Book Review: Agile Engagement Sets Out to Transform Your Organization

A big reason I recently took the plunge to become a leadership and organizational development coach was so I could focus on helping leaders grow and teams thrive. I love thinking about and talking with others about culture, leadership, and engagement. And that’s why I jumped at the chance to read an advanced copy Agile Engagement.

The new book, released December 5, comes Emplify co-founders Santiago Jaramillo and Todd Richardson. Emplify ( is a mobile-first employee engagement app SaaS platform. They “develop and implement engagement strategies through the use of native, branded, mobile apps.” (Full disclosure: another co-founder is Adam Weber, one of my college roommates.)

So it makes sense that Jaramillo and Richardson would take up writing a book to make the case for employee engagement as critical to success as well as a competitive advantage when there is ever-increasing competition for talent and innovation.

The first half of the book lays the groundwork for the discussion by clarifying terms, concepts, and making the case for why a focus on engagement is overdue and necessary.

If you spend time thinking about workplace culture, these early chapters likely won’t bring you much new insight, but it serves as a springboard into the rest of the book. And if you haven’t spent much time thinking about culture, office environments, remote working, recruiting, or how technology is influencing the way we interact with our businesses, the chapters here provides a great primer and way of getting up-to-speed on how the world is changing.

As co-founders of technology companies, you will also (predictably) get a taste of their tech-based worldview, especially in leveraging mobile devices and apps to meet the needs and interests of a digitally-engaged workforce. It would have been easy for this book to imbalanced toward their tech expertise, but what they say is clear, concise, and balanced within the context of the larger conversation.

The strongest part of the first half of the book is a full-throated argument for how HR fits into the picture of a highly-engaged and successful organization. Consider the vision they cast:

“The business world needs a human capital maestro, someone able to harmonize all of the evolving workplace dynamics, disparate business needs, and valuable talent resources entwined in our systems and structures today. is people maestro role could be called chief human resources officer, chief talent officer, chief people officer, vice president of human resources, or even your hoi polloi aficionado. Organizations need a strategic partner seated squarely at the proverbial “executive table” to lead the honorable functions of people selection, motivation, and management.”

If you come from a traditional business background, that likely comes across as a shocking and foreign way of thinking. But, as Jaramillo and Richardson would lead us to believe, the future needs to see highly-developed (and engaged) leaders taking up the senior HR role.

“What does the future demand for HR leaders? The new stars of HR will be strategic, data-driven, innovative, and proactive and will play a more significant role as advisor and driver of business results. HR leaders have strikingly similar profiles to CEOs and chief operating officers in three vital categories: leadership style, thinking style, and emotional competencies”

This ties in with later sections of the book (such as “Treat Employees Like Customers”), where they make the case that internal marketing and investment in employees is just as critical as customer satisfaction and engagement.

If customers do not feel valued, understand what makes our company unique, and fully commit to our product over competitors, our business will eventually flatline….As business leaders (and especially HR leaders), we need to approach employee marketing, measurement, and investment with the same tenacity as they approach their customer equivalents. In short, treat employees as well as you treat customers.

The book draws on a lot of research, data, and utilizes examples of companies who do engagement well, and those who have learned what not to do. Stories and anecdotes from a diverse group of organizations are scattered throughout the book: Salesforce, Everlane, Teach for America, Netflix, Walmart, Basecamp, ExactTarget, Andretti Motosports, and Jimmy John’s, and many more.

The centerpiece of the book is the “Engagement Canvas,” a tool designed to help leaders and organizations measure employee engagement.

In their own words:

“We created the Engagement Canvas and Emplify Score to provide a robust strategy construct and measurement tool that enhanced objectivity in employee engagement, minimized the shortcomings of our own gut feelings, and offered a more complete tool for such an elusive concept. By effectively quantifying and analyzing employee engagement, we become better able to improve it.”

They acknowledge that it’s hard to measure human behavior and feelings, and that a tool such as this isn’t meant to replace human engagement, conversation, listening, and decision making. It’s built on data, science, and experience (and if you want to nerd-out, they provide background on how they designed their tools).

The tool itself is set up as a series of boxes, ten in total, aimed at evaluating and developing a more engaged workforce. The Canvas is divided into two large sections, one focused on elements driven by the company, with the other half related to employees. By emphasizing this as a collaborative, living document, the Canvas is set up to be both the path toward organizational self-awareness and the tool by which you can begin to intentionally design and invest in a more engaged team.

