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Recruitment & Diversity in Cleantech with Catherine McLean

Season 3: Episode 5


Business, Clean Energy, Renewable

Listen now on Apple | Spotify | SimpleCast

Soluna CEO John Belizaire meets with Catherine McLean, who has spent the past decade-plus working in clean energy recruitment.

Catherine is the founder and CEO of Dylan Green, a strategic talent acquisition consultancy that specializes in placing top-tier talent and top-tier individuals within leading clean energy and tech companies.

Prior to founding Dylan Green, Catherine founded and led McLean Ross, a global energy and utility recruitment consultancy. She is passionate about diversity, inclusion, and equity in the clean energy and tech spaces, and one of Dylan Green’s core objectives is to help companies reach their DEI goals. Catherine also recently won the Cleanie Award for Champion in Diversity Equity & Inclusion. She joins John to talk about her professional journey, how the energy industry has evolved over the last decade, and what it means to hire diverse talent.

(This conversation was recorded in May 2022. This transcript has been edited and condensed for print.)

[1:46] So we always like to go into people’s backgrounds, how you got started, how you got from A to B, and so I’d like to start by digging into your journey to the clean energy industry. I always find it fascinating. How did you make your way into the space?

Catherine McLean: Yeah, it was a very interesting journey and it wasn’t something I necessarily thought I would be a part of. So I guess the way it started was I graduated college from George Mason and was working for DHL doing corporate sales. I really had this huge urge to live abroad and travel and see the world, so I wound up working for DHL in London, and wound up falling into recruitment which is a whole nother story, but fell into recruitment when I was in London and started working for Robert Half. Robert Half was great, I really enjoyed recruitment, I found it a little bit more nuanced than just doing straight B2B sales. Then the recession hit. I had been transferred to Dubai right when the recession hit and realized I wanted to do something that was a bit more mission-driven.

I felt like I had spent my 20s chasing money and trying to work my way up the corporate ladder and I just didn’t really feel fulfilled. And I think when the recession hit, it really dawned on me, what do I want to do next? I was 30, what was the next chapter going to look like? So I decided instead of doing an MBA because I was going to go back to school, I thought why don’t I do a Master’s in public health? So I did a Master’s in public health and nutrition at the University of Westminster and I think what I realized were a couple of things. I’ve always been a bad student and I was still a bad student, so I was consistent.

John Belizaire: Aren’t we all, but consistency is good.

Catherine McLean: Academics was not my calling. But I also realized quite quickly that I was very good at helping a lot of the students within the course get internships and network, and I was really good at getting the professors to tap into their network and wound up helping quite a lot of people in the cohort in the class. I got myself an internship at the UN in Rome, the Food and Agriculture Organization. And while I was at FAO, I realized that I really wanted to do this mission-driven work, but I’m very good at recruitment, so what if I could put the two together?

So I wound up moving back to London and I worked for a company called Acre Resources, and Acre’s focus was sustainability recruitment. And since I had a background in sales, they said, “Do you want to pay salespeople in clean energy?” Because the industry in the UK, as you may be aware, is deregulated, there’s a huge need for good salespeople. There are about 65 energy suppliers and about 65 million people, so it is very, very competitive. And I worked for Acre for a few months and was like, “Boy, this is a lot easier than placing accountants.” So I quit my job and I set up my own company called McLean Ross, and when I set up McLean Ross, I had just about a year and a half, two years of experience in recruitment.

[5:53] So you’ve been doing this for a good period now, over a decade. How has the industry changed since you got started?

Catherine McLean: When I set out on the journey, I was very much wanting to contribute to a low-carbon economy. I felt like I really had a double mission of clean energy and making money, and that’s great. As I got further on in my career and the company joined forces with another company, and then they wound up merging us, I started to feel like there wasn’t as much diversity as I would’ve liked. And I think that I was getting approached by a lot of women who were looking for me to be some sort of leader in the space, which I found uncomfortable. I didn’t really know how to come to terms with that.

When I moved back to the States a few years ago to help build JD Ross, the company that I had co-founded with JDR Energy, I got pregnant. And as a lot of women can attest to, you have a lot of time on your hands when you’re pregnant. You’re sitting around. You have the baby, the baby sleeps a lot. You’re actually, I wouldn’t go so far as to say bored, but you have more time to contemplate, shall we say.

