An Expert in “Breadth of Development” Kimberlee Centera – Scaling Clean Ep. 8


“As a leader, you have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to accept that you don’t have all the answers. So I think humility is probably one of the number one attributes to have because you need to be willing to listen.



Kimberlee Centera As a leader, you have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to accept that you don’t have all the answers. So I think humility is probably one of the number one attributes to have because you need to be willing to listen.

Mike Casey This is Scaling Clean, the podcast for clean economy, CEOs, investors and the people who advise them. I’m your host, Mike Casey. My day job is running Tigercomm, a communications firm that counsels the companies that are helping move the U.S. economy on to a more sustainable footing. I get to meet the people who are succeeding at building funding or advising the most successful companies in your sectors. Each show we try to bring you usable insights from these leaders so you can apply them to the business of running your business. Hey, clean talkers. We designed this show to bring you wisdom from experienced company leaders, and this episode is not going to disappoint. What kind of people skills would you have if your firm had helped over 10,000 renewable energy projects get built across the U.S.? What if you had been in the room, so to speak, when hundreds of different communities decided to host or reject a proposed renewable energy farm? Most of us would see that experience as invaluable. And you would be right. My guest today is Kimberlee Centera, who by any measure can be described as what we call an O.C., an original, clean checker. Kimberlee has been involved in land use questions her entire professional life. And if you look up “breadth of development” experience in Wikipedia, I think her photo ought to be the visual. And that’s why we’re thrilled to have Kimberlee on scaling clean. Kimberlee, welcome.

Kimberlee Centera Thank you, Mike. I’m super excited to be here.

Mike Casey All right. Let me start with your background. How would you summarize your career as a company leader?

Kimberlee Centera I think I was very fortunate to have a background where I started working for a small, small wind developer in San Diego, one of the really one of the original in the renewables field back in the really early days when these projects were each turbine in a wind project was owned individually. And so having that opportunity to work for a small wind developer, we were wholly dependent upon financing. And as a team we were able to build a really great development team. We got really good at financing. That’s where all of our money came from. We also back in those days did our own EPC work, so we did our own construction and it was a great opportunity to really work grassroots. We did everything that you can think of and think of. An issue came up. We had to figure out a way to solve it. So our firm was acquired by AES Corporation. And so we went from being a, you know, a small one developer of 50 megawatt projects all the way up to 200, 500, you know, phased projects. And we were, you know, AES was a big IPP. So they had access to a lot of different resources. And so it was no longer how we were going to finance. We had a lot of different options, but that basis really helped prepare me to think about financings, how to get deals done, and to understand the importance of, you know, wise due diligence and preparation and how that was so key and making sure that these deals were set up the right way.

Mike Casey Tell me about the first time you were somebody’s, boss. What mistakes did you make and what were the big lessons you carried forward in the years that followed?

Kimberlee Centera You know, this is such a great question. And when I think back to my early days of working and I think some of the people that I work with that had such a huge an impression on me. And by far they there was a stream of support and empowerment and I was so fortunate to have these atmospheres where I was willing to step in. And I always you know, I always said, let me try this. And they were willing to let me do that. And and it just really built out my career. And I started working for Seawest Wind Power back in the early days. You know, shortly after I started, the attorney I was working with left to go start his own firm. And I thought, oh, gosh, what do I do now? And so I started I said, you know, let me let me just continue the work that we were doing. We were working on a big acquisition project. That empowerment. I think also the focus on strengths is really super important for me. So as I developed my business and my leadership, my mantra is to empower people. And when you look around my company, very few people, with just a few exceptions, actually had a long tenure in renewables like I do. Most of them were somebody who I brought in and I said, you know, let’s try this, let’s try that. So I think empowerment. And really focusing on someone’s strengths. We all know what our weaknesses are. And I think it’s really tough to to try to change your weaknesses, but we can all really develop our strengths. And that’s really the focus of of my leadership. I think those two things are key for me.

Mike Casey You know, it’s interesting you say that I was sharing with a colleague of mine yesterday that I think if you’re older than 25, it’s really hard to change yourself. You can do it, but you have to be really intentional and you’ve got to be persistent. And often you have to be programmatically supported too, an executive coach or a program or something. But it’s how we’re wired is pretty much how we’re wired. And you can you can work it a little bit differently, sometimes a lot differently, but it takes a lot to get there. So what you’re saying really resonates with me. So, Kimberlee, let me ask you this. How have you changed your leadership style over the years? And in particular, are there three things that you know about leadership that you wish you knew when you started first managing others?

