Pieter Polhuijs had his work cut out for him. He had recently taken the job as CEO of an international coffee company with factories in 13 countries. But the company was in disarray. Despite having annual revenue of over 200 million euros, they were incurring significant losses every year. The general managers from the different countries didn’t get along, and the teams were distrustful and underperforming.
His job was to turn this company around. As his mind churned through various strategies, an idea came to him: could this personality tool he had applied to his personal life help him in a business setting?
From the living room to the board room
Polhuijs had learned about the Enneagram in the 1990s, around the same time he was going through a divorce. A friend sent him Helen Palmer’s book The Wisdom of the Enneagram, and he quickly became hooked. He recognized himself as a Type 2, and suddenly a lot of the challenges in his relationship had a new context. He quickly became an Enneagram enthusiast, learning and sharing his knowledge with his friends and family.
Now, over a decade later, he wondered if the Enneagram could help him in the workplace as well. “I thought that this system that had been so helpful to me on a personal level might be useful to this company on a professional level, so I immediately started looking for an Enneagram trainer,” Polhuijs says.
He found a trainer and organized an experiment, offering a two-hour workshop to his upper management team. They were skeptical going into the session but after the first hour, they had warmed up to it. By the end of two hours, they were fully engaged. In the end, the workshop took up most of the day.
With his pilot program a success, he upped the ante and started taking the teams on week-long trainings offsite. The groups visited a coffee plantation, got to know each other on a more personal level, and took a deeper dive into the Enneagram. And Polhuijs soon noticed a difference–after these training weeks, the atmosphere in the teams would change. They worked together more smoothly and operated in a more high-functioning way.
The Enneagram became a core part of the company’s culture, and when Pieter left six years later, his legacy was a complete reversal of the company’s fortunes. “When I left, the company had grown to over a billion euros a year in revenue and with a 100 million euro annual profit. This wasn’t just due to the Enneagram, but the Enneagram certainly played a role in the turnaround,” he says.
For his next move, Polhuijs decided he didn’t want to run companies but instead would take a more advisory, mentorship type of role. Team building had always been his strong point, and now he could work with a wider range of businesses.
From coffee beans to gaming pixels
In 2010, an internet gaming company based in the Netherlands came to Polhuijs because they were having a real problem retaining their employees. The gaming space was competitive, and their employees kept being poached for high-paying positions. The company was organized by cross-functional product teams so if one person left, it could derail the product launch.
To make matters worse, the teams weren’t melded together or unified in any meaningful way. They operated like a group of individuals assigned to the same project, with low loyalty and little camaraderie.
His success using the Enneagram in the coffee company was fresh in his mind so Polhuijs decided to recreate the model for this 200-person gaming business, using Enneagram team buildings offsite as the base. He trained five of the 15 product teams in the first 12 months, and of the 50 people trained in that first year, none of them left the company.
“When they got to know each other as individuals, as real people, they bonded. The Enneagram opened them up and helped provide a context for different reactions to the same situation. It helped bridge communication breakdowns,” Polhuijs explains. “For the Type 5 who didn’t want to socialize, suddenly it had a different meaning. It wasn’t because he didn’t like the team, it was because he gets drained easily. Or the Type 7 who wanted to joke around all the time–now it had context.”
The training programs were so effective, the company brought in an Enneagram coach to be available to the employees several days each week. It was a fast track to conflict resolution, and they realized the cost of the coach was dramatically lower than the cost of replacing employees.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic
While Polhuijs was introducing the Enneagram to businesses in Europe, across the ocean in the United States, Mario Sikora was having his own success. He’s been bringing the Enneagram to the workplace since 1997, focusing initially on executive coaching. Sikora’s first project was so successful, it became a 10-year engagement, coaching scores of leaders across a multibillion-dollar technology manufacturing company.
His first client there, a high-potential Type 1 finance executive, became so enamored of the Enneagram, he enthusiastically spread the word throughout the company. Sikora began getting requests not just for coaching but for Enneagram workshops. His work grew and grew because he kept delivering results. And his secret sauce: the Enneagram.
“Back then, nobody knew anything about the Enneagram so they really didn’t know what they were signing up for. But the results spoke for themselves,” Sikora says. One executive would talk with another about the results she was getting or he’d coach a vice president who would then ask Sikora to train his whole team. The results were compelling. The training almost sold itself.
Over his 25 year career, Sikora has brought the Enneagram to thousands of individuals in dozens of companies. What attracts them to the system? Results. “While the human resources departments sometimes ask for proof about the scientific validity of the system, the executives don’t care at all. They want results and that’s why they choose the Enneagram,” Sikora explains.
From crisis to opportunity
Back in Europe, Polhuijs didn’t realize his next big client would also present his biggest crisis. In 2018, he got a call from his long-time friend, Tex Gunning, the CEO of a multinational car leasing company called LeasePlan. Gunning was a big believer in the value of team building so when he heard what Polhuijs was doing with the Enneagram, he wanted in.
The training programs went tremendously well and, from 2018 to 2020, Polhuijs and his trainers brought the Enneagram to hundreds of teams within the company.
But then the pandemic hit. Until that point, all the Enneagram training had been held in person. As the pandemic spread throughout the world, the training program ground to a halt. “We had to reinvent ourselves, almost overnight,” Polhuijs says. “With the pandemic, team members needed support more than ever. And it turned out, our new online delivery model was even better than the old way!”
Polhuijs and his team did a massive pivot, moving the training online and offering an even more personalized approach. Via Microsoft Teams, they offered virtual team building workshops, and they added a one-on-one Enneagram assessment for each participant, which quickly became the most popular part of the training. Who would have thought the crisis of the pandemic would be the birth of an even more successful Enneagram offering?
The Enneagram at work, then and now
When reflecting on the Enneagram’s place in the business world, both Sikora and Polhuijs are bullish.
Sikora points out that it has become much easier to talk about the Enneagram in the workplace because so many people have heard about it. But he also raises a flag of caution. “While it is great that the popularity of the Enneagram is exploding, it also presents some problems. A lot of the Enneagram information out there is inaccurate, and the proliferation of assessments causes mistypings and so forth.”
Sikora encourages businesses to be mindful when engaging an Enneagram trainer. He recommends making sure the trainer has a track record of repeat business using the Enneagram in organizations.
When Polhuijs reflects on his 25 year journey with the system in the workplace, he’s expansive. “I just see it growing and growing. More and more business leaders are understanding the value of social skills and emotional intelligence in the workplace. They see the business case for it. And the Enneagram is one of the best tools you’ll find to cultivate both of these skill sets.”