I started to think to myself, “I really want to help women not have to go through as many of the struggles that I’ve gone through.” Now I do recognize as I’ve gotten older that there is a lot of privilege that has come with being a white woman and I fully appreciate that. But I also think everybody’s journey is different, and my journey, while it might not have been as hard as someone else’s, was still challenging, being a woman. So I decided I was going to set up Dylan Green and I was going to work in a more broad role and try to help women. Well, long story short, I moved down to DC to be closer to my Mom when I had my son, Dylan, who the company is named after, and I wound up meeting Jigar Shah.

John Belizaire: Did you meet him at Walmart or how’d you run into him?

Catherine McLean: Panera.

John Belizaire: I wasn’t too far off. So he’s in line and you’re like, “Who are you?”

Catherine McLean: Yeah. So I wasn’t familiar with Jigar, he’s obviously quite well-known here. But coming from the UK to the US, I had clean energy experience in Europe but I didn’t have anything here. So anyway, someone introduced me to him, I think it was Catherine Hamilton who introduced me to him. Anyway, we had a good chat and I said to him at the end of the conversation, “If you were me, what would you focus on? How would you build your business?”

And he said, “I would focus on a business that helped clean energy companies with diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

I had always been worried that it was quite niched to zero in on that. And I said, “Do you think there’s a market there?” And he was like, “Oh, there’s a market. There are people that really need help with this.”

So that was that. I came up with the idea of doing what’s called the 50% commitment where I was going to send 50% female candidates to all the roles that I worked on. That started to shift a little bit as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum and everything that was going on with George Floyd. I started to think to myself, “Is this too narrow? Should I really be focusing on 50% diverse candidates rather than just female candidates?” But anyway, I spent a couple of years focusing on that and was very vocal about my stats because I wanted people to know I wasn’t just saying it, I was actually doing it.

John Belizaire: I think it’s an interesting experience and finding that niche and finding that passion and just the timing of it. One would say you’re incredibly prescient in terms of how the world changed and how this has become such an important part of everyone’s lives. If you look at most press releases and investor presentations for large public companies, they all include ESG and diversity and inclusion in their conversations.

Catherine McLean: A lot of being an entrepreneur is timing, isn’t it? There were a couple of things that happened as I mentioned going from focusing on that double mission to a triple bottom line where you’re focusing on people, the planet, and profit. What was interesting about COVID… So I didn’t really know a lot of people in the US. So I started doing this podcast called the Green Light and I was interviewing women about being a woman in the industry and all the rest of it. And that really struck a chord with people because they were stuck at home and missed that interaction. And I think I had a more captive audience perhaps than I would have and I was able to reach a lot more people more quickly than if I had done what I did in the UK, which is just network on the road, conferences. I was able to have all these ears without leaving the house. That helped a lot too to get the message out of what I was trying to achieve

[13:09] What are some of the biggest and most common challenges you face in this space?

Catherine McLean: It’s been a lot of lip service. I felt like the past couple of years sometimes I would be hired to find this exact version of someone. For instance, we want somebody from solar with a utility-scale and this and this and this and this and this. Oh, and we would like them to be African American woman. And it’s like, okay, wonderful. However, because we are an industry that isn’t very diverse, where are these women? There’s not a big group of them. I think we’re at like 8%. So I would start to get really frustrated but I would find them and then I would place them and I’d be like, great diversity. Woohoo. But then I was like, well hold on a second, now one company is less diverse. And one company is more diverse. Have I contributed to anything?

And I also felt that when I couldn’t find these people that it would be like, “Oh great, now we can go hire our white guy friend because if Catherine can’t find him, they’re not out there obviously.” “And so now we can go hire Bill.” And I went, “Hold on just a second.”What I’ve started to get really good at is saying no a lot. That’s almost me interviewing my clients as much as them interviewing me saying “How serious are you about this? Diversifying your team. Tell me what you are doing when you find someone diverse to make sure they are included in your company. How are you going to retain them?” So pushing back a bit and saying, “Okay, I understand that this role you need to have exactly like for like, but what about this role? Could we look at somebody from outside the industry, perhaps?” Some diversion outside so we could start to move that needle. I’ve gotten better about being aware of the challenges and pushing back.

John Belizaire: It’s a good point you make though. I imagine the challenges with the DEI are not just filling roles that are designated to be diverse or there’s an interest from the company, but how do you increase more diverse people entering the industry overall? So you have a pipeline beyond just moving a person from one company to the other. And that’s a clever way to do it is to say, “Are you open to a person outside of the industry entering the industry for the first time?” As a way to increase the amount of diversity. That’s great.

[16:13] What industries do you tend to pull from out of curiosity?