Kimberlee Centera I think some of the things that are really key and when I get the opportunity to speak to women that are creating their careers and that’s passion of mine, I love to work with women and to help them think about things that I wasn’t thinking about. Number one, I would say build your network, which is hard to do when you’re young and you’re starting your career and maybe, you know, you have children or a lot of demands. But I didn’t realize the significance of having a really good network until later. And so, I really try to encourage people that are building their careers to create a network. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people. You know, most people and I found this to be true for myself, it was really how I started my business. I reached out to a really close attorney friend of mine, and I said, I have this idea, you know, can I run it by you? And I love to shout out Howard Sussman. He was with Stoel Rives and he was such a promoter of women. And so, he took the time to sit with me and really help me think about how I could create this this career and my business. So, I think we don’t often do that, and especially women, we don’t take the time to do that. And I think the other thing that I try to encourage people to remember is to ask. A lot of times we’re sitting in a position, we’re sitting in a role. We think that whoever we’re reporting to sees how great we are. We think that they recognize all the contributions that we’re making. But a lot of times whoever you’re reporting to is focusing on their own work path and their own, you know, whatever they have going on their own challenges. And they’re not necessarily always keyed into those that are working with them. So, I think it’s important to have those conversations to sit down and say, you know, this is really a vision I have for myself and my career and what do you think about that and get some feedback? And I think internally having internal support and mentors is important as well as external.

Mike Casey Chase that question with a follow up because we are now a majority female firm here at Tiger Comm. And I had Abby Hopper, the president of SEIA, on the show a few episodes ago. And she is also a she’s very intentional about growing the diversity and gender balance of her staff and within the industry. So let me ask you this question. If you compared the workplace for women when you started and how the work world is now for women, how far is it come in? How has it changed?

Kimberlee Centera It’s interesting because I was talking to someone about this the other day and I was sharing how it was when I first started working and some of the experiences that I had and some of them are almost comical now, but at the time they were so challenging. You know, I would love to say that it’s changed a lot. You know, when I first started working in the legal field, for instance, many years ago, that’s when women thought they had to be men to succeed. And so, all the women would come into the office with their suits and their little ties on because, you know, they wanted to look like the men because they thought that was what they had to do, you know, to try to succeed. I feel like I wish I could say it had changed a lot more, but in some respects, I’m encouraged, but in some respects I’m discouraged. And that is why I think that we need to change leadership. I had applied to be on a board, and I was told that I didn’t have the right qualifications. They said, you know, you really need to be on our committees before we can consider you for a board. And, you know, I thought, okay, I’ll get on your committees. And, you know, fair enough. But then there was also a part of me that thought about, you know, during that time period that we were talking about during that let’s call it seven or eight years, I thought, well, I was also a single woman supporting two sons and carpooling with one son an hour to school, back and forth twice, twice in the day and starting a business. And I was juggling all these different things. I didn’t have a wife at home, you know, and so I thought, you know, okay, but, you know, part of the reason why I wasn’t on your committees is because I was really busy building this company. And so, I think there’s a challenge for us as leaders, as we promote and as we move people forward in really looking at the people that are around you and what have they done. You know, like I said, a lot of the people that work for me were doing something else. And we gave them an opportunity to see what they can do. And most of these people are just knocking it out of the park. They are I’m stunned every day by what they achieve. So, I think there’s a challenge for us as leaders to some of the way that we measure what we consider to be success and achievements. I think some of that needs to change. I’m excited about our virtual environment that we’re in now. I think it creates some great opportunities, but along the same lines, I think it creates some challenges for us as leaders in order to, you know, again, not lose sight of what people are doing, their accomplishments and how we can respond to that. And I think as leaders, we need to spend more time thinking about that. We need to spend more time working on that because I don’t think we’re doing enough.

Mike Casey What drew you to renewables?

