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Those who take their business or leadership role seriously know that life is much easier and business is much more successful with real talent in your team. The CEO’s of two of the most successful businesses in corporate history, Steve Jobs at Apple and Jack Welch at GE, were both very vocal about having A players on your team. Often, I’m asked to write or speak about acquiring top talent. That stands to reason, it’s what my company, Hyperion Executive Search does, help companies find the very best talent. But we also help clients to retain that top talent.

Finding and acquiring talent can be costly (although it should always be seen and treated as an investment not a cost), so it’s bizarre that some companies devote so much time to acquiring talent, then don’t know what to do with ‘it’, or how to manage ‘it’ and subsequently lose ‘it’. A bit like constantly filling a bucket with a hole in. Now that is an expensive business.

To maximise your investment in talented individuals your company needs to put in place a range of measures and processes, starting with on-boarding and induction. These are critical, but I wanted to speak more about retention of existing talent. At Hyperion we provide a range of services and consultancy aimed at helping businesses to retain and maximise the impact of talented employees, but here are some of the key considerations.  Like many of the most important practices in business they are not rocket science, but they are often overlooked.

I base my comments on nearly two decades of interviewing and consulting with talented candidates.  I’ve approached or been approached by many hundreds of candidates, maybe thousands. There are many factors why some people stay put, even when approached with a strong opportunity, and why some want to jump ship. I’ve found though that if one or more of these key three elements is missing, then you have a potential leaver.

You may or may not be surprised to hear that money is very seldom the key driver for talented people to want to leave. A factor yes, but rarely the most important one.

So, what are the three key factors that talented people want and need to be happy, and therefore be driven to stay in your business?

AUTONOMY

Good people do not want to be micro-managed or inhibited from being creative in their job. You will often see comments that most people leave a job directly because of their immediate boss. Of course, that can be true, but it can also be true that the ‘boss’ is just acting within or carrying out the company culture. It’s easy to blame one individual, but it’s the company culture that allows that manager to operate in that way. People expect to be managed, to be accountable, to have parameters and guidelines, but they also want the ability to get on with the job. They want to use the talent you employed them for, to be creative, to find solutions, in short, they want autonomy in their role to grow, achieve and prove their worth, to you and to themselves.

CHALLENGE

In the same vein good people want to be challenged. Not only do they want the autonomy to do their job, they want new challenges and situations to deal with and to learn from. Greater levels of responsibility or special projects in addition to their day to day activities. A greater challenge doesn’t just mean upping their targets or workload, it means new things to stretch their abilities and creativity and to demonstrate their value. It is accepted that this is usually whilst also maintaining performance in their current role, but ultimately leads to promotion or new opportunities in the business. In short they want an opportunity to grow and to shine.

RECOGNITION

Recognition and reward can and does come in many ways; salary and financial reward are an important part of the mix. Don’t though expect to retain your superstars forever if you just throw money at them. If that’s all that’s on offer, they can find that elsewhere easily enough, or they’ll choose to sacrifice some income for the autonomy and challenges we’ve discussed. We have helped many, many good candidates to move over the years where a decrease in salary has been happily accepted for a more rewarding and challenging environment. Rewards and recognition are a huge topic in themselves, but a whole raft of options are available and many if not most are free, or low cost to the business. How much does a thank you or pat on the back cost?

In short talented people stay where their talents are recognised, rewarded, nurtured, developed and encouraged. Not rocket science at all is it? But so very few companies have a culture or processes to make sure this happens, and that is why so many have a hole in their talent bucket.

The moment your very success is the very thing that threatens to kill your business comes as quite a surprise. For me the moment, in my last business, hit me like a slap in the face with a wet fish. Not something you forget!

I co-founded a renewable technology installation/EPC company back in 2007, pre-FIT and when most people laughed at you when you mentioned solar panels. The first two years were a struggle of course, but the team was small, we all grafted hard, we all knew everything that was going on in the business, and we all knew every customer.  We lived and breathed the business and saw more of each other than our wives and families. If you’ve founded or worked in a start-up that will no doubt be familiar. This went on a couple of years, and then, boom! The UK solar industry took off, and we were one of a very small number of companies established and accredited.

For us the growth catalyst was the introduction of ‘Feed in Tariff’s for solar and small wind. Whatever the catalyst for you, whether policy, technology or business model innovation, when you go from sweating every penny or cent in to and out of your business, to fast growth, it’s quite a journey.

All that shines isn’t always Gold!

