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Fully Charged: an interview with Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel


Interview by: Giles Metcalfe

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Heike BruchHeike Bruch is Professor and Director at the Institute for Leadership and Human Resources Management at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. She is also director of the Organizational Energy Programme and academic director of the university’s International Study Programme. She is the co-author, with Sumantra Ghoshal, of A Bias for Action (2004, Harvard Business School Press).

Bernd VogelBernd Vogel is Assistant Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the University of Reading. Before he joined Henley Business School, Bernd was a Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Institute for Leadership and Human Resource management, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland and Project Leader in the research initiative Organisation Energy programme OEP.

Their book, Fully Charged, is published by Harvard Business School Press.

The views expressed herein are those of the interviewee and, unless specifically stated, are not those of Emerald Management First or Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Emerald Group Publishing Limited is not responsible for any content posted by members of the public on this website or for the content of any third party websites. Any links to third party websites do not amount to any endorsement of that site by Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

GM: What was the background to you writing Fully Charged?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Before initiating the organizational energy research in 2001, Heike had done research on personal energy and focus of leaders. But during conversations with CEOs, senior executives, and HR professionals we realized that they had different, seemingly unrelated, questions that all focused on energy in the organization and how to deliberately manage a company's energy. The executives made it clear that although energy forms the crux of the company leadership, and is thus highly relevant in terms of company success, there seemed to be no concepts - or at least no satisfactory ones - that provided answers or solutions in respect of activating and sustaining a company’s energy. These are a few examples of the questions posed:

  • "How can we create a sense of urgency, when the business results are good?"
  • "With our sales force, we do not have any difficulties with energy. The people live off the adrenaline generated by the market. How can we create a similar spirit in our internal units?"
  • "How can we keep our rationality but also create passion and enthusiasm for our products and services?"
  • "How can we maintain change momentum while avoiding change tiredness and organizational burnout?"
  • "How can we remain number one? We have always been driven by the ideal of being number one. How can we sustain this energy now that we have arrived at the top of the hill?"

These questions intrigued and inspired us to develop a leadership concept that allows executives to deal professionally with the seemingly unmanageable "energy" soft factor. Right from the beginning the idea of measuring energy and making it tangible played an important role. On this basis we were able to develop leadership and HR strategies to systematically assess and deliberately alter the energy in organizations. And this allows us to address very different leadership challenges and questions that executives and HR professionally discussed with us.

GM: What surprised you the most when researching it?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Let us share with you two things which caught us by surprise. Firstly, we realized that many executives and other leaders develop an elaborate gut-feeling about the state of the human forces in their organization. What they lack is a language, a concept to transfer this into open and tangible knowledge that they can act upon - particularly on some of the negative energy states where they may suspect they are part of the issue. The energy concept provided in many of our workshops the missing piece of language and measurement that enabled executives to formulate decisive activities to charge the organization.

Secondly, it feels like organizations are fully aware of or even obsessed by boosting an organization’s energy for the shared purposes. However, it seems that they are remarkably less aware that sustaining energy is a completely different task. On the one hand it requires getting beyond the traps of complacency, corrosion and acceleration. On the other hand leaders need to actively invest in building a vitalizing management system, i.e. a working context with multiple sources of energy.

GM: Who should read it, and why?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Fully Charged and its ideas and recommendations will primarily benefit CEOs, senior executives, other organizational leaders, and board members. These are the individuals and their teams who are in charge of leveraging the energy, the mobilized potential of their organizations, and sustaining it. Understanding and working with the energy concept will enable them to boost and maintain the particular soft factors that are decisive for outstanding company performance.

HR executives and HR professionals will benefit from this book for professional ways of facilitating energizing leadership in the organization. Top management can draw innovative solutions for dealing with the human potential and change management from this group and also relies on them for providing crucial support in terms of both boosting as well as sustaining energy.

GM: The book focuses on “organizational energy”- what is it?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Organizational energy belongs to the intangible but very powerful, so-called soft factors of human potential that lie at the core of a company’s performance. Organizational energy is the force with which a company (or division or team) works. We define it as the extent to which an organization (or division or team) has mobilized its emotional, cognitive, and behavioral potential to pursue its goals.

