‘Cleantech Cool’ Is Not Enough for Attracting Top Talent

The article below was first published in Renewable Energy World.

In the cleantech space, grid-edge companies are hot. These startups are growing up quickly and almost all of them started out leveraging their “cool factor” to attract talent. They are working hard to transform our old electrical infrastructure into one that serves our new 3-D Era of Energy, and as word spreads, they attract like-minded people who want to be their employees.

In their early stages, these companies (like any startup) build an attractive, cool brand, and make their offices great places to work. However, as they scale, three patterns emerge that create a perfect storm of languishing, unfilled positions.

First, startups quickly tap out their personal networks for new employees. Next, they recognize that even though their cool brand attracts incoming job inquiries, these people are often not qualified for the positions available. Finally, companies notice it is taking six months or more to find the perfect candidate, and they are losing precious revenue or product advancement in the meantime.

All of a sudden, being a ‘cool cleantech startup’ isn’t enough.

As soon as companies reach 30 or more employees, they typically transition into growth phases. This brings many challenges regarding scale, commercialization, and overall operational management. Companies know they need more senior level staff with strong expertise in their sector, but soon realize their company culture isn’t getting the right people in the door.

When you’re looking for powerhouse players, they typically do not come to you. The utility and smart grid space is a small market, and word travels fast. Cleantech ‘A Players’ looking for a change are understandably concerned about confidentiality, and this is a big reason why they enjoy working with specialized recruiters to help them land their next role.

There is certainly a time for hiring friends or the serendipity of the perfect person showing up on your doorstep. But, startups struggle to scale this way, especially when they start competing for senior level candidates against larger companies.

Whether it’s inside or outside cleantech, emerging growth companies have to fight for talent against well-orchestrated talent acquisition strategies with big names and budgets. Thus, in the life of any startup, the decision to bring in outside recruiting help becomes an attractive proposition.

Recruiting Partnerships That Last

Knowing what positions a company is hiring for can be a competitive edge, especially in fast-paced, low margin sectors like smart grid, energy efficiency, and solar. So even though it’s less expensive for companies to contract with a number of contingency recruiters, the fact that their positions are shopped around by a number of people can risk that competitive information falling into the wrong hands. Additionally, when the same people are contacted about a position by multiple recruiters, it can dilute the job’s perception of value in the market and hurt the company’s reputation.

However, the retained business model of recruiting is also undesirable for emerging cleantech companies. Retained firms are typically generalists and finding those with expertise in the cleantech space is rare. Even when one does find a retained firm with some expertise in their field, these firms are expensive and structure their contracts to put all the risk of the search on the company, as they are paid whether they perform or not. This practice is antithetical to the overall risk/reward scenario that is embedded in most startups and emerging growth companies in cleantech.

At Enertech Search Partners, we believe in a middle road between contingency and retained search. Called retingency, this performance-based approach is rare to find, but works great for highly competitive emerging growth companies, especially in cleantech. Retingency requires a small down payment upfront and ensures some level of exclusivity for a set period of time, much like a retainer. Meanwhile, the bulk of compensation is still contingent on the position being filled by a candidate the recruiter suggests.

Many emerging growth companies want the best candidates they can find, ideally ones from large companies who helped to grow those organizations toward financial exits. So, retingency success depends on recruiters knowing what candidates are perfect for the job, and more importantly, which ones are actually deliverable.

When seeking a retingency recruiting firm, look for ones who are active in your specific sector. They should understand not just how your technology fits into the overall landscape of the industry, but also have insights into where your industry is going and how to leverage your employment positions to accelerate your company’s growth. Additionally, they should have a strong and specific network of top candidates working in the cleantech space. Look for ones who have spent the time to build relationships with ‘A Players’ and who know the people ready and willing to make a move.

The cleantech space is made up of companies and executives who took massive risks to start and build their companies to where they are today. These forward-thinking executives appreciate the people they work with to be their true partners in mutual success. Unfortunately, the old models of both retained and contingency run counter to this startup ethos.

Retingency is emerging as a business model that runs parallel to the philosophies of the cleantech space, by sharing the risk and the reward. When retingency partnerships in cleantech are successful, they are a win-win-win; for the company, the candidate and the planet.

Paige Carratturo

June 12, 2015