail, you become a miserable failure which is the worst of all. So you may as well have fun today.

We value fun because we are more creative when we are playful. A culture of fear wastes energy by focusing the mind on negativity. Laughing, smiling, playing and having a good time allow us to build stronger relationships, improve our performance, as well as making life better for everyone.

But as with everything, creating a sense of fun doesn’t happen by chance. We plan for it, and budget for it. 5% of our profits go into our Fun & Wellbeing Fund, which is democratically run by a few employees that are in that post for a maximum of six months.

Their brief is to create experiences and interactions across the team that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Among many other things they have organized comedy, quiz & games nights, charity events and trips to the alps.”

If you don’t have fun and fail, you become a miserable failure which is the worst of all. So you may as well have fun today.
Click to tweet

The results of superengaged employees?

And the result of all this? Let the numbers speak for themselves:

  • Propellernet’s staff turnover rate is 7%, compared to a sector average of 30%.
  • Employees average 1 sick day a year, compared to a sector average of 5.
  • 90% of employees are fully engaged.
  • 98% of employees would recommend working there to others.
  • In 10 years, they have quadrupled revenue and multiplied profit by 10 times.
Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
Read more
Aug 06, 2023
TiER1: A Customer-Centric and Empowered Organization with Dynamically Distributed Authority (DDA)
Joost Minnaar Written by Joost Minnaar
In July, we had the opportunity to interview Greg Harmeyer for an Academy live event. Greg, the co-founder and CEO of TiER1, a US-based…
Read more
Jul 23, 2023
iYell: A Startup's Thorough Pursuit of Organizational Development
Yuji Yamada Written by Yuji Yamada
Today, I would like to introduce you to another progressive firm from Japan: iYell Inc., an IT company from Tokyo with about 350 employees…
Read more
Jun 25, 2023
Gaiax: A Japanese Start-up Studio That Puts the Free Will of the Individual First
Yuji Yamada Written by Yuji Yamada
Gaiax is a public company headquartered in Tokyo with around 150 employees. Its business is focused on internet services such as social…
Read more
Jun 10, 2023
Replacing Founders with Partners to Preserve a Company's Progressive Culture
Joost Minnaar Written by Joost Minnaar
One of the main challenges for today’s progressive companies is to stay progressive once the pioneering founders (or other…
Read more
Jan 21, 2023
Decentralization in the Workplace: How Distributed Management is Changing the Game
Yuji Yamada Written by Yuji Yamada
In October 2018, the Japanese IT company Yumemi launched a so-called “Agile Organization Declaration.” Over the years, this inspired them…
Read more
Jan 07, 2023
A New Year: New Opportunities And Fresh Starts
Joost Minnaar Written by Joost Minnaar
The first week of January is traditionally a time to make New Year resolutions - the time of the year when we look forward to the new year…
Read more
Read all articles