Organizational energy has three crucial facets:

  1. Organizational energy is collective energy. It comprises the activated collective human potential of a company. It considers the dynamics and interactions amongst people, the contagion and infection of emotion among people in the organization.
  2. Organizational energy has three components. Organizational energy comprises the organizations’ activated emotional, cognitive and behavioral potential exemplified by shared enthusiasms, cognitive alertness in the company or collective effort in shared initiatives - or the lack thereof.
  3. Energy is malleable. Organizational energy reflects the current state of energy activation in a company which is fluid rather than stable.

GM: How does individual energy contribute to organizational energy?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Organizational energy describes the human forces shared among the people in companies or work units - not simply the energy of individuals. Organizational energy is different from individual energy, but it emerges through contagion processes. Individual-oriented energy concepts such as emotional energy, flow, or thriving can help a manager understand and encourage the full engagement of individual employees. Yet, by thinking only about the individual, executives risk missing out on the collective and synergetic human forces they have at their discretion. An individual’s energy may be at the start of interactions and group dynamics, that others observed, when they actually “catch” the emotions, thoughts and actions of others. It’s these dynamics such as contagion or self-reinforcing spirals that make organizational energy go far beyond the sum of people’s individual energy. People caught in these dynamics become more in sync, share the same energy on a more intense level. And particularly leaders are important role models which have a significant impact on these contagion processes for people mirror and imitate both positive as well as negative energy, i.e. leaders behaviors, attitudes , and emotions.

GM: Can organizational energy be measured and categorized?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

At the heart of our work lies a framework we call the energy matrix. We use it to describe measured energy states. Our research shows that organizations can differ in their energy in terms of two dimensions. The intensity of organizational energy reflects the degree to which a company has activated its potential. The quality of organizational energy describes how a company uses its energy: to what extent are the human forces constructively aligned with the shared overall company goals - or not! Combining the two dimensions results in four different energy states that potentially exist in your organization:

  1. productive energy
  2. comfortable energy
  3. resigned inertia,
  4. corrosive energy

Keep in mind that the energy states are not mutually exclusive. Companies typically experience, to varying extents, all four different energy states simultaneously.

While a “gut feeling” of the company’s energy state can well be accurate, without ways to tangibly measure energy it may be difficult to see it clearly, to discuss it with colleagues and employees, and to improve the organization’s energy. One way is to measure organizational energy to arrive at an energy profile of the four energy states — the book’s appendix includes a 12-question version of the Organizational Energy Questionnaire (OEQ) that we used throughout our research, and that you as a leader can use to create an energy profile of your organization, division, or work unit.

GM: How can the potential energy of employees be transformed into kinetic energy at organizational level? Can the organizational energy system become perpetual?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Organizations, business units, and teams have huge reservoirs of human potential, their people’s discretionary effort, emotions, and intellectual capabilities. Organizational energy discusses a company’s actual energy in motion — not it’s “potential” energy. It presents the activation of a company’s human forces. Executives can deliberately mobilize their organization’s energy potential by distinct leadership strategies like "Slaying the Dragon" or "Winning the Princess", that we explain further below. Organizational energy can become perpetual. But that asks for a different set of activities from executives. We summarize in leadership activities the idea of sustaining energy that facilitate a vitalizing management system.

GM: You introduce the concepts of “the corrosion trap”, and “the acceleration trap” – can you define them for us?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

The corrosion trap manifests in an energetic way: The organization can appear highly active, fully alert, and emotionally involved - all while the underlying energy gets misdirected and misused because the shared focus is lost or trust abused. The forces are invested largely in interpersonal aggression, in-fighting, and internal rivalries to promote the agenda of individual managers or business units, instead of chasing the purpose of the entire organization. Thus, the corrosive processes are eating away the organization’s energy.

We’ve identified three main drivers of corrosive energy to which top managers need to stay alert:

  1. negative competition among internal units
  2. egoistic behavior of individual groups, managers and employees
  3. corrosive top management teams (TMTs).