Kimberlee Centera I was interested in the challenge when I started in renewables. It was back in the very early nineties. And, you know, nobody really knew what renewables was. I didn’t know what renewables was. I think I was very excited. I remember talking to one of the engineers early on who’s still a friend of mine, and he said, I want to build something. And up until that point, I didn’t really understand what that was. But through the course of all my work and building projects and I think for me building something was building relationships and building connections and, you know, working with people in communities. I was so blessed and fortunate to be able to travel out to so many different communities, especially, you know, projects of a tendency, including one projects, especially to be, you know, constructed in very rural communities. And so, I was able to go out and spend time, you know, with the farmers and the ranchers walking the farm, walking the ranch, riding shotgun, you know, being the one opening and closing the fence out in Wyoming. And really get to understand, you know, what’s important to these people, the difference that these projects can make and what they can bring into the communities. So, I think it was really that that opportunity to create something that you can go back and look at these communities and you can see how they changed through the years and the benefits of the projects. And for me, that was always the best part of this business.

Mike Casey What did working in those communities teach you about building and running your team at TerraPro?

Kimberlee Centera You know, it’s that people are the same, you know, no matter where they are, no matter if you’re, you know, if you’re a mother out in Wyoming, if you’re a mother in California, if you’re a mother in New Mexico or Oklahoma or wherever it might be, if you’re a person, you know a lot of the same concerns came up children, legacy, how we manage the future. So that’s a commonality that we have across all of the U.S. And it’s something that was really important. And a lot of the conversations was, you know, the kids have moved on. And so how do we how do we create an environment where we can keep the legacy, the richness of the land in the family, but yet, you know, be able to do it in such ways that’s going to work for the younger generations. I think that legacy. Was really important to me, that creation of that legacy, that creation of the foundation of what that foundation looks like because you want it to stand the test of time. And I think that’s really what I brought into my business, the idea of the foundation, the legacy, because, you know, some things are going to last, most won’t. But I think that legacy and what that looks like was super important to me.

Mike Casey Like a lot of OCERS you’ve worked outside clean economy. And inside clean economy, from your vantage point, is leading a clean economy company different than leading companies in more mature, more traditional sectors? And if so, how so?

Kimberlee Centera I would say the volatility and the risk, if you’re not accustomed to it, then it can be a shock.

Mike Casey Amen, Amen.

Kimberlee Centera And because it’s so volatile, when you think about the tax credits up, you know, we have tax credits. We build up the staff with no tax credits. You know, reduce the staff and the risk. You know, it’s interesting because a lot of people think, oh, you’re one of the good guys. So, it should be easy. It’s easy for you, right? You know, no, it’s not easy. In fact, I think it’s harder for us. I’ve seen a lot of companies come and go through the years that I’ve been in renewables. And I like to ask when I when I talk to clients and when we’re first meeting, I always like to understand, you know, how do you develop your projects? What are some of the things that you think about? You know, how do you finance it helps me understand their risk perspective because it’s very important in this business because, you know, at the end of the day, like it is in an industry, any industry, you know, we’re driven by the money. So how are we going to make sure that when it comes to that, you know, the deal closing that we’re going to have all those boxes checked? But yeah, I think the volatility and the risk are some of the biggest things that are that are challenges.

Mike Casey Let’s talk about hiring. It’s always cited as one of the more challenging parts of leading companies. What have you learned about hiring and recruiting the talent that you need?

Kimberlee Centera About three years ago, we went through a really tough point in our business, and we found out that we had some staffing issues that that were permeating the company we didn’t know we didn’t know about. And so, one of the questions that that I asked myself. After we got through all that was how did I not know this? Yeah. Being in a smaller environment with a smaller company. How did I not know about this? And so, I set out on a mission to change that. And one of the ways that we did that was we created some values. And from that, we really got clear on who we are. And it’s been very interesting because now we’ve, so we’ve gone through this exercise of talking about our values all the time. You know, be a TerraPro. Be a good human. Meet me in the trenches. We are the solution. We’ve talked about this so much that it’s now part of our culture. It’s who we are. So, if someone in the company sees something that doesn’t align with our values, they now have a mechanism to come forward and say, you know, Kim, this you know, we have these values. This is you know; this is not in alignment with our values. You know, what do you think about that? It’s provided a very clear pathway for people to come forward because they know what we tolerate and what we don’t tolerate. What I’ve learned then with hiring is, you know, you can’t coach character. People have certain attributes, or they don’t. If I’m going to hire someone, there’s certain things that I feel like we can teach, we can train. And it’s interesting because we’ve had some new hires come in and they said, you know, and I asked I asked them, I said, you know, please have a call with everybody in the company, set up an introductory call because we’re all virtual, right? Set up an introductory call. Make sure they get a chance to meet you and talk about themselves and what they do and hear about you and all that. And all these people came back and said everyone talked about the values. Everyone told me how important values were. And our culture. That meant the message got through.

