Energy management motivation: Fighting mixed signals, misaligned goals and unpredictable resources

Peter Garforth says don’t let teams become toothless efficiency evangelists.

By Peter Garforth

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The role of the corporate energy manager is arguably one of the most challenging in the company. This person is challenged to deliver results that equal or beat the best in the industry in terms of energy costs, energy reliability, and environmental performance. A company’s energy manager can be a key contributor to its competitive edge. The start of a new year seemed to be an opportune moment to explore some of the leadership and motivation challenges faced by energy managers.

Most corporate energy managers have very small teams and are often a team of one. The keys for them to deliver high levels of energy performance demanded are well known. It starts with consistent senior management sponsorship that unequivocally signals to the entire organization support for breakthrough energy performance. Like safety, this must be a message that remains visible and consistent year after year. The energy message must also be the same, irrespective of the audience.

All too often, the energy manager is faced with a wide range of mixed signals from leadership. Public commitments to energy performance may be less committed to in smaller meetings. Energy may be the passion of an individual leader, but fail to be embraced by other senior management colleagues. It does not take an organization long to pick up on a weak commitment, whatever the public pronouncements. Mixed messages from leadership are among the most corrosive elements to the energy manager’s role.

An interesting variation on the quality of senior management sponsorship showed up in recent discussions with a business that has had an excellently run, well-resourced and effective energy management program for years. Energy had become so much a part of the background operations, leadership had begun to take it for granted. Failure to refresh the energy messages has many risks. The ongoing benefits and achievements become invisible, risking competiveness and motivation, and setting the stage for a slow, and possibly irreversible, deterioration.

Mixed signals from leadership tend to show up in ways that limit the energy management team’s ability to be effective. The leadership ambiguity will almost certainly discourage ambitious new talent from joining the energy team. With changing technology and the need for a continuous stream on new ideas, failure to refresh team talents can be devastating.

Mixed signals typically result in the energy manager having performance goals that are not reflected in the goals of the operational managers in the plants and other operational organizations. This is a recipe for disaster. Without goal alignment, the energy manager’s limited team will be relegated to implementing small peripheral subprojects and being toothless evangelists for energy efficiency. This is not the playground for ambitious, effective managers.

Even if goals are not entirely aligned, if the energy manager has the ability to deploy capital resources to implement key energy improvement measures, that person can at least have some voice in the overall operational improvement game. In the real world, even this weapon in the energy manager’s armory is subject to the whim of extreme year-on-year volatility, biasing energy improvement measures to low-hanging fruit with very short payback times. This fails to capture sustainable energy productivity and reliability gains that are at the core of long-term competitiveness.

Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium.Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium. He advises major companies, cities, communities, property developers and policy makers on developing competitive approaches that reduce the economic and environmental impact of energy use. Peter has long been interested in energy productivity as a profitable business opportunity and has a considerable track record establishing successful businesses and programs in the US, Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, Indonesia, India, Brazil and China. Peter is a published author, has been a traveling professor at the University of Indiana at Purdue, and is well connected in the energy productivity business sector and regulatory community around the world. He can be reached at peter@garforthint.com.

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Flat-out management hypocrisy is the most demotivating of all. It is not unknown for companies to espouse aggressive emissions reductions goals in public and negate them in private. I have heard from energy managers with clear greenhouse gas reduction goals, being told to never mention greenhouse gases or climate change to leadership as “they don’t believe in climate science.” An energy manager may hear leadership exhort the importance attached to energy efficiency only to be told in private it is unimportant since it is a minor part of the overall costs and to focus on small projects that create good publicity.

The energy manager may also contribute to messaging issues. Faced with mixed signals, misaligned goals and unpredictable resources, it is easy to become cynical. This may show up in a leadership style that transmits lack of enthusiasm and doubts to the energy team and other colleagues. In effect, the energy manager has become the last link in the chain in communicating leadership ambiguity on the importance of energy.

Like all challenges, these are relatively easy to manage when they are clearly identified. Maybe one of the most important tasks for the energy manager is to recognize the risks of loss of clear leadership support and to make correcting that the highest priority. Equally, it is important for the leadership to look in the mirror and honestly assess how they position energy efficiency, reliability, and environmental impact in all their decisions and communications. An effective energy management team cannot be self-motivating forever.

Read Peter Garforth's monthly column, Energy Expert.

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