The acceleration trap is another threat to energy in a company. In highly energetic companies, leaders are often tempted to start too many activities simultaneously, devoting too little time to individual activities and overwhelming employees by relentlessly pushing them past their limits. What begins as a positive aspiration to attain a goal can end in an uncontrolled flood of activities if not regulated. Some CEOs follow the Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (swifter, higher, stronger) and drive their companies constantly at and beyond the edge of their capabilities. The result? Resignation, fatigue, or even burnout of entire companies. Like an overworked machine, the organization’s efficiency becomes deeply impaired by constantly overloading the organization's resources and human potential.

GM: What is “slaying the dragon" and "winning the princess”?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

“Slaying the Dragon” and “Winning the Princess” are two proven leadership strategies and sets of tools executives can use to unleash energy in the organization to overcome a lack of energy in the form of the “complacency trap” or high levels of resigned inertia. With “Slaying the Dragon” leaders focus the company's shared emotion, mental agility, and effort on solving or overcoming an existential external threat, ultimately generating productive energy. The “Winning the Princess” strategy is based on the observation that productive energy can be particularly high if companies are pursuing a special opportunity. As with Slaying the Dragon, this kind of opportunity-driven situation doesn’t automatically trigger productive energy; it requires sensitive but courageous executives who can carefully guide their organizations through it.

GM: Who and what are “toxic handlers”?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Working with toxic handlers is one of the instruments we have identified to refocus corrosive energy. It is part of the first task of “phasing down” company’s destructive forces where leaders need to bring corrosive energy into the open and encourage people to actively deal with it. Our research has turned up three important tools that executives can use to start this process: creating “release valves” for letting off steam, investigating emotional shakeups, and also identifying and supporting toxic handlers which goes back to work from Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson. Toxic handlers are people whom employees and leaders alike trust and thus share their negativity with. Toxic handlers absorb negativity from individuals, acting as a human release valve. That keeps that aggression from spreading destructively throughout the organization. Also leaders can retrieve from toxic handler critical information about corrosive energy in the company.

GM: What role does organizational identity play?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Once you have accomplished the first task for escaping the corrosion trap - phasing out the negative energy in your organization - you are ready to move onto the second task: recharging the organization to prevent corrosion from (re-)emerging. Here building a strong organizational identity is crucial. Our research shows that without an explicit investment in positive behavioral norms and attitudes, people will likely fall back into old patterns and negativity will return. Developing a strong organizational identity means that people foster both a shared pride and perspective. A strong pride implies that people have strong bonds, shared values, and a sense of "we" deriving from past achievements. Perspective, by contrast, means that people aspire to the same future goals — which makes it very likely that they will collaborate well.

GM: You say something that, on the face of it, sounds contradictory and almost Zen-like – companies should “slow down to speed up”. What does this mean in practice?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

“Slow down to speed up” refers to the deliberate orchestration of high levels of productive energy and phases of regeneration. To protect a company from the acceleration trap executives systematically alternate high-energy phases, in which a great deal of energy is spent, with periods of calm or regeneration. How can leaders finesse such a careful rhythm for instance within a change process? Two very effective means are milestones and change episodes with a clear beginning and a clear end-point. After achieving milestones it is important that people feel a moment of rest and pride when taking stock and celebrating mutual achievements. This implies deliberately alternating between speeding up and looking back while taking a deep breath. In sum people are really faster because they are recharged and feel that they can master the challenges and can give all in pursuit of goals because they know they can regenerate at least a moment.

GM: How do the activities designed to increase productive energy to become number one differ from those needed to sustain a company’s position as number one?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Leadership activities to increase your company’s productive energy and to become number one differ fundamentally from those needed to stay number one. Executives find it hard to facilitate a proactive sense of urgency in the entire organization and to sustain the vital forces of enthusiasm, alertness, and high exertion over the long term, while keeping energy loss at bay. This is much more demanding than igniting energy in the first place. Executives need to accept that no single leader, or single process, can possibly foster exceptional engagement, innovative thinking, emotional involvement and passion for company challenges over the long term. The role of an executive and senior manager must shift substantially. While mobilizing from the top relies strongly on one big 'battery' at the top, sustaining productive energy implies that leaders create systems with many 'batteries' throughout their company - that means they create a working environment where many, if not all, managers and employees are encouraged to become sources of high productive energy. To that end executives need to establish and build a strong vitalizing management system for sustaining productive energy, i.e. a working environment where people are constantly stimulated, encouraged and asked to challenge the status quo, identify opportunities as well as possible challenges, and take initiative to achieve at the highest levels. And these activities are channeled towards a joint ambitious goal of the organization.

