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Executive Leadership Needed as Renewable Energy Firms Tackle Challenging Times

In these challenging economic times, with seemingly thousands of unemployed or underemployed professionals available as candidates, you might think that renewable energy and clean tech leaders would be having a field day attracting and choosing leadership and professional candidates at will. But while many talented professionals from all walks of life are interested in landing a role in the clean tech industry, firms need to be sure that they select the right people for the job.

Attracting the right talent to an organization is considered half art, half science and it is accomplished with a lot of hard work and occasionally a bit of luck and good fortune. And one way to help firms get out there is through positive press announcements and employment branding activities.

For example, Raser Technologies, a company that develops renewable geothermal electric power plants and extended-range plug-in-hybrid vehicle solutions, was recently chosen as one of the fifty "most innovative companies" for 2009 in Fast Company's "Fast Company 50." Brent Cook, Raser's CEO acknowledges this news will go a long way to attract talent at all levels of their firm, which include contractors for the various locations throughout the U.S. where the company will be building new geothermal power plants. "We attract people who are interested in challenges that are meaningful, people who are interested in solving bigger problems. They are attracted by our firm's excitement, brand and by their ability to create solutions and have an opportunity to make their space and make a real difference."

Good Leadership Is Key for Attracting Venture Capital

With the economy in the state that it is, this may be time for renewable energy and clean tech organizations at all phases of development to be positioning themselves with strong leaders that can hunker down and manage their firms through the difficult economic challenges and be ready to grow and lead as the economy recovers. And it is especially important to have the right leadership if firms are trying to attract venture capital.

Ira Ehrenpresis, General Partner at venture capital firm Technology Partners, emphasized the importance of human capital when it comes to funding clean tech firms. "First and foremost we give money to people. We fund strong leaders, CEO's with whom we feel are capable of returning to our General Partners, incredible returns," he said.

Michael Ware, Managing Director of Good Energies, concurred. "We turn one dollar into eight dollars, to do that we must have both a strong business model and strong CEO executive leadership."

Strong executive leadership means a commitment to excellence and of course, the ability to sell an idea. Erik Straser, Partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures has spent a disproportionate amount of time recruiting CEO's to his client portfolio. "The one common trait that we look for in a CEO is their outgoingness and ability to sell to everyone and everywhere throughout the firm's steps toward commercialization and well beyond," he said.

While companies may be laying-off hundreds of employees and sending the U.S. and European countries to their highest unemployment level in decades, many clean tech firms see an opportunity in this economic climate to improve their leadership ranks and upgrade their bench of talent throughout the ranks of an organization. Whether renewable energy firms are simply faced with financial constraints and budgetary issues or working hard just to survive, being able to roll with the punches is key when it comes to finding the right executive leadership.

As Samantha Byrd, Director of Human Capital at ACORE states, "no one wants to be caught off guard when it is time to move forward. Organizational planning and talent acquisition are key strategic issues that every organization should continue to focus on, especially in a down economy. Everyone has a plan ‘A' and a plan ‘B' and they will wait and see what will work out in this economy."

Over the past few years, as many firms have ramped-up their technology and commercialization efforts, some have staged wars against competitors for executive leadership and professional talent to take them to great heights. And so perhaps the most challenging aspect of hiring during this economic slowdown is striking the delicate balance between aggressiveness and being prudent. On the one hand, firms may feel a sense of urgency because if they wait to hire until economic conditions improve, they'll be going after the same talent that every other firm that waited until conditions improved is going after. Therefore the odds of recruiting exceptional talent are greater when the economy is slow and all that talent is available. However, on the other hand, companies looking to add staff also have to be judicious in light of economic slower times. It comes down to a firm's time horizon and financial staying power.

Yet some renewable energy firms appear to be conducting business as usual. According to Chris Huntington, one of the founders of SkyFuel, a company that has continued to hire folks in this economy, "even though we are in the midst of an economic slowdown, there is continually high demand and a lot of renewable energy requirements needing to be implemented. We are not doing anything different than we would do during boom-times. We are putting our technology in place where it makes reliable performance at the lowest possible cost."

Most Firms Looking Long-term

Approaching talent acquisition with a longer-term view forces management to determine what talent is needed in the short, intermediate and longer-term. Many firms hold true to designing their organizational chart and then making the effort to acquire that talent. So that even while some renewable energy firms have been laying-off staff in one area, they are adding staff to other areas of their firms in order to support their organizational chart.

And in general, most renewable energy firms do plan to expand their teams in the long term according to Katharine Hart, online jobs sales manager at RenewableEnergyWorld.com. "Very recently, we've seen an uptick in job postings on our job board," she said.

"For example, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) just purchased an annual contract that includes unlimited job postings. They chose that package because they plan to hire a significant number of people in the next year," Hart continued.

Where will some of that experienced leadership and talent come from? For starters, there will be millions of U.S. dollars dedicated for workforce training. In the solar energy business, the DOE, regional vocational training centers and community colleges will help provide some of the training necessary. Just last week in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his new California Green Corps aimed at placing the state's 16- to 24-year olds into jobs in California's emerging green economy.

According to Rhone Resch, President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industry Association, "many more jobs will be created in the installation of solar energy than in manufacturing. Training is critical for an array of solar installers and tradesmen, which were abandoned by the housing industry. They will be put back to work and this absolutely includes professionals and executives."

In light of the stimulus package and the future flow of capital into the green markets some viewpoints vary. According to Reyad Fezzani, CEO of BP Global Wind and Solar, "Renewable energy is a business, not an adventure. No one wants to be a business that relies on state hand-outs." Fezzani noted that a whole different group of players are becoming interested in financing deals, including insurance companies and pension funds in addition to the more traditional bankers and venture capitalists.

Willy Osborn, Founding Partner of the Massachusetts Green Energy Fund assists in the formation of renewable energy companies within the Commonwealth and helps sponsor a Clean Energy Fellowship Program — an intensive, three-month educational "boot camp" transitioning entrepreneurs from other industries into the clean energy sector. Osborn said, "The executive leadership bench strength is not deep for renewable energy. We are taking CEO's from other industries and into an extensive executive education program helping executives from around the world to gain the knowledge and contacts required to transition into the clean energy sector."

When considering the vast growth potential in careers for clean technology, Richard Goffin, Partner at Booz Allen Hamilton offers, "Who would have guessed that while we were creating and refining the wireless telephone, a $100 million business in ring tones would be created? What and how many new and successful businesses will be spawned out of the clean tech/renewable energy business? The work force for the energy business today is not the work force for the business tomorrow, because there will be an entirely different business," he said.

For several years, leaders of the global renewable energy business have been working incredibly hard to refine their technologies, attract leadership talent, staff, money and fighting continuous battles to gain the respect and attention from politicians, financiers, consultants and mainstream society. Despite all the challenges the industry now faces, that moment appears to have finally come. According to Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives at Google, "The dog has finally caught the car! However, there's a big bus in front of the car and it's called climate change!"

Dawn E. Dzurilla is Founder and President of Gaia Human Capital Consultants, an Executive Search Consulting and talent acquisition firm solely dedicated to providing talent acquisition solutions to green tech, all-renewable energy, environmental and corporate sustainability organizations and non-profit clients. Dawn has twenty years of executive search consulting experience and approximately ten years of environmental & corporate sustainability experience, including Co-Founding an innovative Socially Responsible Investment Management (SRI) firm that integrates personal and societal values and environmental concerns with individual investment decisions. She is a resident of Naples, FL and New York City.

This is the seventh article in our series on Human Resource Management in Renewable Energy firms. To read other articles by Dawn, check out the links below.

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