ET Group was recognized for transforming our ways of working. Here’s how we did it.

Everyone wants to work at a place where they feel valued. Where you have the freedom and power to make real change. Where you feel like you have a voice and a purpose. At ET Group, these are only a few of the reasons why our employees love coming to work everyday, and are the driving force behind one of our greatest achievements.

By Ciara Williams, ET Group

In December, 2021, ET Group President and CEO Dirk Propfe traveled to Las Vegas to attend the Inaugural Tony Hsieh Award gathering, and accepted the Tony Hsieh Award on behalf of our organization. The award, presented by the Greenlight Giving Foundation & Keith Ferrazzi, honors the life of the late Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh and the ways that he continues to inspire organizations to be innovative, authentic, and create better ways of fostering connection. Tony believed that there was always room for improvement and that above all else, people come first.

For ET Group, it is an extreme honor to receive this award, and to be seen for all of the hard work and dedication that was put into transforming our ways of working to be more empowering, inclusive and ultimately life-giving. 

While accepting the award, Dirk gave an emotional and eye-opening talk about all of the ways ET Group stands out, and why our way of working is not only different, but essential to our success. 

You can watch his talk here:

Dirk begins by telling a personal story about the two life changing experiences that inspired him to transform ET Group into what it is today.

A stark awakening in the Galapagos Islands

The first experience details his time visiting the Galapagos Islands, where he witnessed a lot of awe and beauty, being surrounded by so much life. But there was also a lot of ugliness. At the time, he was developing a deep interest in topics such as sustainability and climate change, and while in the Galapagos Islands, he couldn’t help but notice the litter and environmental abuse that could only have been caused by us as human beings. 

He became painfully aware that the world is all interconnected, and that we need to pay attention to how we as a species are affecting the broader ecosystem that others call home, too.

However, rather than letting the ugliness bring him down, he chose to find inspiration in its place. Instead of wallowing in despair at the destruction of this beautiful ecosystem, he asked himself  “how can I best contribute to creating a more life-giving world?”

This one question led him down a path of introspection and discovery. and he found himself soon embarking on another adventure: Sweden

Schooled in sustainability

Dirk enrolled in the Master’s Programme in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability at the Blekinge Tekniska Högskola school in Sweden, with the intention of discovering how to create more viable ways of working and living. While attending this program, he was able to learn and unlearn many things about himself and others as human beings. He cherishes the opportunities he had to learn about and experience different ways of being and working that “truly energized and amazed [him].” 

For example, while visiting a company in London during his thesis research, instead of simply observing them like he had planned, he was warmly invited to participate and collaborate in a strategy session. He felt seen and heard, like his voice mattered. He truly valued the opportunity to learn something that was never taught in business school, or any other organization that he had been to before, which is that:

 “We can all come together, co-create and be part owners of what we’re going to bring out in the world.”

This was the feeling that he held onto when he returned to ET Group and began laying the foundation to create what is now a life-giving environment that our team thrives in.

Dirk Propfe Sweden Program
Source: ET Group/Dirk Propfe

But what was the reason?

In 2016, Dirk saw ET Group as what could only be called a toxic workplace. We were your typical corporation that harvested an unhealthy and unsustainable working environment. There was in-fighting, debt and extreme egos everywhere. Decisions were made in a hierarchical fashion and for many of our employees, working at ET Group was just a job. A job that was losing people rapidly. 

Dirk knew things had to change fundamentally, or else see ET Group disappear. 

When he came back to work, he was ready to make those changes. And it started with asking one very important question: 

“How can we create a more life-giving organization?”

After getting to experience a taste of what a life-giving organization could be, Dirk proposed a major shift in the ways that ET Group operated. In order to create a more healthy and innovative environment, he introduced new company structures inspired by his studies of Teal Organizations and Holacracy. ET Group implemented a self-organized approach to team management, self-set salaries and a promise to create safe spaces for everyone

This means that everyone on our team is self-managed, as well as credited and compensated for their hard work, not just the leadership roles.

Because there are no “leadership roles”. That was made very clear by Dirk, who, even though he has the title of CEO, made sure that this fundamental shift in the company was supported by everyone, using what became ET Group’s Generative Decision-Making Process

ET Group Workshop Session
Source: ET Group

These examples are only a small snippet of the long list of key practices that ET Group has committed to, in order to keep ourselves in line with our human-centric way of life. You can find the rest of our organization’s cultural practices, toolkits and values in our handbook.