GM: What strategic elements contribute to this? Who are the strategy stakeholders?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

To sustain energy, organizations need to build a highly vitalized management system with three components:

  1. strategizing
  2. leadership structures
  3. culture.

Essentially, leaders have to establish a unified system that converts all their people into ‘batteries’ and sources of energy - triggering a proactive, widespread sense of urgency without losing the organization’s focus.

When looking specifically at strategizing we identified various facets executives could look at: for instance to craft a shared strategy, to hone radar for weak signals, and to regularly fully review the strategy. Executives have to consider the strategy stakeholders that refer to the individual organizational situation. More importantly however, executives need to think dramatically different about how to learn about external stakeholders and how to consequently involve all internal stakeholders. One observation is that complacent companies start to less carefully screen the environment. To counter this companies that succeed in sustaining energy involve many if not all people in identifying relevant trends, opportunities, and needs for change hone - a radar for weak signals.

GM: You cite a Swedish insurance company that has managers cook meals for invited customers – isn’t this taking customer service to a ludicrous extent?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

To sustain energy, a key ambition for organizations has to be to create a proactive sense of urgency among all managers and employees. Depending on how much a company has lost touch and emotional attachment with its customers, the activity you mention above is real and symbolic and can provide the intervention to crack very low and deeply rooted levels of customer orientation. Creating as many similar customer touch points as possible will help the majority of employees feel the adrenaline of the market - and sharpen their proactive sense of urgency.

GM: What role does innovation and knowledge sharing have to play in the energizing process?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Constantly high levels of innovation which rely on many sources of inspiration, ideas, and instant reaction to market changes are a good indicator for high and sustained energy. In some companies innovative behavior and knowledge sharing across silos have become part of the existing culture. Knowledge sharing is not “nice to have”; it is an essential indicator of healthy proactive sense of urgency of all employees.

GM: You feature excerpts from an interview Oliver Kahn (former Bayern Munich and German national team goalkeeper) did with you. What business lessons did he impart on a personal level, and in discussing the culture at his former teams?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Working with Oliver Kahn was a great experience because he allowed an intimate view into how he worked but also into the inner functioning of a high-energy football club which is in essence a huge enterprise. Most striking was when he openly admitted his surprise on some of the challenges and insights he encountered during his career. When he had to sit on the bench during the World Cup in Germany and he had dreamed to play and win this World Cup throughout his entire career, he had to learn that he could influence the energy of his team even from the sidelines. It was a hard lesson but personally very important for him to experience that it made a huge difference how he set on this bench. Despite of his personal disappointment of not being actively in the game himself he managed to demonstrate an optimistic and helpful attitude, strong confidence and positive energy - one of his toughest tasks and one of the most rewarding in his professional life. What executives can also transfer from Bayern Munich to their organization is this ruthlessness in seeking performance and success. This love for peak performance does not only depend on the individual, it has become part of the DNA of the club. The culture does not allow for leaning back and living on the success of the past. Success has to be questioned to create new successes. This will not emerge by chance, top management has to facilitate it so that this attitude spreads throughout the organization.

GM: What makes a great leader, and who do you think exemplifies this?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

In our chapters on sustaining energy and personal energy it becomes very clear that the idea of the one “great” leader may be short-sighted. We often found very healthy and energetic top management teams that made a difference in companies like Hilti, ABB, and others. Usually these teams do not emerge by chance but are actively build and fostered by strong personalities at the top. To name some individuals, Juergen Dorman, former president and CEO of ABB, Juergen Weber from Lufthansa, or Pius Baschera from Hilti are cases in point.

Energizing leaders at various hierarchical levels share some similar features: They proactively manage energy, mobilize energy around a dragon or a princess, forcefully cut corrosion, and address acceleration.

When your organization switches from mobilizing energy to sustaining energy, leaders as well need to be ready to change the rules of the game. Two behaviors and attitudes become apparent: First, leaders fully commit their organization to high performance; and second, they develop the courage to accept that they are no longer the primary source of energy in the organization. They have to have the courage to let go.