We went from five employees to fifty in a very short space of time, and from a few hundred grand turnover to over £6million. We had to scale everything, from sales, to finance, from operations and project management to project delivery.  You don’t have time to think, everyone is working so hard in the business you don’t have time to work on the business, you try to, you set time aside to, but boy is it hard. Customers are knocking at your door with money to spend. You’ve got to juggle the money to fund the growth. After 2 years of hand to mouth living, personally and as a company, you think you’ve reached the promised land, and the future is golden.

Houston we have a problem! 

That wet fish moment is embedded into my memory. We’d just moved office, for the third time in 18 months, I was walking into the kitchen for a coffee, and there were four individuals in the kitchen, and I had no idea who they were or what they did. You might say no big deal, they didn’t report directly, or indirectly to me. As a company owner I should know their names and be able to great them personally, but so much was going on, no big deal right? Wrong.  That was the moment I knew the very culture, values and ethos of the business I had co-created, the ones that had made us so successful, the ones that made us stand out from the ever-increasing competition were hugely under threat. What made us great had been lost in a sea of frantic effort, we’d been so busy delivering projects, winning awards and feeling good about ourselves, we lost site of what was important. Hubris and busyness had hijacked our culture.  We worked hard to fix it, and to an extent we did. But this is what I learned…..

Your people, your values and your culture are your crown jewells

Now, I’d spent over 15 years in international headhunting before setting up that business, so I thought I knew about people. Indeed, I understood people very well, what motivated them to move company, what motivated them to stay, how to reward them, how to manage them, how to communicate with all personality types. All very useful, in fact invaluable. But I’d been working for international and corporate clients. Companies with big HR teams, induction programmes, management structures, organigrams and job descriptions.  None of that is bad of course, all very good, oh to have ‘Chief People Officer’ and team! But it certainly wasn’t start-up.

When you go into scale-up from start-up, the game changes, and you have to change, but one thing is constant, your people are everything. Who you recruit is only one vital ingredient of success, but how you recruit them, how you on-board them, and how you manage them is critical to the success of your business.

What the best start-ups I work with do to maintain culture

Challenging as it is, putting people AND culture first is critical to success. It can be a distraction, it can be frustrating when you’re juggling dozens of balls, it’s easy to pass the buck to another person in the founding team, or as is often the case, an office or admin manager. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve worked with great people in those roles, but it is unfair and a huge mistake to leave mission critical issues to them. If you are a founder or early stage employee you are ALL responsible for getting recruitment right.

It’s tempting of course, when you are tired, stressed and stretched to just get a ‘bum on a seat’. Can they walk, talk and do X activity, get them in, one less problem, right? No, a whole world of pain is waiting for those with that mentality. Whether you’ve just recruited the wrong person for your culture, a poor performer or a great candidate that you have on-boarded badly doesn’t much matter, if they leave, or you need to fire them half way into a project or process they are involved in. The buck you passed just came back with interest.

Top Tips

Each of course is worthy of it’s own post, but here is what the best companies do, from my experience.

  • The founders have a very clear set of values, and a very clear purpose for their business. These values, and this purpose drive everything they do especially recruitment.
  • They have a clear picture of the culture they want to build, how they want their staff, customers and suppliers to act and to be treated. And have this ALWAYS on their minds as a priority.
  • Put processes in place, before you need them. It’s very hard to change things once they are set, particularly in a scale-up situation when everything is chaotic.
  • Don’t recruit a role without a clear job description, and a clear idea of ‘what success looks like’ for each role. If you don’t know it, the employee can’t know it, and no one can judge if things are going well. You certainly can’t blame an employee for not being good, if you haven’t explained what ‘good’ looks like.
  • Don’t compromise on recruitment. A bad hire is a world of pain. A great candidate with a poor culture fit is a short term relief but very short-term, a bad apple spoils the barrel! Don’t just hire on cultural fit, as is often said, they have to be capable and have the skills too. Set up a process to ensure your recruiting is both logical and emotional. Head and heart.
  • Prepare for their start, have everything ready, small stuff, desk, phones, laptop/PC, business cards, whatever is needed for them to do their job, have ready, not ‘we’ll get it sorted soon.’
  • Induct them, have them meet and have coffee with the founders/key team members, have everyone ready to welcome the new employee, and to tell them what they do, why the company is great, and what the values, culture and purpose of the business is (a reiteration from the recruitment process). Have a set out timetable of tasks, training, learning, and of course ‘doing’, with follow-up at each stage. They need to have embedded at this early stage, what good looks like, what you expect of them and why, and how the company works, internally and externally.
  • Whether you think of it that way or not, and whether you like it or not, regardless if there was a recruitment fee or not, each employee is an investment. Treat them like you would treat any investment, because remember, investments can go up or down, some will make you money, some will cost you money. Employees are same, at any and all levels.