Mike Casey Yeah, that’s success right there.

Kimberlee Centera And it’s huge. And having that ability and clarity for people because it’s hard to get people to come forward. You would think they would come forward and complain. Or if they see something that doesn’t feel right, you would think that they would tell you, but they don’t always tell you. You know, and so. And you don’t want to lose people, right? You don’t want people just to leave and you find out, you know, on their last day. Yeah, well, I had this situation going on and I was really unhappy about it. You know, I was on a quest to find that out sooner. I’m not saying I found it to be something you have to work on all the time. I think as a leader, it’s probably one of the biggest challenges that I have is keeping that connection and keeping that culture where it’s at. So, it’s something that we protect. And so, I think that’s out the gate. For me, that’s the number one. That’s the number one thing that I’m looking for is somebody that those values are going to align and it’s going to resonate with them and it’s going to make sense.

Mike Casey So what’s the most valuable interview question you ask candidates today?

Kimberlee Centera You know, there’s a lot of good questions you can ask people. I think one of the ones that I found really interesting and I got various answers was when I asked people, when did you make a mistake and what did that look like? Tell me about that. And I it was interesting because I had a couple of folks that I interviewed that really gave me some really great, you know, heartfelt, really vulnerable responses. You know, gosh, I, you know, I was working on this big project. I was responsible for the costs. And, you know, I made a big error, and it came back, and we really had to fix it. And they really walked me through, you know, how they how they dealt with it. That to me was, you know, really important to us because we’re going to make mistakes, right? I mean, we’re going to learn probably more from our failures, and we are from our successes. But it’s important to understand how someone is going to respond to that because it’s an opportunity.

Mike Casey What’s the guidance you have for younger versions of you about firing people?

Kimberlee Centera Oh, wow. So, it’s tough, right? I think the most important thing is having clarity around someone’s contribution. There’s always a tension, I think. And this kind of goes back maybe the early days of business, and I think it’s still relevant today. I was talking to one of my colleagues and he said, you know, I have this choice of I’ve got this person who’s great, great technical skills, but nobody will work with them. And we were talking about how he needs to deal with that because he said on the one hand, they knock it out of the park, they do a great job on all the technical work. You know, the reports are always super, but in terms of working internally, you know, it’s a struggle. And we were talking about the difficulty and how you find the balance within a company. And I think that’s a big challenge. You know, there’s a lot of companies I heard a great talk by Simon Sinek about how you can identify the toxic person in the company. And I thought it was so perfect, but it’s, you know, it’s going in and saying, okay, who’s the jerk? Right? Who’s the big jerk? And then that’s how we know who the toxic person is. So, I think that’s one of the big challenges is that we’re always trying to find that balance. So, for my lunch, my younger self, I think the importance of making sure, you know, it’s about the people. You can have great technical skills, but you really need to be able to work with people. You’ve got to be able to cultivate those relationships. I can create the best report in the world, but if nobody will sit down with me and talk to me about it, and if I can’t sell it within the organization because no one will talk to me, it’s not going to be effective.

Mike Casey You quit your job tomorrow. You become a professor of business at UC San Diego. You’re going to deliver a lecture on the role of the effective CEO. How would you summarize the role to your students?

Kimberlee Centera Embrace humility. Because as a leader, you have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to. Except that, you know, you’re not always the smartest one in the room. You don’t have all the answers. And that’s probably one of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned in a lot of cases. Talk last. Because, you know, a lot of times if you’re in a leadership role and you talk first, you know, that’s the end of the conversation. Right? Mm hmm. So, I think humility is probably one of the number one attributes to have, because you need to be willing to listen. My mantra for this year has been ask more questions.

Mike Casey Beyond listening and speaking last. What is the most important advice you would give to younger CEOs of clean economy companies who are running companies now?