GM: Is it the leader’s sole role to lead and everyone else follow, or should organizations foster a climate of collective leader-like behaviour? What structural implications does this have?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Organizations which rely only on leaders at the top could easily be in danger - at least over the longer term. Boosting energy with the respective leadership strategies may work driven by a single leader and his or her top management. Organizations who step up to aim for sustaining energy need strong leadership at all levels. That means managers across an organization are capable of inspirational leadership but also problem-oriented leadership behavior that faces and addresses all the difficult issues at hand. Organizations then develop a climate of leadership. However, that does not mean that top management and executive influence is obsolete. On the contrary, again executives at the top are responsible for facilitating widespread leadership competence, for instance by developing the structures that help managers growing into leaders.

GM: Bill Gates takes a week off twice a year “just to think”, as do forty-three of his top teams at Microsoft. Do you advocate companies letting every employee have a similar sabbatical?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

There is an individual take on this question and a systematic challenge around changing a culture of acceleration in an organization. Taking time-outs is an ideal instrument for individual managers to decelerate and to refocus themselves and subsequently their units.
Ideally these are not only one-off attempts at some point during the year. Instead time for thinking has to be a systematic part of how the managerial or leadership work is done in the organization. However, we observe that companies more and more accelerate. That means changing a culture of acceleration becomes a systematic challenge for organizations. Time for thinking should ideally be taken not only by individuals but by entire teams. It must become part of the culture and recognized as an important part to refocus and regenerate for more organizational performance and preventing over-acceleration.

GM: What are the five potential energy profiles inherent in the Organizational Energy Index?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

To be frank, there is no ultimate list of energy profiles because the contexts of organizations differ. Also the dynamics amongst managers and employees in the organizations, leadership intervention, or incidents in the environment may change an organization’s energy rather quickly.

Nevertheless we found five recurring energy profiles in our research and practice:

  1. “Clearly Productive energy”
  2. “Mixed Bag of productive and comfortable energy”
  3. “Corrosive energy with some productive energy”
  4. “Mostly resigned inertia and/or comfortable energy”
  5. “No energy whatsoever”

Each represents a distinct constellation of all four energy states with unique challenges to boost and maintain energy. The book provides practical leadership activities, instruments, and tools to face the individual challenges and fully charge your organization, business unit or team for sustained performance.

GM: What’s next for you?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

Fully Charged shows executives and leaders the strategies and instruments to boost and sustain energy in their organizations. It bridges the often separated areas of leadership and strategic development of organizations.

Our next steps will build on this bridge and extent our understanding in the area of strategic leadership in different special fields. We have started to work with several companies to link the energy concept to challenges such as ambidexterity of organizations, i.e. developing competencies that enable companies to pursue exploration (innovation) and exploitation (efficiency) simultaneously. The CEO of one of the companies we are currently working with expressed the challenge as follows: "We have to drive 130 miles per hour and change the tires at the same time. How can we energize people for different challenges without falling victim to the acceleration trap? How can we sustain this high speed for longer periods of time? And how can we as leaders assure that people stay creative and innovative on a daily basis?"

Another strategic leadership field we are currently exploring and starting to use in companies is executive board energy - the energy of the top management team. We have made first assessments of board energy and its impact on organizations and will now develop strategies and instruments to support top management teams to take charge of their own energy and use their full potential before managing the energy in their organizations.

Last but not least, we have started a collaboration with a group of companies that is interested in using the energy concept for health management purposes. In the focus of this work is the question how leaders can foster vitality in the organization on the one hand and how they can avoid unhealthy working conditions, prevent fatigue, mental illness, or burnout in their organizations.

GM: Finally, are there any closing comments you would like to make?

Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel:

When working with organizations on their energy we always identify one fact that distinguishes successful organizations from less successful. They progress from the intellectual exercise of thinking about leading the energy to actually doing it. They energize themselves to engage with the human forces in the organization. Within and after talks or workshops these executives quickly start systematic action. So use the book to act - for sustained productive energy and the performance and success of tomorrow.

It takes courage to manage energy systematically but this courage pays off multiple things. To develop this courage, leaders must first take charge of their own love of peak performance, passion, and energy and then orchestrate the energy of their organization.

June 2011.