So yes you are busy, and yes you have a million things to do, all of them important, and yes, it would be great if someone takes the pain away (we can take the recruitment process pain away), but it is your responsibility and your time.  To me it makes much more sense to take a little more time and effort to do things right, than to cut corners and do it twice, or three times, or more.

Poor company culture kills companies. Poorly motivated staff kill companies. Poorly equipped or skilled staff can kill companies. High staff attrition can kill companies.

When you are scaling up, I would argue, your hiring of people is the most important thing, more important than even fundraising, because you’re going to burn and waste an awful lot of that money if your people aren’t the right people, doing the right things, at the right time, in the right way, and being treated right.

If you want to talk recruitment, talent acquisition and retention or scaling cleantech businesses, I’m very happy to do so.

David Hunt

As the clean energy transition grows, there is increasingly a skills and talent gap. This is an article I had published in Smart Cities World (link to the original below).

Throughout my time in the clean energy sector there has always been talk of scarcity of supply; first it was silicon, then in the boom times of solar development it was solar PV modules themselves. More recently we read of the potential scarcity of Lithium, a core ingredient for Lithium-ion and related batteries, driven by the significant growth in energy storage and EV Vehicles. Now we have scare stories about the scarcity of electricity at certain times of the day, if we all plug in our EV’s to charge. But what about the scarcity of talent?

Clearly as the clean energy transition grows, there is increasingly a skills and talent gap, one which is seldom talked about. Demand is very much outstripping supply. That might be a good thing, in the short term, for headhunters like us, but for the growth of the sector as a whole it is something that will significantly hinder the growth of companies and the smart energy and cities sector as a whole.

At utility scale, we have an ageing electricity generation and distribution network, managed by a hugely talented and experienced number of engineers. Significant numbers of which are at, or fast approaching retirement age. In a recent report, ‘Engineering 2017’*, it is suggested in the UK there is, conservatively, a 20,000-annual shortfall in graduates in engineering disciplines. That’s an annual shortfall. Not only are we not seeing enough graduates though, decades of hands-on practical experience is disappearing rapidly.

On top of this many parts of the smart energy sector are very nascent. Yes, batteries have been around for a very long time, but the energy storage sector, as we see and understand it today, is just a few years old. The same can be said of the e-mobility sector.

As for the digitisation of the energy supply, or the ‘internet of energy’, we’re making it up as we go along. There is no experienced talent pool. To exacerbate this problem, the demand for the new breed of coders, software architects and fully IT literate electrical engineers, doesn’t just come from the energy sector, or MaaS (Mobility as a service). These same individuals are in demand from Fintech, medical devices, and finance and banking, among others. It takes more than a dress down policy and bean bags to attract them.

The challenge must be met head on and quickly. The industry, in my opinion, must focus in three key areas.

Firstly, we need to encourage more children and those at school age into STEM subjects, then into engineering and computational subjects through higher education and into university. The industry needs to engage fully with the whole education system to make sure we get the raw talent we need.

Having a government that doesn’t politically interfere with education and curriculum would be a great start. In many of the most successful countries, such as Singapore and Finland, education is separated from the political sphere. We could do with the same for energy, but that’s another story. At least we need consistency and strong engagement between industry and educational establishments, and not just by the large corporations, but also SMEs and start-ups which are the backbone of the energy transformation.

Secondly, companies need to be far more prepared to look at transferable skills, and to be prepared to invest in training. This can be difficult, particularly for SME’s and start-ups. Time and resource are very tight, and the industry moves at break-neck speed. But if everyone is chasing the same very small talent pool, we’re creating a big problem, not least Premier League salaries and a transient workforce as an example.

My company, Hyperion Executive Search, have helped many companies, in the UK, US and Germany to find exceptional talent in allied industries, as well as directly from competitors. For example, it’s not a great leap for candidates from a solar background to adapt to the energy storage or e-mobility sectors.

People who have been involved in traditional lighting, HVAC, BMS or UPS companies, have the raw experience and capability to adapt to new digital and interconnected versions of the same. We always recruit as much for cultural fit, and the ‘soundness’ of the individual, as much as the skills and experiences they have. Companies need to show some patience at times, and recruit for the long term, not the potential instant fix.

Thirdly, as an industry, we really need to address diversity. In an already limited pool of talent, whether by accident or design, we limit our options by not recruiting or encouraging candidates from all genders, ethnicities and sections of society.