Catherine McLean: It’s really funny. So again, it started off as being oil and gas. It’s just looking at oil and gas, how do we bring oil and gas people in? And then I started to have a lot of success with financial services candidates or I got a lot of SaaS roles. Okay, well what about SaaS people, computer software people in other industries?

And so it’s actually been a real range of industries that I’ve been pulling people from. And so what I call it is net diversity. So instead of talking about this 50% commitment every six months with a video from yours truly, I’m going to be talking about net diversity every six months. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to take these people that I’ve placed from other industries like placed or moved from a mortgage background, from a non-profit background, of course, oil and gas, computer software and I’m going to be interviewing them and I’m going to say to them, “How have you found your first few months in the clean energy industry? What challenges have you had? Has it been as hard as you thought it would be to pivot, et cetera, et cetera?” And then I’m also going to shout from the rooftops, the companies are hiring these women. Because they need to get an enormous amount of recognition because they’re putting in the time to train these women. And these women from a skills and attribute standpoint are 75% of the job. But they need that extra 25% of what’s a megawatt. But this isn’t rocket science. No offense to solar.

[18:18] Your website mentions “Formal and informal mentorship is critical to career advancement, yet only 37% of solar companies specifically offer mentorship opportunities according to a solar foundation study.” Talk more about that. You seem to be honing in on this mentorship challenge, especially for people who are coming out from outside the industry and entering the industry. Tell us more about that.

Catherine McLean: I think it’s so vital but what people need to understand is that mentorship can come from anywhere. As a woman, you don’t necessarily need to have another woman mentor you. Some of my greatest mentors were guys. Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned were from people younger than me that I managed. Companies that I’ve seen that are successful give a mentor or even a buddy on day one. And they usually want it to be someone completely from a different area of the business.

So they feel comfortable. That is where I’ve seen a lot of the success come from. I’ve also seen a lot of companies like Rise and Women in Cleantech and Sustainability and WEN. There’ve been some really awesome speed mentoring groups that they’ve had and just they’ve really embraced making sure that all women who are looking for someone to have that mentorship can get it. I will say on the flip side, I wouldn’t mind seeing more mentorship all around. Everyone can serve by having a mentor, not just a woman or a person of color. Having someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of and having someone advocate for you and help you be reflective is a positive thing regardless.

The other thing I’ll just mention quickly that I’ve seen really work in companies that’ve been able to retain diverse talent is groups. So making sure that I was just interviewing EDPR, they have really strong cohorts like the LGBTQ community, and EDPR get together, have happy hours, they all know each other, and support each other. Same thing with Asian Americans, and African Americans. Having those groups within the organization that you work for, I do think helps a lot with retention.

John Belizaire: I’ve heard you say in interviews that it’s a lot harder to hire than it is to retain. And it feels to me like retention becomes, unless you consciously focus on it, it could become a challenge and people don’t realize how easy it is to retain by just making people feel included.

Catherine McLean: Yeah, well I think depending on the role, it can be a lot harder to retain than hire. So what I mean by that is there are obviously some roles where there are candidates that are going to get pinged a lot more than others. And regardless if that role is the one you’re focusing on or not in this scenario, it doesn’t really matter because when you hire someone there’s a lot of costs as you know, John, of bringing that person on board. So I do think that the retention bit can sometimes be the easier bit. It costs more to get a new customer than it is to keep an existing one.

And then like I said, the things that I’ve seen work are having the mentorship programs, having the DEI groups within these companies, and having more junior staff involved in the recruitment process from day one. The other thing that I’ve seen that helps with retention is not fluffing the numbers on the bottom. And what I mean by that is there are a lot of companies that say “We’re diverse, we’re diverse, we’re diverse.” Because they have a bunch of analysts that are diverse. But once you get to VP, SVP, the diversity starts to get a little thin out.

So I always say to my candidates when they’re comparing a job with another job and I say to them, “Oh okay great, so they’re diverse.” “Yes, Catherine, they’re diverse, like 40% of the company is diverse.” And I’m like “That’s amazing. How diverse is their leadership team?”

That’s a little worrying. And I say diversity begets diversity because what happens is these companies call me when they are so not diverse that it’s become an emergency. Their customers are like, “What’s going on?” Their shareholders are like, “What’s going on?” And now we have a problem and now it’s going to be harder to hire diversity because these people aren’t going to feel included because right from the beginning they don’t feel included. So when you integrate diversity from the beginning, it’s so much easier because you don’t have to talk about it, you just go on the website and see it.

[24:17] Do you spend a lot of your time hiring in metro areas for some of your clients?

