Nikki Gatenby Q&A: “We make employees’ dreams come true”

The business leader and author explains how her quest for engagement led her to help staff become property tycoons

Nikki Gatenby Q&A: “We make employees’ dreams come true”

Engagement, despite the ongoing arguments over its scientific validity as a measure, remains a holy grail for many employers. For Nikki Gatenby, it has become a way of life. The managing director of Brighton-based marketing agency Propellernet has been so successful at creating happy employees she written a book – SUPERENGAGED: How to transform business performance by putting people and purpose first – that was shortlisted for the latest Business Book Awards. She explains more about her ethos.


What’s the idea behind focusing on engagement?

As many readers will know, we live in a world where only 30 per cent of people are actually engaged in their jobs. This means the other 70 per cent have either left their ingenuity at home, are probably not bringing their full selves to work, or are possibly just turning up hoping not to get fired. This is a big problem. Employee engagement is the direct driver of profit. It’s essential for the survival of future-fit organisations. In a world that is changing at a faster pace than ever, it’s in our commercial health to take more of a human view.


What does that mean in practice?

Not seeing people as assets to be sweated. Do this and people cease being talent and simply become a ‘thing’. When people are no longer individuals, but numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s no wonder employees feel so disengaged.


What’s so special about how you’ve approached the topic?

We have a motto in our business – ‘make life better’ – and we mean make life better for our staff. The marketing and online world can be a tough place, but rather than put money first, we put people first. We flip everything. We think about what people need for their work. We recruit intensively, but we ask about people’s values – like whether they are fun to be with, and most importantly, what their dreams are.

We like to write people’s dreams into our business plan. After each new joiner’s six-month probation I have one-to-one dream consultations’ where I literally ask staff what their dreams are and whether we can help achieve them in some way. Research proves most people have around 100 dreams running around their head, so we try to make this happen.


How do you make people’s dreams come true?

Some are easier than others. For some, we really have taken risks. For example, for one board member, his dream was to get into property development. Given we always have at least six months’ money in the bank to pay wages, he asked if he could take some of that and invest it into a property, to make starter homes. I decided that if we could achieve someone’s dream, and make some money from it too, we’d do it. What’s actually transpired is that we’ve used this dream to help other staff achieve theirs – of getting on the property ladder. Employees have bought two of the three flats we’ve created. I haven’t worked anywhere else where this sort of thing has been deemed viable.


What else do you feel is unique about your business?

We’ve put an active cap on the size the business will ever reach – which is 60 people. To me, that’s the best number where people still connect with each other emotionally. We call it our ‘60 precious seats’. Because increasing the numbers of hours we work just isn’t an option – in Japan, burnout is so endemic there’s even a word for death through being overworked. Having a limit forces us to find new ways of growing the business without necessarily growing headcount. The result is we naturally innovate, which is also empowering for staff.


How can you prove the approach works?

In our business, 98 per cent of the team would recommend working at Propellernet to others; the staff turnover rate is less than 7 per cent [the industry average is 30 per cent]; and in the last decade, Propellernet has tripled its margin, quadrupled revenue and generated 10 times more profit. In our regular culture survey, we’ve actually had to create a new term, the ‘super engaged’; it’s when work doesn’t feel like work.


What’s your key message?

Think about the workplace you want to create differently. Here we ask “what if people couldn’t ever retire – what could we do to always make work enjoyable?” That drives us to try and be better; to make life better and more enjoyable for staff. Unfortunately, too many businesses haven’t moved with the times. All over the world, leaders are still wedded to old school ways of squeezing as many hours as possible out of their employees. I say don’t think “why is people-first leadership important?” Ask “why wouldn’t it be?”



Get involved:

The CIPD’s Festival of Work (12-13 June 2019, Olympia London, promises to be a landmark event for both people professionals and business leaders. By focusing on the most innovative strategies in management, technology and learning, the festival will help you, and 7,000 of your colleagues, to harness the latest transformations and drive a human future of work. With 7,000+ attendees, 130+ inspiring speakers, filled with inspirational live experiences and challenging ideas, it’s the ultimate celebration of people in the workplace.


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