It’s shocking when we look at the lack of diversity in the people we place into new roles. Certainly not by our design, and not by design of our clients, but because of lack of alternatives.

I don’t believe in positive discrimination, the best person for the job should always be recruited, regardless of their age, gender, religion or sexual orientation. But I do believe we have a lot to do to encourage more diversity in the workforce. This starts with engaging with children at school, but we have to find a way to engage with all sections of society at all stages of their careers. Otherwise we not only limit the pool of talent, but we limit our potential as businesses and as an industry. Diversity is good for innovation, for learning and for growth.

These are exciting times in the smart energy world, there is so much potential, innovation and opportunity happening all around us. We can’t afford to be stifled as businesses or a sector by the lack of talent, or a lack of willingness to actively broaden our horizons in regard to our people.

David Hunt is managing partner of clean energy executive search specialists Hyperion Executive Search. He has been in the clean energy sector since 2007 and held posts on the Policy Board of the UK Renewable Energy Association (REA), chaired the Pan-European Energy Storage Alliance and sits on the Low Carbon Economy Board for the Liverpool City LEP. He also spent seven years as director of an award winning multi-technology renewable energy company, before setting up Hyperion in 2014.

*Engineering 2017 report www.engineeringuk.com/media/1355/enguk-report-2017.pdf

https://smartcitiesworld.net/opinions/never-mind-the-lithium-what-about-the-talent-asks-david-hunt

As part of my selection for #LinkedInTopVoices 2018, I was asked to write something about me that isn’t on my LinkedIn profile. This came to mind.

At the end of 2007, after 17 years in executive search, I co-founded, along with Mike Clarke, a renewable energy installation company. In May of 2008 we passed our MCS accreditation to install Solar PV and Small Wind (we later added heat pumps and solar thermal). Things were slow, pre Feed in Tariffs, but we worked for some committed small businesses and home-owners. One day in the office I received a call from someone saying he was representing Bear Grylls and had a site they wanted to power through renewables. Now, I don’t watch much TV, so I wrote on my pad ‘Bear Grills restaurant’ and took some notes.

Long and short, it wasn’t a restaurant, but survival TV specialist, ex SAS and Ultra Boy Scout Bear Grylls, who has a small island, just off of the North Wales coast. He was conjoining the light house keepers cottage with an outbuilding, and wanted to have some power beyond the Genset on site. We designed a system incorporating a 3kw wind turbine from Proven Energy, as they were, and a 2 kWp PV array, Sanyo/Panasonic panels, and an SMA inverter, complete with heat/power dumps (batteries weren’t really a thing at the time), and back-up provided with the Genset on site.

The first trip to site was via a very slow boat, tools and all, from a local harbour. Now, I can just about wire a plug, and I’ve never been one for hard physical work, but I took the opportunity to tag along as a labourer (we ended up with 50 staff, but had about 4 at the time).

The next trip we were collected by Bear himself, in a super fast Rib. I arrived at the island on that occasion very wet and sea-sick. Never before or since have I had such a firm handshake from a man introducing himself “Hi, I’m Bear”.

It’s fair to say it wasn’t just power that was being improved on site, though I’m not sure how much use the toilet in the picture got use before the renovations. Great view though, and fresh smelling!

I learned a few things from this project. Many actually. Firstly, tradespeople deserve huge respect for the hard work they do, sometimes in unforgiving weather or circumstances. On this occasion the weather was scorching blue skies with very little shelter. The two litres of water I’d brought didn’t last long, and I suffered terribly with dehydration. The next day felt like the biggest hang-over ever, despite not a drop of alcohol being drunk. Lesson two, drink lots of water.

The two biggest lessons though were to see in action just how renewable technologies can bring power to remote, off-grid places, and that that could be, and is extended to homes, factories and buildings, as we later did as a company. I saw decentralised energy in action for the first time. And loved it. It was inspiring.

The biggest lesson of all though was that I could dedicate my career to clean energy and clean technology, building companies, as I did then, and as I am doing now, both directly and vicariously with Hyperion Executive Search. Making a good living, and making a difference to the world in which we all live.

We all know the climate and pollution challenges we face in the world today. We all know at times the odds seem insurmountable, but I know I can look my children in the eyes and tell them I did what I could. I’ve installed many MW’s of renewables, and am now supporting some of the best cleantech businesses on the planet to grow and succeed. Best of all we’ve created a brilliant team of like minded individuals at Hyperion, and on a daily basis we meet, speak to and support others who share our beliefs, passions and hope for a better, cleaner future. All thanks, in some part, to Bear Grylls.