By Michael Shore, CEO, FLS Energy, Asheville, N.C.
My partners and I started a solar energy generation company in 2006. We design and install photovoltaic and solar hot water systems, primarily for large institutions like schools, hotels and military bases. But instead of passing the significant upfront costs on to the clients, we own the systems and sell the energy and hot water to them -- sort of like a utility company.
In 2007, we landed our first big contract and it required us to hire 10 installers -- more than doubling our workforce. Everyone we brought on was mission-critical. As such, we wanted our new hires' commitment to alternative energy to match our own. Little did we know that we were about to learn a lesson about true dedication to the cause -- one that has shaped our hiring practices ever since.
A 'hire' purpose
The Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, N.C., represented a tremendous opportunity for our little company. They hired us to install what would be the nation's largest solar hot water system -- a marquee project that could lead to big things. The execution would have to be flawless, so we put a lot of effort into hiring the right team.
We had no problem finding an enthusiastic pool of applicants. The cover letters poured in, full of excitement about the opportunity to break into an emerging industry.
We didn't want just any "Joe Builder" looking to cash in on the latest construction trend though. My partners and I knew that working in alternative energy requires a certain amount of resiliency. Our passion for the environment helps us fight through the less-than-glorious sides of what we do -- restrictions, red tape and long hours -- and we wanted that ethic to be a part of our company culture.
Our mission is to make solar energy mainstream, so we grilled candidates about their vision for how renewable energy will help meet America's energy needs. We got some impassioned answers and made our decisions accordingly.
On orientation day, the 10 applicants who had aced our quiz stood in a circle at the job site. We passed out packets of paperwork and found that we were one short. A quick head count revealed that we had a group of 11 instead of 10.
Walking the walk
The odd man out was a young guy in his 20s with a big red beard. "I'm sorry, who are you?" we asked him. "I'm Scott, I'm here to work on the Proximity Hotel," he replied.
"I think we told you that you didn't get the job, though."
"You don't understand," he said. "I really, really want to work.'
We had passed over Scott initially because he missed the application deadline. His qualifications were okay, but they hadn't inspired us to make an exception.
Showing up for work when you haven't been hired, however, is an audacious move. It takes a different level of dedication to do something that gutsy. He was going out on a limb in order to be a part of something he believed in. When we heard that he had driven over two hours to be there, we were floored.
My partners and I had a little pow-wow over to the side. We quickly came up with a unanimous verdict: Scott got the job. We were serious business people doing serious work -- we never envisioned hiring people this way.
It was a gamble, but it worked out. Scott was great from the start: hardworking, creative, and positive. He had a wellspring of passion and dedication that would get him through long days lugging around 140-pound solar panels on windy, cold roofs.
Hiring from the hip
Some of the other applicants who we had hired in the traditional way didn't fare so well. Even some of the ones who had all the right answers to our questions wavered. Experience and eloquence didn't factor in as much as guts and determination. Scott was one of only three installers we kept on.
We're a company of 70 now, and we still make our hiring decisions largely based on people's commitment to our mission. Construction and solar experience are great, but these days if we find the right person, we'll train them. And conversely, if someone's not working out, we've learned to nip the situation in the bud.
As we've learned, interview questions only get you so far. We've hired people based on a single conversation or a really good recommendation, and even a little bit of intuition.
The bottom line is that we need people at every level of the company with authentic passion. It helps managers manage, salespeople sell, and guys with big red beards do their best work on hotel rooftops whether it's sunny, raining, or snowing. Thanks to Scott, flexibility and creativity will always be a part of our hiring practices.
When Michael Shore isn't working to make solar energy mainstream, he's usually working on learning the life lessons that come along with parenting teenagers.
--As told to Joseph Conway