How to recruit for clean tech

The article below was first published in GreenBiz.

Let’s face it. Clean tech companies, especially in the grid edge and smart grid space, are under extreme pressure to hire the best and brightest minds very quickly.

Each month that goes by without finding the “right” candidate is a month of potentially lost sales or lost time on engineering development.

After startups reach about 30 employees, the time and effort it takes to find, interview and hire the best talent becomes so time-consuming that hiring a recruiter becomes advantageous. Partnering with a specialized clean tech recruiting firm brings companies significant ROI on their talent pool and ensures you don’t experience many of the most common recruiting myths.

Myth 1: Recruiters are ineffective and don’t know what you actually do

This sentiment typically comes from people who have worked with recruiters who are not specialized in the clean tech industry. Recruiters without this expertise can fail to convey your company and the position’s value effectively to attract the right candidates.

In technology, most generalist recruiters can get by with just a cursory understanding of the industry. But in clean tech, it is critical that they have a deep understanding of current technology and the market drivers shaping your sector. A good recruiter also will have a wide breadth of understanding on how various sectors intermingle and complement each other.

This industry knowledge allows the recruiter to help you build and message the position to fit the market, resulting in faster, more influential conversations with prospective “A Players.” The first call a recruiter has with a candidate is critical to gaining interest in your position. Recruiters who know your sector can convey the best attributes of your company and get the candidate on the hook for more.

Just as you would not want to price your house to sell incorrectly, recruiters can help you strategize upfront to make sure you’re well positioned out of the gate. This can help prevent any false starts with the search. If a position has been open too long, it can tarnish a company’s reputation, as people will start to think there’s a reason why no one is taking it.

The relationship between an emerging growth company and a specialized recruiting firm is a partnership. That relationship dramatically can improve the odds of attracting and retaining talent. By accurately and persuasively reflecting the value and culture of your company, a recruiter with strong industry knowledge will increase the odds of success. 

Myth 2: Trolling LinkedIn can be just as effective as hiring a recruiter

Quality recruiting is all about one’s network. A recruiter specializing in clean tech constantly will be meeting clean tech professionals and build the relationships with these A Players to understand exactly what they want in their careers.

Typically, these people are not actively searching for new positions, but when the right deal comes along, they will consider it. The recruiter ideally becomes a career ally to top talent, understanding their career aspirations and bringing them opportunities that perfectly fit their skills and career dreams.

This candidate relationship building is in contrast to most generalist search firms. Even if they keep their work within the technology space, the variety of searches they perform prevents them from curating a deep network of top talent within one particular sector, be it cleantech or cyber security. Thus, they tend to focus their searches on people actively looking for a new job to maximize the odds someone will take a position. They also may draw on their generalist talent pool, but tend to use LinkedIn as their primary database tool.

The alternative to hiring a recruiter, of course, is trolling LinkedIn yourself. Unfortunately, due to confidentiality concerns, most people who are not actively looking for a new job generally will not respond to a direct inquiry from a company representative. It does happen, and it becomes increasingly difficult to gain attention from passive candidates working in upper management.

On the other hand, if candidates respond to your posting, they are likely responding to a lot of postings. They could be testing the market, which is good for you. But more commonly, and dangerous for you, they are looking to create a competitive offer situation to gain a raise or promotion at their current company. Reaching out to passive candidates on your own potentially can put you in the path of a bidding war. External recruiters can help you prevent this from happening. 

Myth 3: Recruiters are expensive

This sentiment typically comes from people who have worked with recruiters on either a contingency or retained basis. Both types of compensation models tend to encourage mediocre efforts, with companies taking all the risk and recruiters taking all the reward.

Giving companies a stack of resumes, then leaving the leadership team to sort out who to interview (and eventually hire), is something both contingency and retainer firms can be guilty of. On the contingency side, recruiters work on dozens of searches at once. Because they only get paid when they fill the job, the more resumes they send, the higher the probability is of the person you hire being in the pile.

Retained firms have exclusivity on your search and are paid regardless if the person you hire is someone they recommended, so there’s little incentive to ensure the right people are in the resume stack. Both models can fail to deliver the desired results of securing you a fantastic new employee and as a result, seem expensive for all the effort.

Keep your recruiter effective by finding those who work on retingency, where risk is shared between both parties. With retingency, companies offer exclusivity to a recruiter for a short period of time, with a down payment. Full compensation comes only after a candidate that the recruiter suggested is hired.

Depending on the type of recruiter you go with, the fee structure will be slightly different. For contingency it’s between 15 and 20 percent of the position’s base salary. For a retained firm it could be up to 35 percent, presumably because they are putting so much focus on it. For a company using a shared risk model of retingency, it will be somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, depending on the search.

Although even as little as 10 percent of a base salary can feel like a lot from a start-up prospective, it can be a fraction of the revenue lost if the search for a key sales position takes six months instead of three. As companies grow from the start-up to the emerging growth phase, the ability to scale quickly is critical to success. What a good recruiter will bring you is speed and efficiency on your search. In the fast-paced world of cleantech, this can mean the difference between success and marginalization.

Myth 4: Recruiters poach your best people

Most recruiters operate from the “path of least resistance” mindset. If you are seeing a pattern of recruiters poaching from you, it’s likely because they know there is some level of unrest in your company and are betting that employees there are potentially motivated to make a change.

This experience also can come from working with recruiters from big volume contingency firms who are under a lot of pressure to fill searches. Often, their regional divisions are not talking to one another and poaching occurs by accident. Likewise, smaller recruiting firms can be so desperate to fill jobs and get paid that they blur the lines of ethics and steal people away.

Working with any recruiter is about building a partnership. A good recruiter is more interested in your follow-on business and will include an anti-poaching clause in its own contracts. If it isn’t there already, insist on it.

If you’re happy working with your recruiter, make sure it knows, to help reduce this temptation. If you are suffering from poaching at your company, then you likely have a larger systemic problem of employee engagement and retention. A solid recruiting firm with a strong reputation can help get you back on track. 

Myth 5: You can attract candidates with a cool brand

Good branding can attract and retain employees only up to a point and can play well with a younger workforce. However, emerging technologies have to compete for talent against well-established companies with strong recruiting budgets and resources.

Once companies reach a certain size, leveraging your brand to attract talent becomes more difficult, especially for executive and leadership positions. At this stage, your company’s business operations, technology and compensation package encourages them to sign on the dotted line. A quality recruiter will be your partner in developing these key elements to make your position sticky enough that your top picks seriously consider and ultimately choose your opportunity over another.

The bottom line is that the best talent in any industry expect to work with highly qualified and specialized recruiters, throughout their career. Just as an athlete or actor would not consider new opportunities without agent representation, A Players generally will not make a big move without a recruiter managing the deal. Although this happens occasionally, it is rare.

So even if key decision makers in your company have bought into some of these myths, belief in them could be limiting your company’s growth. There’s only so far a company can grow on its own. At some point, you need a partner with access to the talent you desire. Once you find a specialized recruiter who’s a strong match for your business, you’ll wonder how you got along on your own.

Paige Carratturo

July 11, 2015