1651069698466 Ericwoodroofimage

How Weak Leadership Undermines Energy Projects

May 8, 2017

I have worked with thousands of engineers who have developed brilliant energy solutions – but these solutions were never implemented. Why? I have concluded that there are key factors responsible that have nothing to do with the technical feasibility of the solutions themselves. Instead, the problem is the weak leadership in many organizations. Knowing how to navigate in such organizations is critical to success. 

I have written on the topic of selling energy projects in your organization (see free recorded training) but the techniques are useful only when working with a client capable of taking effective action.

In this article, I describe symptoms of weak leadership that can derail projects. If you recognize these symptoms in your organization, you will need to address them early to improve your chances of success.

Here are three questions that may help you recognize the situation.

Question #1: Does the organization have a written mission statement that aligns all employees toward a common goal?

If there is no statement, your energy project cannot be seen as aligning with that mission. Without alignment, your project is unlikely to succeed.

All companies undergo leadership changes. During these times, employees can continue to make progress when guided by a clear mission statement. However, some organizations lose their leader and become rudderless. If a new leader does not take command and chart a course, mid-level managers delay decisions like the approval of your project. After a while, a culture of indecision prevails, one that sets up entitlement for everyone to maintain status quo and avoid taking risks.

Good leaders create empowered employees. When you are evaluating projects, observe the alignment of the employees because it says a lot about the organization and where your energy project is headed.

Question #2: Does the organization knowingly fail to comply with legally required safety or other laws?

Organizations that don’t take care of safety are not going to care about your energy project, which is typically optional. For example, a few years ago while doing an audit, I walked into a new boiler room that had more than 10 major safety violations, including national and state code violations on piping, valves and other infrastructure. My partner even smelled natural gas. We stopped the energy audit and alerted management to the violations. If an explosion were to happen, management could be liable for deaths and millions of dollars in legal costs. This mid-level management team essentially ignored us because its “division was experiencing budget cuts and the managers felt they couldn’t get the funding to fix the problems.” Guess how far this audit’s energy projects went? The audit was nearly a complete waste of time.

Question #3: What image of itself does the organization send to its employees?

I remember a client facility where I had discovered a potential $6 million in energy savings. The firm implemented many of the projects. However, a few years later, I returned for a follow-up audit and noticed inadequate maintenance budgets were causing a decline in the firm’s image and its employees’ morale. 

For example, I saw a large steam leak visible from the parking lot and the employee entrance. Every employee – including the energy manager – saw this leak every day. It was not repaired for more than a year. How can you motivate employees to save energy when management won’t spend the money to fix a conspicuous leak seen by all every day? This is like telling your kids to clean up their rooms while you dump garbage on the front doorstep.

The questions above may seem obvious, things that we only need to be reminded of rather than instructed in. But I can tell you that I have missed these symptoms and each time it cost me. I hope this advice will help you avoid the same mistakes.

If you are working for or with an organization that may not be capable of making a decision on your improvement project, you will need to find a path through the obstacles. In these cases I have found it best to communicate my concerns early. Sometimes management will recognize the symptoms and take corrective action.

But when you find yourself working with fast-moving organizations with a clear mission, make it easy for them to make a decision. They are busy, continually making other decisions and don’t need a lot of detail. Don’t hinder a leader!


Eric A. Woodroof, Ph.D., is the Chairman of the Board for the Certified Carbon Reduction Manager (CRM) program and he has been a board member of the Certified Energy Manager (CEM) Program since 1999. His clients include government agencies, airports, utilities, cities, universities and foreign governments. Private clients include IBM, Pepsi, GM, Verizon, Hertz, Visteon, JP Morgan-Chase, and Lockheed Martin. In August 2014, he was named to the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) Energy Managers Hall of Fame.

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