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The way things are done around here – a tale of fulfilment, realization and triumph

In two previous articles on the topic of employee engagement in the workplace, I have focused on research by Gallup that shows no more than 30% of the global workforce has been actively engaged since 2009 when polling began.

The latest poll shows that, in South Africa, only 9% of the working population are engaged with what they are doing at work.

The focus of this article is to discover where and how in the world this malaise is being effectively addressed and measurable improvements achieved.

Return on character

Seven years ago, Fred Kiel, a researcher from Minneapolis, Minnesota, surveyed 84 medium sized companies in the United States. He started with a self- assessment by the CEOs. This was followed by an assessment of the CEOs by everybody in the organizations. The purpose of the assessments was to rate the CEOs on four characteristics: integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion.

This kind of research was by no means unique. It falls fair and square in the genre described by experience-hardened and results focused executives as “touchy-feely”.

It was what followed that caused Fred to write a bestseller and become sought after by radio and TV show hosts across America.

The organizations that Fred had surveyed allowed him to compare their financial results with the character ratings of the CEOs. The results revealed that the enterprises where the CEO had a high rating returned, on average, five times more on assets employed than whose where the CEO had a low rating.

Fred and his colleagues had uncovered a link between the so-called soft skills which impact on employee engagement, and the hard issues of operational and financial performance. The website krw-int’ contains a wealth of information on how “return on character” is transforming workplaces and beneficially impacting company performance.

The agile path to holacracy

Agile is an open system that was designed as a response to the failures of large-scale IT systems design and implementation during the 1990s.

Agile operates on the basis of small, stand-alone building blocks created by self-managing teams. The methodology minimises work in progress and allows for “fail fast”. It substantially reduces the cost and increases the efficiency of systems development.

The introduction of self-managing teams creates a platform for the alignment of the purpose of team members with the purpose of the team as a whole. When agile teams are supported with a team relationship systems coach, the improvement in productivity is dramatic. Agile teams are generally populated with people who are functionally expert but often naïve in the art and science of relationship building.

Team relationship systems methodology effectively addresses this circumstance. Team members come to see the team as “the third entity” in which they each have a vested interest. They create an alliance, or code of behaviour that determines how they will be with each other for the good of the team, especially when things get tough.

Agile teams are typically found in the IT divisions of enterprises. Their existence frequently causes people in other parts of the enterprise to question why agile structures are not implemented organization-wide.

These conversations are expressing a desire from commercial contributors (employees) to experience a new world order where activities are not determined by management hierarchy but rather by a constitution that describes the rules of the game for all participants. In business-speak this is self-management within a set of policies, procedures and processes that everybody helps to design and therefore accepts, rather than being handed down as impositions from above.

This new working environment has been pioneered by Brian Robertson and his team. They call it holacracy. Holacracy is being implemented by 300 companies worldwide. The flagship implementer is the footware company, Zappos.

Holacracy typically evolves within an enterprise rather than arriving with a revolutionary “big bang”. This approach allows executives to get used to a different way of operating from the traditional command and control based methodologies. It also allows the commercial contributors to make their contributions in the flow, outside the restrictions of job descriptions and KPIs.

It is impossible for people involved in agile or holacracy environments to be disengaged.


Once an optimal setting for maximum employee engagement has been created, the critical success factor becomes the connection between workplace activity and the strategy of the enterprise.

Guy Martin, a retired RAF fighter pilot and previous founder of a successful specialist logistics business, designed an innovative and effective process for making this connection. He calls it Blueprints. Blueprints originated in South Africa and has been implemented by companies in 32 countries.


  • Asks everybody in an organization (anonymously) what they are doing to implement company strategy, and what they are doing that does not implement company strategy

  • Streams the feedback into the most popular activities in each category

  • Creates an icon for these activities that is prominently displayed throughout the organization: those that implement strategy are above the line, those that do not are below the line

  • Instigates programmes that improve the above the line / below the line ratio.

A few testimonials from CEOs who have taken Blueprints on board illustrate the benefits from adopting this approach.

“Blueprints is simply the best mechanism we have ever used to help us drive high performance in our business.”

Deloitte Consulting

“the Blueprints formula was the best thing I ever did for my business”

Primedia Broadcasting

“the Blueprints project was nothing short of a miracle.”

Hertz South Africa

There is more at

A challenge to reshape the future

In my work with clients I constantly ask them to make the choice between being captains of their ships and masters of their destinies, or being victims of circumstances.

The extreme and in many ways unprecedented circumstances in which we operate our businesses claim many victims.

The methodologies and tools referenced in this article show some of the powerful and effective support that there is for those who will “give up the fear of losing the sight of land” and discover new worlds of social technology engineering in the enterprises that they lead.

The testimonials of those leaders who work with “return on character”, agile, holacracy and Blueprints reveal the bottom line to reversing the pattern of employee non-engagement. That bottom line is the alignment of the purpose of the organisation with the purposes of the people who work in it.

In the words of Simon Sinek, top 10 TED speaker, “People buy why you do what you do, not what you do or how you do it”.

Commercial contributors (employees) buy or do not buy why the enterprise exists, in other words they want to be able to relate to the purpose of the organization.

Discovering and sustaining that purpose, enterprise-wide, is the summit of leadership.

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