Kimberlee Centera Be courageous. You know, be willing to be courageous. When I started my business, I really had no idea the path that I was going down. I didn’t know. But I reached out to the right people, tried to get information, but I just took that next step. And I think you have to be courageous. You know, and I try to let people know that you’re not going to have all the answers. I mean, sometimes, you know, people are waiting for me. And I think, well, I don’t know. I don’t have the answer, but we’re going to work together to find it. So, I think being courageous, willing to take the steps and being okay with not having all the answers. Sometimes I was laughing because I was telling someone the other day, you know, one person with $1,000 in the bank account and, you know, we’ve created this multimillion-dollar business. And this is our 10th anniversary actually this year, Mike. So, we’re excited about that. But that first day, you know, who knew? But I think it’s been an awesome journey. I’ve really opened up to the value of relationships and people being willing to make mistakes. And being willing to take a look at it and say, okay, you know, we’re going to do better next time. And I think the importance of really surrounding yourself with a good team, even if it’s a small team, make sure you’ve got a really good team around you that you can really trust. I changed the leadership model of our company about two and a half years ago, going from being myself, being the primary, you know, decision maker to going to more of a team. So we make decisions on the basis of being a team, and it provides a really great open forum for a lot of engagement, a lot of great discussions. And I think the decisions and conclusions that we come to are much better than if it was just Kim making all the decisions and, you know, sending out all the decrees.

Mike Casey Is success as a CEO of a clean economy company. Is it more reliant on what you choose to do or what you choose not to do?

Kimberlee Centera I would say for us, it’s what we’ve chosen to do in a lot of respects. The advantage that we have of being a smaller firm is we. Can respond to the demands of the market and our clients. This is something we really pride ourselves on because, you know, a couple of years ago, we were working on closings. You know, everybody was closing the deal. And so, we just went from closing to closing. And our work has really shifted now to what I would call earlier stage sight control, pretty early-stage work. And so, what we’ve done is, you know, we have our core work that we do all the time, but we’ve also made it a practice to respond to the market and what our clients need.

Mike Casey Are you a clean economy optimist? And if you are, what trends are you seeing that gives you that optimism?

Kimberlee Centera I’m absolutely a clean economy optimist. I see. You know, I’m the visionary. So, I’m excited about a lot of things that are happening. I think this recent legislation, I was surprised, pleasantly surprised to see that I wasn’t sure that we were going to get there. I think overall, there’s a great receptivity to. The value that we bring, the diversity that we bring. I’m talking about energy now that renewables brings, and I’m really excited to be a part of that. When I go to the conferences and I hear about the innovation and the ideas, we when we were just at Clean Power, we were talking about hydrogen and a lot of different alternatives that were new for me. So, I’m really excited about the future. And I think the generation, the younger generation, the folks that are coming certainly into my company right now are really excited about making a difference. They’re excited about being part of this change that needs to happen. So, I’m absolutely an optimist. I’m excited about what we’re seeing for offshore. I think it’s going to be a big challenge, but I think we’re going to absolutely see offshore if they were able to develop it on the East Coast like they were. I think it’s going to be something that’s going to continue to happen. And I’m excited about just the other development that I see overall. And I think we’re talking about things. From a policy standpoint that have always kind of been the elephant in the room, you know, transmission and some of these things that have been challenges way two ways to move forward transmission so that obviously not being utility based we don’t have eminent domain and some of those other things that are really prohibitive. So, I think there’s a lot of great conversations and I’m, you know, seeing things moving forward that make me really excited for the future.

Mike Casey Well, Kimberlee, and this has been a an absolutely lovely conversation and I learned a lot, even though I know you, I you taught me some things. And I, I appreciate you being on the show. I appreciate you being a leader in this space. And I hope you keep driving positive results because community acceptance is one of the few places that costs for renewables are going up. And I think the sectors that we’re disrupting are not unaware of that. And I think they’re increasing our degree of difficulty in getting projects approved by communities. And I’m not certain that we are our sectors are appreciating that we’re having the bar raised on us. And without folks like you, I don’t think that problem gets addressed. So anyway, please accept my thanks for what you’re doing in the in the sector and for coming on the show. I just really appreciate it.

Kimberlee Centera Thank you, Mike. A lot of fun.

Mike Casey Our thanks to TerraPro Solutions CEO, Kimberlee Centera for her time today. This is Scaling Clean a production of tiger com. I’m Mike Casey. Thanks for joining us. You can subscribe to our show free anywhere you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, please leave us a rating and a review. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks for listening.

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