Catherine McLean: I do. I know that you guys have a lot of remote data centers. The areas I tend to recruit for are probably going to be more remote. The business has completely gone from 25% remote roles to 75% remote roles, without a doubt. Remote working is going nowhere. So companies may make some inroads to getting people back to doing fun team activities and events and maybe doing a day or two a week in the office. But the whole way we work is not going to change for COVID. It’s just not… I don’t see it happening at all. And especially when you’re talking about diversity. Women are so much more impacted by having to go into the office than men. It’s just a fact.

We are usually the carers, not just of kids, not everybody has kids, but of parents, of grandparents. We tend to be the carers, which makes it much harder to be in an office and have those constraints. As far as working on roles that are in more rural areas, I don’t have a lot of experience in that. I would say…

John Belizaire: Yeah, that’s one of our challenges as we build out facilities in these remote locations. How do we not only fill the roles but fill them in a diverse way?

Catherine McLean: I can imagine that that’s an enormous challenge. I think of the military, what do other institutions do when they’re trying to get people to go to areas that might not be the most desirable. Benefits. Housing supplements, and schooling, are some things that just jump to mind. But yeah, it’s definitely a challenge.

[26:45] I want to look ahead a little bit around DEI in women and energy. You talk a bit about intersectional diversity. What does that look like in practice at Dylan Green?

Catherine McLean: Yeah, thank you. That’s a really good question. So intersectionality is something I had only learned about a couple of years ago and I found it really, really fascinating. There’s a woman named Be who does a lot of work on this and I recruited her at NG, her name is Be Hugei. And she has talked a lot about this and she educated me on what it was.

What I try to do is really understand where intersectional candidates are coming from because a lot of times I will only have one thing in common with them. So there may be an African American woman and we can both understand that we’re a woman and we could talk about all things women, but I will never understand what it’s like to be an African American woman. What I really try and do is be respectful of the things that they want to share with me, the challenges that they have, what’s important to them, maybe experiences they’ve had in the past and how we can learn from them moving forward in this piece of hiring that we’re doing or recruiting that we’re doing.

The other thing that I’ve learned in this journey is that not everyone who is intersectional will necessarily share that with you. So for example, I feel really blessed that I have a lot of candidates that come to me who say, “I’m out and I’m proud and I’m just telling you that because I know that you can’t see that I am a gay man or a lesbian woman and I’m sharing that information with you so you know that because that’s important to me.” And that I feel really blessed to have because I’m not going to ask you that question. That’s something that you have to share with me if you feel comfortable. Always being aware of the nuances around that and the different challenges that people have when they have intersectional identities.

[29:14] For our listeners, could you define the term intersectionality?

Catherine McLean: Yeah, absolutely. Being part of two or more marginalized groups. So for example, if you’re an African American woman, that would be intersectional.

[29:57] So I’ve heard you say in another interview that it’s a lot harder to retain than it is to hire. Can you tell us more about that? Why do you think that’s the case?

Catherine McLean: So I definitely think hiring has its challenges. Lord knows that people only come to me when they have very challenging roles to fill. So I don’t really get any of the easy ones. But I will say that while hiring can be a more costly exercise monetarily wise and time-wise perhaps, retaining is I would say even more important. And what I mean by that is it’s like keeping a customer and retaining a customer versus acquiring a new customer. When you really focus on the retention piece, the rest looks out for itself. If people are happy there, they will tend to refer their friends to you. So you tend to get referrals, which helps again with the hiring process.

I always joke around saying ducks fly with ducks, everybody always makes fun of me when I say that, but it’s so true that good-quality candidates know other good-quality candidates.

And so if you can get those people singing your praises, you’re lucky company. The retention strategies I’ve seen that really work are mentorship programs and cohorts within the firm that are people that are similar to you. So companies that have LGBTQ groups or companies that have the Asian American groups so people feel like they’re really part of the culture and they have a similar voice that’s being heard within the workplace are some of the things I’ve seen that really work.

I will say the other things I’ve seen that really work are benefits. So making sure that you’re giving enough vacation, making sure that you’re allowing people to take that vacation. Making sure that there are things like healthcare for you and your family if needed and all kinds of other things. Not just making it a culture of going down to the pub and having a drink after work, but maybe there are people that like to have a book club, or maybe there are people that want their cell phone paid for. Everybody has different things that motivate them, that make them feel valued, so ask employees and constantly take a benchmark on what is important to them matters to retention.

