Recruiting Top Talent for your Climate Tech Startup
The climate industry has recently seen an influx of high quality talent coming from tech and other diverse segments of the workforce. It’s a powerful time to be hiring, but how can you optimize your recruiting strategy to bring in value-aligned superstars at the right time and on the right terms?
We sat down with Nishant Mani for his insight into the most effective hiring practices for climate startups. Nishant is Chief Business Officer at Terra.do, a global platform for careers in climate.
Hire for what you (or someone on your team) is already doing
Typically, an early stage company shouldn’t recruit for a completely new role. Most often, you’ll be hiring to fulfill a job that has already existed within your company for some time and has been managed by current staff. Otherwise, you’re creating a position that may potentially disappear or shift dramatically as the business grows and changes. When you’re hiring, what you’re really doing is freeing up capacity for existing employees to hand off certain components of the business to someone who can specialize.
This may seem obvious, but when you’re hiring new talent to take over existing work, hire someone who can hit the ground running on Day 1. As a founder, you’re likely to be pretty low on time to train new hires– especially if your reason for hiring is to be able to come up for air, and this is where hiring experienced talent is key. Note, the candidates don’t need to have had the exact same role before, but they should demonstrate a set of skills and competencies from previous experiences that align well with your near-term objectives.
Climate ain’t so different from…everything
Next, recognize that hiring in climate is not all that different from any other early stage startup. While there are certainly exceptions where certain roles require deep technical expertise or lots of industry depth, the majority of “climate” roles simply require people with good functional experience in tech and business roles, high horsepower, teamworking capabilities, and passion for your mission. In the world of climate, that last one is easy to find– most jobseekers in communities like Terra.do, Work on Climate, or Climatebase are either serial environmentalists already or are explicitly looking to make a career transition to better the planet.
With that in mind, prioritize looking for passionate hires who have displayed performance in a startup-like environment in the past. This doesn’t have to mean a startup specifically– a small group within a big company or any other role where change is the default can indicate that a person is equipped with startup-type competencies. The best startup talent thrives in more open environments– the ability to jump between projects and be flexible is key. As such, it behooves founders to separate climate expertise from functional expertise and think hard about whether the former is a necessity for a regular business or tech role in your company. For example, as we discussed in this piece with Josh Felser, someone who has sold in your customer segment will still be a valuable hire, even if they haven’t worked in climate specifically.
In fact, on the flip side, a climate tech startup may find that great talent is counting themselves out of the running before even applying for your jobs because they instinctively feel “unqualified” (i.e. they’re thinking, “What do I know about the energy industry?”, not “This is just another a complex software optimization problem - sure, I know how to solve that.”). It is up to you (the founder/CEO) to demystify your company/solution and get talent over this hump.
Work, not interviews
The reality is that interviews are often insufficient to support a truly informed hiring decision. You want to know what it’s like to really work with the person– interviews are full of hypotheticals and biases, so try implementing some kind of take-home assignment. Depending on what it is, you should compensate the candidate accordingly.
There are a few ways you can approach this:
- The one-hour take home. Give potential hires an assignment to complete in one hour (or one page)– no more, no less. This will allow you to see their raw thought process, as this format doesn’t allow for much deep-diving or formatting (and if they spend longer than an hour, you’ll be able to tell). This also ensures equity in the interview process– a short brainstorm is plausible for most people, regardless of current employment status. Plus, having an assignment as a prerequisite to an interview will allow you to inquire further into their thought process during the actual conversation.
- The month-long trial. For more specific insight into someone’s skills and teamworking capabilities, you may choose to have them work on a project for a short period of time (the Lean Hire model) and pay them similarly to a consultant during that period. This method will allow you to make a more well-rounded decision about who to hire, but can exclude those who aren’t freelancers or who are unable to free up an entire month prior to hiring.
Of course, there are many options for project-based hiring in between these two extremes. Choose a method that fits best for the role you’re filling.
All that said, interviews are unavoidable. To escape biases and hypotheticals, here are a few methods with which to approach the interview:
- Maintain silos between interviewers. If there are multiple interviews being conducted for a candidate, have them completely separate from each other (discussing together only after all of them have been completed and documented) to ensure lack of groupthink.
- Keep it concrete. Focus on what the person has done, rather than what they would do. Anyone can draw up great plans for the future, but the best candidates will be able to provide tangible evidence of how they have succeeded in the past.
- Frame the environment, not just the person. Ask about what conditions would create success for the individual. When the conversation is framed as talking about one’s environment, rather than one’s self, they are more likely to approach openly. For example, if they talk about structure, you can interpret that to mean that they may need more direction to succeed. If they mention independence, they may succeed better in a situational leadership model. Use this information to level where they may fit into your company culture and management style.
Your candidate’s references can be incredibly valuable if approached correctly. You can’t usually make a hiring decision based on a reference check– no one is going to provide a reference that will speak negatively about them, AND there are some legal considerations. However, they can enable you to learn about a candidate in a powerful way.
The most valuable questions to ask a candidate’s references include:
- What is the ideal set of conditions to ensure this person’s success?
- What changes might we need to make to provide the most suitable environment for this person?
- What situations have you seen this person excel at?
Similarly to the interview, these questions frame the working environment, rather than the person. This way, the reference is more likely to provide honest insights and can let you know how to best support the candidate.
Combining information from tangible work, interviews, and references will give you the ability to make a more well-rounded decision about who is best suited to your startup environment.
Nishant Mani is currently Chief Business Officer at Terra.do, the global platform for climate work and talent with the mission to get 100 million people working in climate this decade. He is also a Partner at Climate Capital, the leading early-stage investing syndicate for climate startups. He has been CMO and executive leader at several successful startups including Yext and Dashlane and previously ran online advertising for Capital One's US card business. Outside of climate work, he is a husband, father, and retired DJ spinning the tropics in his head.