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Leadership in the Clean Energy Economy

Posted by at 9:00 AM, 06/05/2009

When we launched the 2009 Clean Tech Open, we stated our ambitious goal of creating 100,000 jobs in the clean tech sector. Where might these jobs be created? What skills do you need to be an attractive candidate? Can these skills be readily transferred from other industries? To answer some of these questions, we asked Karen Fullerton, managing partner at ILM Partners, a boutique executive search firm building leadership teams within high-growth companies and market leaders in the clean and renewable energy and investment services sectors.

Karen is an active volunteer with the Clean Tech Open: she works on our Innovation Partners Program and acts as a mentor for CTO entrepreneurs. You might have seen her at the recent Innovators' Matching Event. Karen can be reached at


Karen Fullerton, Pachera GroupLeadership in the Clean Energy Sector: Help Wanted

The clean energy sector is generating a lot of interest as it revs up to transform the sustainability of our energy practices and spark growth in the global economy. Convergence and rapid innovation in technology combined with increasing investment, public awareness, and a supportive federal policy and regulatory environment are giving the sector a lot of juice. 

As with any sector in a dynamic phase of expansion, however, clean energy is experiencing a shortage of suitably experienced leadership talent. The rising talent gulf poses a very real threat to the sector’s overall growth, creating a pressing need for pipelines of talent from non-traditional yet analogous industry sources. And, although I speak to scores of candidates daily who are interested in “getting into” clean energy or clean tech, most are uncertain about how or where to enter.

If you are interested in clean energy (which includes some clean tech), it’s important to understand that the sector is a broad category that includes many, highly differentiated subsectors. A vast majority of candidates don’t truly understand the scope or scale of the space and, as a result, have no idea where their skills and experience can play. I like to think that the clean energy sector’s growth and attractiveness are similar to that of the Internet space during the late 90’s. Everyone wanted to be in an online business then. But, while eBay, Amazon, Inktomi, Hotmail, Netscape, and Yahoo! all fell under the Internet umbrella, they were each in very different businesses. The same is true in clean energy or clean tech. 

Clean tech, in and of itself, doesn’t describe a given market or skill-set required. Rather, like the Internet, it is an umbrella term used to define a business sector or asset class that broadly encompasses high-growth, technologically innovative industries and their related vertical markets. The Clean Tech Open, an organization leading the way in accelerating new innovations toward commercialization, defines six broad categories of clean, environmentally sustainable technologies: Air, Water, Waste; Energy Efficiency; Green Building; Renewables; Smart Power; and Transportation. Which areas are you most interested in, and where might your skills best apply?

The challenges inherent in bringing the Internet online pale in comparison to clean energy’s uniquely complex operating environments that marry established and emerging technologies with science, heavy industry, information technology and government. To further complicate matters, new investment paradigms are required, including combinations of venture capital, debt financing, government grants and loan guarantees. This means that companies in this sector need a mix of fundamental and specialized skills.

Steve Westly, managing partner of the Westly Group, a Clean Tech investor and founding executive at eBay, believes in one essential element. “The bottom line is experience. There is no substitute for having an operating executive proven to be able to take an innovation and scale a company to profitability.” For executives hailing from analogous operational environments such as those in technology, manufacturing, and regulatory affairs, there is a great deal of opportunity.

Specialist skills are also in high demand. For example, while a traditional finance background is important, Ben Cook, CFO of Recurrent Energy, a distributed power company and leading provider of solar energy, believes specific backgrounds in structured finance are most relevant for his company. “If I want someone to finance large-scale solar systems in the U.S., I'd want expertise in big-ticket leasing or low-income housing. Thanks to the tax incentives provided, a lot of the value of solar systems is in tax benefits. So, you need someone who has structured other tax-driven investments like railcar leasing to CSX, or financed low-income housing units, which are both tax-driven financings.”

Further, with technology as the linchpin for many clean tech innovations, proven success in the fast-moving, entrepreneurial environments common in high tech is also highly relevant. Kate Gerwe, COO of Lucid Design Group, left an executive marketing role at Yahoo! to helm an early-stage company that sells real-time energy monitoring and display systems for commercial buildings. She finds her technology background invaluable in her current role. “I got involved in the space leading the Green Team at Yahoo! before making the transition here. Having the operational background is essential but so is having the passion. Just as in the Internet business, we’re working to affect a profound consumer behavior change, this time it’s around energy consumption. Lucid Design is as much a technology company as it is a green company.” 

Finally, for those looking seriously at the clean energy space, there is ample opportunity if you know how to position yourself. Do your homework and learn the sector, so you can understand how your skills and experience will translate. Establishing credibility by garnering industry knowledge and thinking about how and where your skills will be needed are good first steps in preparing yourself to move beyond “I want to get into clean tech” and landing a great role in this dynamic sector.


Karen Fullerton is a Managing Partner at ILM & Partners, a boutique executive search firm building leadership teams within high-growth companies and market leaders in the clean and renewable energy and investment services sectors. She can be reached at


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