As far as assessments tools go, this one is fairly straightforward to use and understand, though it will require thoughtfulness, honesty, and a decent amount of courage. They strongly encourage (and rightly so) that you pull together a guiding team to work through the process in collaboration.

“Think for a second about the words engagement and culture. Pretty much nothing about those words happens individually. Solicit thoughts, points of view, input, and direction from multiple leaders, because a single person’s perception simply will not yield the richness generated by multiple business people providing meaningful insights. Furthermore, strategic outcomes will be more readily adopted if a cross-functional group collaborates to drive the work.”

The one piece of the Engagement Canvas that requires more investment is the Emplify Score. Here’s how the book describes this piece of the process:

[Emplify Score] is a proprietary way to measure engagement (inspired and informed by HR gurus) that leverages employee sentiment, employer inputs, and machine learning to produce a scalable and flexible model of employee engagement.

The book directs people to for more details on how to survey your team and get your Emplify score, but I couldn’t find any resources other than options to buy the book. A quick Google search turned up details for the survey on the actual company website (

Even with more organizational self-awareness and clarity, it won’t mean much if you don’t put a plan into action.

For the next six months, pick a few [strategies] and focus your efforts there. The essence of strategy is already choosing what not to do, and even among what we do choose, we can’t do it all. So start small. is will be an ongoing process. In six months, reassess, realign, and reboot.

This “reassess, realign, and reboot” is the “agile” part of Agile Engagement. If you aren’t familiar, agile is a management philosophy born out of the technology sector. In essence, it emphasizes creating a strategy, putting it into action, measuring results, and cycling through the steps again and again. Decisiveness, not certainty, is the underlying driver. It’s an iterative strategy that embodies the “ship early, ship often” mantra.

(Related: I ran across a great infographic about Agile principles recently, which may help you further understand the guiding principles.)

Agile Engagement, and more specifically the Engagement Canvas, has real potential to help organizations create clarity and articulate a plan for continuous improvement.

What’s clear to me is that Jaramillo and Richardson are serious about creating tools and understanding that will help leaders in any industry create healthy, thriving cultures of highly-engaged people.

The last several chapters of the book serve as a sort of toolkit or guide for putting engagement practices into play. Communication is obviously key, but they also hit on leveraging data, creating space for autonomy, and a well-considered argument for “why nobody leaves their personal life at home” and why that is not only okay, but a good thing for business and engagement.

Who is this book for? Anyone who wants to build a healthy, thriving workplace.

With short chapters and digestible concepts, it’s easy to jump in and out as you need to, providing a nice quick-reference guide to future conversations and deeper thought. Agile Engagement, and more specifically the Engagement Canvas, has real potential to help organizations create clarity and articulate a plan for continuous improvement.

As with any strategy or tool though, the success will be dependent on the willingness and ability of the leader to invest personal and organizational time, energy, and resources into listening, measuring, and adapting. Intentionally designing the day-to-day reality of your organization is what leads to an engaged workforce. Put another way, you have to build processes to serve people, not the other way around. Agile Engagement is a tool and process that may be able to help you do that.

You can learn more about Agile Engagement at the book’s website,

Here are few bonus quotes from the book for you:

“[Workers] know better than to base their loyalty on fleeting rewards or accolades. They require a deeper connection to their company, leaders, and coworkers. They want to understand their place in the bigger picture and know that what they do matters and is appreciated.”
“Gallup released their alarming State of the Global Workplace study revealing that only one-third of U.S. employees are “engaged” at work, many organizations scrambled to remedy this unengagement plight, looking for quick fixes and easy ways to increase happiness in the workplace.”
“Take time to assess the individual and move beyond his or her generational label. It’s important to educate, understand, and nourish the unique strengths each generation brings to the workplace, but stay focused on how to most effectively work together, not on unearthing every last nuance.”
“Hire not just for knowledge, but for potential knowledge — for the proven ability to develop and self-teach, for the desire to learn and grow.”
“So what if we take this antiquated process and translate it to shorter bursts of real-time feedback on a mobile device? What if we get feedback after each project or presentation, instead of feebly attempting to recall details from 11 months prior that everyone’s forgotten and no one cares about anymore?”

One last thing: I have a new book coming out, too! Available December 13, What Do You Want to Change?: Making Sense of Change and Planning to Thrive is a great, quick read to help you make meaningful change and set goals that work for you. Perfect for the New Year. Learn more or pre-order it today: