Tapping into Discretionary Energy

Why & when people choose to bust a gut for the company, and why they stop forever

Read time: 6 minutes

In this edition

In business transformations, having a stellar strategy is only half the battle.

More often than not, it’s the discretionary energy of your team that makes the critical difference. You can’t just hit the pause button on existing operations to implement new initiatives. Your team has to keep the engine running while also reaching for new heights.

Striking this balance is not just a nuanced endeavor—it’s a risky one. Mismanage it, and you risk not just project failure but also eroding trust and morale, sometimes irreparably.

In this article, I’ll share four key factors and some hard-earned lessons from my own successes and setbacks that enable you to unlock discretionary energy and avoid the pitfalls that come with getting it wrong.

Tapping into Discretionary Energy

Motivations play an important role in shaping our perspectives on work. The things that motivate us professionally, and the extent to which our work taps into those motivations, have a direct impact on our performance. When we are motivated, we are engaged. We feel an abundance of energy, and even hard things seem easier. 

Employee motivations and the energy they generate features prominently in my advisory practice, though not always directly. In most cases, motivations aren’t a problem. People are excited by the vision; they just need help pursuing it and channeling their pre-existing energy toward the right ends. Sometimes, though, the question of energy is front and center. This is especially the case when companies are negotiating a difficult transition and need to operate differently, like when they are growing very quickly or are trying to kick-start their growth. Since few firms of any size have employees they can fully dedicate to transformational work, they have to rely on already-busy people to change the wheels of the train while it’s still moving. That invariably means tapping into employees’ mental and physical energy reserves to see the work through. 

The consultants call this “discretionary energy” (this article from Korn-Ferry is worth a read), and it’s useful to understand how it works and how leaders can tap into it without abusing it and permanently exhausting employee goodwill. 

Prerequisites

There are four stars that need to align under which employees may be willing to expend their discretionary energy.

Star 1: The goal or project makes sense for the business

This is table stakes. People need (and generally want) to believe in the purpose of the activity and the benefits for the business. This should be the easy part, provided that the reason for the change is consistent with the overall strategy and vision. That said, leaders should not assume that people understand the vision or the implications of the project. In my experience, people always have questions. There are always material disconnects between the intent of the project and what they have internalized. These things need to be spelled out and discussed openly to ensure everyone truly understands the goal. 

Star 2: People understand what they specifically need to do, and how their lives will change

This is where things get real. Each employee needs to understand her/his tasks in the project—the things they will start doing, stop doing, and continue doing. In rapidly scaling companies, there are inevitable tradeoffs that must be fleshed out. If we are launching a new product, how much time do I spend on the old one? Will I get the right training and support? If my role is changing, to whom will my responsibilities be transferred and when? How does this impact my performance review or my compensation? How will my personal effort contribute to the goal, and how will I benefit? How long will this situation last, and what happens when it’s over?

The explanations need to be concrete and, ideally, motivating. Maybe there are opportunities for greater earning potential, or more interaction with clients, or opportunities to learn new skills that will enable people to advance. Whatever these motivations and explanations may be, they need to be real, easily understood, and sufficient to set people’s expectations and make people want to say, “Yes, I’m ready to sign up for this.”

Star 3: There is a collective belief that the team can succeed

In my experience, people intrinsically like to be part of a team, especially when that team is doing something extraordinary. Provided that the culture is conducive to it, leaders can lean on the team’s collaborative ethos. A team-centric approach makes it easier for individuals to say “yes” because they are saying “yes” as a group. It simplifies the allocation of tasks, extends a safety net for those who may need extra help, and fortifies the culture with a sense of collective accountability, ensuring there’s no room for people to hide.

Star 4: They believe and trust in you, the leader, and the rest of the leaders in the team 

Trust in leadership is paramount for individuals to willingly exert discretionary energy, and that starts at the top of the org chart. The narrative set by leadership is crucial. It is equal measures of fact and inspiration, where the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the project are transparently communicated. To cascade this trust effectively through multiple layers of the organization, alignment with direct reports is also crucial. Together, leaders need to emphasize the positives and address the challenges. And nothing solidifies trust more than a history of consistent actions. Past experiences where leaders have demonstrated trustworthiness serve as invaluable anchors, reinforcing the belief in their vision and direction.

Executing the plan

After you have done the work of planning, communicating, and getting people to buy in, the next step is execution. That means frequent checkpoints to ensure progress is being made and frequent communication with the team about what has happened, what is still left to do, and how things are going. There is no such thing as overcommunication when you are traversing a period of extraordinary effort. And no sugar coating, either. If things aren’t going well and you’re not honest about that, it will permanently destroy trust. 

During the execution phase, people will be comparing what’s happening with the expectations that were set in advance. Notably, this means they will be trying to understand the following key points:

  1. Timing: Are we on track to finish when we said we would?
  2. Effort: Is the effort I am actually making consistent with what I was told would happen, or is it harder (or easier) than I was told it would be?
  3. Recognition: Are people’s efforts, as a team and as individuals, being recognized? 

Then it needs to be over 

It is vital that normalcy returns and people can revert to their original energy levels. Any other outcome has the potential to be catastrophic for the business because it reflects bad management. 

Assuming this works—and that people’s efforts are recognized and rewarded—it creates a tangible proof point that the company can do big things. Success of this nature breeds confidence in the team and in leadership that is worth its weight in gold. 

image of people working late
working through challenges, sometimes late

Examples from my past

I have a few examples of where this has worked in my past. 

Building a new team

I built an operational team following an acquisition that brought together 40 people from two legacy companies under the leadership of brand new management team. We needed to learn two different back-end systems to be able to provide Tier 2 support for internal and external clients. Training materials were limited, and we had no dedicated training staff we could lean on. And of course these people all had their “old jobs” to do.

It would have been impossible were it not for the dedication and fully collaborative ethos of the team. People shared their expertise and worked shoulder to shoulder to generate and deliver 24 hours of training materials in the month of January. By March we were competently handling 600 escalations and providing round the clock service. The team worked out how to effectively manage its workload and was recognized and rewarded for their efforts.

A new customer success operating model

That same team then created and implemented a new operating model that transformed our customer success function and shifted what were largely operational responsibilities out of the commercial team. In just under six months, we hired, trained, and deployed over 60 people (again on two different systems). This time, it was the managers and a few key people in the team whose efforts were needed, but by then the team was running smoothly enough that it was possible for them to shift their focus. The program was widely heralded as a success by even the most staunchly cynical people on the commercial team. And people were rewarded for their effort. 

In the above situations, I was fortunate to be working with people who were willing to expend this sort of extraordinary mental and physical energy. It helped as well that the company had a generally collaborative culture and was experiencing a phase of strong growth. Everyone, myself included, did the things that we needed to do to be successful. This isn’t to say that things went flawlessly. But each time there were setbacks, we worked through them. 

When things don't go well

I have a third experience that did not go as smoothly as the first two. The circumstances of were similar: we had planned a change in operating model and had done the budgeting and process work to identify what needed to happen for it to be successful. We launched that process and quickly discovered that we were forbidden from hiring despite having budgetary clearance. It didn’t help that there was some internal pushback either. While our team got through the transition, it wasn’t without pockets of heartache and stress. We even had some people resign. 

Why did we face challenges? I can point to two main reasons. The obvious one was the fact that the goal posts moved. The other, less obvious factor is that this was my first time running a project of this nature at this scale. While this was not intrinsically a point of failure, I (and my team) would have benefitted from better situational awareness. This was a very large company with a chaotic operating environment. With a bit more experience, I might have better anticipated some of the foreseeable challenges.

Conclusion

Tapping into discretionary energy is a delicate balancing act of aligning business goals with personal motivation, team camaraderie, and insightful leadership. When done well, it creates a powerful engine for transformative change. When mismanaged, it deeply bruises the team’s psyche, fostering skepticism and discontent that may never go away. As leaders, it is our responsibility to bring out the best in our team without sacrificing their trust and well-being. 

LinkedIn Roundup

Here are the things I talked about this past week on Linkedin. The list is short as I have been time-constrained, which means business is picking up!

Here are ​all my posts on LinkedIn​.

You can also ​read my articles​ on topics related to leadership and execution ​right here at my website​.

When you’re ready, there are two other ways I can help. Email me at hello@jddeitch.com for more information.

Business Advisory

I help growth-stage leaders and investors in B2B tech-enabled services businesses align strategy with execution. I focus on the twin engines of execution excellence—process and people—to transform your business, paving the way for growth and enhanced profitability.

Transaction Support

With 20+ years of operating experience and a substantial M&A track record, I help investors evaluate strategic and operational strengths and weaknesses and navigate post-deal risks to unlock value.

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