ET Group developed 3 fundamental practices to create a more life giving organization: self-organizing around purpose, self-set salaries and distributed ownership and safe space practices.

1. Self-organizing around purpose

Dirk’s first move was to get rid of the traditional hierarchy model. Having owners, managers, or “senior” staff creates inequality, making people feel like their opinions don’t matter. 

Now at ET Group, we have self-organizing and self-managing teams (or circles). Our teams are created and organized around how they each contribute to ET Group’s overall purpose: to bring Harmony to Work and Workplace with Technology. In line with Holacracy, each team makes our own decisions regarding how we are best able to meet this purpose, without having to wait for C-Suite approval. Every team member has equal say in what goes, and has equal opportunity to share ideas or concerns.

This freedom allows us to spend less time competing with each other, so we can be more productive and collaborative while ensuring that our clients are getting everything they need and more, because that’s why we’re here.

ET Group Self-Managed Team
Source: ETG Way Handbook

2. Self-set salaries and distributed ownership

One of the most unique aspects of working at ET Group is our self-set salaries and distributed ownership.  In the past, ET Group was owned and governed by only 3 individuals. Today, the company is owned by 70% of our team members. 

But owner or not, who is anyone else but you to say how much you and your contributions are worth? When compensation is directly tied to the value and contributions an individual makes to an organization, you begin to see a drastic evolution in the responsibility and ownership that they feel towards the company. As Dirk says, “you have agency for your own life, and we respect that.” This is why we have implemented self-set salaries to encourage personal growth among our employees and let them know that we do see that value in them. 

We take pride in the things that we own, and there is an abundance of pride at ET Group; in ourselves as individuals, in each other and in our work. 

3. Creating safe spaces for everyone

At ET Group, we don’t hire roles, we hire people.

For this reason, we encourage our team members to bring their whole selves to work, not just their work selves. We don’t believe in hanging up your uniform (metaphorically or otherwise) at the end of the day. When you leave behind parts of who you are under the guise of “professionalism”, you leave behind creative ideas, lack energy and miss out on opportunities to make real connections, which is already challenging in an increasingly hybrid world. 

We recognize that everyone is unique, and it’s because of all of the different personalities, perspectives and talents within our team that we are able to thrive at what we do. Sometimes that means that some of our people hold more than one role, because we don’t believe in restricting ourselves.

DIrk Propfe, Tony Hsieh Award
Source: smugmug.com

When we say that our people are our greatest asset, we mean it. Which means taking care of each other. For example, our human-centered way of life means checking in with each other – really checking in with each other ­– at the beginning and end of every meeting. If someone is having an off day, we want to know so we can empathize and proceed accordingly. We don’t move on until everyone gets to say how they feel, or what they need. 

Our Team Connects allow everyone to take part in companywide decisions, and anyone can bring anything to the table. No secrets or hidden agendas.

Too good to be true?

It probably sounds that way, but it really works! Our Employee Net Promoter Score is always over 50 points, and our retention rate is 95%. At ET Group, our team members want to work, so it makes sense that today, our profitability is 2.5x the industry standard, allowing us to have 4x the growth we had in 2016. 

The results speak for themselves. As Dirk says: 

“This story we’ve been telling ourselves on what it means to be human wants to be retold; life is not about how I can succeed or be better than others. It is about seeing and appreciating each other as wonderful beings with different gifts, talents, and dreams. It is about being in service of each other, and life itself to create beautiful things together. As a collective, it is imperative we shift the narrative and realize what makes us truly happy and fulfilled is to be in service of each other and the planet as a whole.” 

There is always more to the story

Becoming who we are today was a necessary and conscious change, and not an easy one at that. It required – and still requires – being always open to trying new things. Sometimes those things fail, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve failed, it just means that we’ve learned, and only become better for it.

“Every day, we put conscious effort into challenging ourselves to make systematic, consistent change. That requires effort every day. Every day requires navigation towards what you feel is the right thing to do, versus our cultural autopilot. It requires steeping yourself in the practice of evolution.”

All of this is just a sneak peak of what it’s  like to work at ET Group. To hear the full story, check out Dirk’s full speech for more details about why we love our organization!

We also encourage you to visit our ETG Way Handbook and learn about more of ET Group’s innovative and forward-thinking practices.

And before you go, ask yourself:

How can YOU create more life-giving ways of working?


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