When I first started recruiting, if you were a job hopper, people were not interested. But now it’s pretty common. People move a lot. I even have clients who say, “Oh I want somebody who’s had two or three jobs because I don’t want somebody to just have one experience, I want them to have had…” So the whole way that employee loyalty and retention has really shifted. If you can get someone like three to five years to stay at your firm, it’s pretty amazing in today’s market.

[35:05] What advice would you give to women who are trying to break into the energy sector?

Catherine McLean: I really think it’s about networking. There’s a lot of women who don’t know where they want to go within clean energy because the space has become so nuanced, so many different areas now, clean energy.

You need to join groups like Rise, like WCS and do lots of networking and interview women on their job in solar, their job and wind, their job in hydrogen, their job in EV. And then you’ll start to realize quite quickly, I like that, I don’t really like that, this job looks interesting. But you have to really spend the time to collect the data and do the due diligence. Almost like you’re writing a paper for school. And once you start to then hone in on that, then you can start applying for jobs.

The number one feedback I get from clients on why they don’t take a candidate forward is, “Oh, they seem like they want a job and they seem like they’re unhappy in their current job, but they don’t actually seem like they want to work here specifically.” And part of that is maybe have you done a good enough job of convincing them why they should work here? But the other part is they’re just trying to get a job. And companies more than ever want people that want to work for them.

You want them to like you for who you are. So I guess that would be my advice. Do your homework, do your research, and make sure that when you’re applying that you’re really doing research and homework on the company and you’re interested in that particular company, not just getting a job in the clean energy industry. But the flip side I’ll say is that if you do get a job in the clean energy industry, and it may not be the exact job you want, you need to take it with both hands. So Sheryl Sandberg has that quote that I love, which is “Somebody offers you a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat it is.”

And this is what I say to a lot of women and they’re like, “Oh I don’t know if it’s this job’s right or that job’s right.” I say, “Look, you want to get into clean energy?” “Correct.” “You’ve been trying for a year to get into clean energy.” “Yes.” “Take the job, get in, then spend six, 12 months, then reevaluate, reassess, don’t overthink it.”

[38:09] In your experience, you’ve worked with great companies that are good at attracting diverse talent. Maybe you’ve worked with companies that are not so good at it. What are the handful of factors that set one clean tech company apart from another in attracting diverse talent?

Catherine McLean: I would say that that’s the amount of time that they’re willing to put into the position. And so overwhelmingly the companies that I’ve had the most success with are the companies that spend the most time with me and give me the most information. I have companies that will spend an hour doing a PowerPoint presentation on the company, on the role. I have companies that will write pages of other companies I should look at.

Examples of candidates that they’re interested in, keywords I should search on, questions I should ask. And the companies that overwhelmingly give me the most information are the ones that were most successful. There is nothing that is a greater alarm to me than someone saying, “Diversity’s really important, I’m hiring for this role. Here’s the job spec.”

If you’re only going to spend 15 minutes as the hiring manager to talk to me, to prepare me for a role that you’re saying is completely critical to your business, then that’s how important it is to me. 15 minutes is important. And that I’m telling you, John, is the number one differentiator between companies that succeed in getting more diverse talent and companies who don’t, time. Putting the time in.

The thing I love about my clients is I work with a dozen companies. I could work with more companies, of course I could. But I really want to work with companies where I’m going to be their cheerleader. I’m super excited about them, I really enjoy working with them because that comes across when I’m speaking to candidates. This isn’t just a role I’m filling. This is important to me. This is a company I really like and this is a job that’s really cool. And that comes across when I’m speaking to people. This isn’t just a placement, it’s more than that.

[41:14] What’s your favorite recruitment or placement story?

Catherine McLean: One I did recently that I really loved because she probably reminded me a lot of myself. I placed this woman named Bree and she’s around 30 (I only use age as a barometer for what I always refer to as chapters).

She had an incredible career in her 20s in the mortgage industry, was really successful and COVID hit and she took some time out to reflect, again, very similar to me. She was like, “I really want to be in clean energy.” And she spent quite a bit of time researching it and et cetera. And so I had a role that I was working on and I challenged the client, Javelin Capital, I said, “Do we need somebody for clean energy? Can we look outside the industry?” It was like a marketing manager role. And they said, “Let’s look outside the industry.” And I was like, “Yes.” And so Bree applied for the role and they hit it off. I’ve never seen a candidate and a company hit it off like that immediately. And they were excited and she was excited and it just gave me all the warm fuzzies. I just was really, really thrilled to welcome her into the space. I think she’s just going to do an amazing job.