US smart grid talent: Are you looking in the right place?

The article below was first published in Smart Energy International.

Smart grids are disruptive by nature. The US energy industry is adapting to new technologies, business models, and roles for utilities and consumers borne out of the development of the smart grid market.

Driving this transformation are clean energy companies driven by tech-minded staff that view themselves as disruptive market makers.

Smart grid companies want to surround themselves with sales and marketing staff that understand ‘disruptive’ but is there enough smart grid talent to go around?

Apparently not, says Paige Carratturo, CEO of Seattle-based Enertech Search Partners.

To start with, smart grid companies do not want to hire candidates who have been successful in mature markets or with well-established brands to help them build revenue.

They are seeking those with experience selling and marketing disruptive technologies and services in markets where business models have not been clearly defined, such as the distributed energy markets.

Ms Carratturo said: “We are constantly fielding calls from clients who are all looking for precisely the same profile – an A candidate who is mid-career and has been successful in both large and small organisations, with verifiable ‘wins’ as part of their track-record.

“Unfortunately, over the past two years most people who fit this profile have been secured by emerging competitors. They are tied up with equity, or are wearing ‘golden handcuffs’ put on by large organizations willing to outbid the smaller players in order to lockdown mindshare in their market segment.”

Smart grid talent – hiring crunch

Carratturo says that these factors combined has resulted in a smart grid hiring crunch, which is forcing demand well past supply.

“This is increasing the costs of securing current industry ‘A Players’, often times, making them ‘out of reach’ for what emerging companies can afford to entice a candidate to take a risk on a growing company.”

In the US, clean energy companies are retaining staff by offering equity stakes or introducing ‘golden handcuff’ agreements

Smart grid companies often want to capture market share swiftly, Carratturo explains, which means that when looking to hire top sales, marketing and product professionals, “companies in the grid edge market typically seek talent with at least 15 years’ experience selling to the same individuals their company may be targeting.”

Another key criteria for US smart grid talent is closers of complex deals over US$1 million, who have worked successfully in both early stage and mature companies.

The problem with this candidate profile is that every smart grid and grid edge emerging growth company in the industry has the same set of requirements.

Plus there are approximately 80 ‘A Players’ across the US who would meet all of these criteria, and because of the long sales cycles of these utilities and large enterprise companies, many people currently selling in these markets are firmly (often happily) entrenched in their current positions.

Smart grid talent – looking beyond ‘A players’

Carratturo says that Opower was one of the first to recognise that hiring ‘A Players’ from within the industry was not sustainable or scaleable.

Opower pinpointed a set of characteristics that led to an employee successfully cultivating and closing its first-of-a-kind deals in this new market of consumer engagement, she explains.

Many of the people Opower hired were unlikely salespeople, sometimes without traditional software or industry experience at all. But they were well-educated and forward-thinking, with a passion for transforming how homeowners think about their energy use.

Additionally, these out-of-industry recruits didn’t come with preconceived notions about what was possible in terms of how the utility industry buys.

“In the end, the strategy led to one of the most successful exits in the smart grid industry to date,” says Carratturo.

From mature markets to clean energy startups

Carratturo says it’s time for more US smart energy players to look to adjacent, more mature industries where there are “hundreds, if not thousands of superstar revenue generators out there, who have experience selling complex, multi-million dollar deals to enterprise companies and utilities”.

“The strong correlation between selling grid edge, smart grid and other clean technologies to large customers and utilities and selling other products and services is certainly not lost on top candidates,” she says.

“They find themselves excited about parlaying their skills from other sectors into one that’s at the center of a global transformation in how we generate, distribute, and manage our energy resources. The grid edge is an appealing sandlot and these big kids want to play the bigger game.”

Carratturo concludes that capitalising on this adjacent market strategy is a two way street.

“It’s up to today’s clean tech companies to recognize this untapped hiring opportunity, and open up their hiring criteria to incorporate top candidates working outside the clean energy sector.

“In doing so, they possess the opportunity to elevate this grid edge, clean energy hiring crunch that the industry currently faces.”