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Clean economy leadership insights with Bob Fishman

on • 13 min. read

Episode 1: Clean economy leadership insights with Bob Fishman

We’re up with episode 2 of Scaling Clean, the podcast for clean economy CEOs, investors and the people who advise them. Our goal is to convert company leaders’ experience into useful insights for you in your work.  

This episode features our conversation with Robert E. Fishman, a veteran CEO of three energy companies with experience in renewables, fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Bob’s a thoughtful, humble and accomplished leader and mentor. He’s got a wealth of experience in several areas, but I suspect you’ll find most useful his insights into assembling and maintaining the right executive team.  


Listen to the newest episode on Apple, Spotify, Radio Public, Amazon Music, iHeart, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher.



Bob Fishman: I fly a small airplane around, and you can see changes in the environment. The ice pack at Glacier National Park is a fraction of what it used to be. Not that I doubted that there was environmental damage and climate change, but when you see something with your own eyes, it really brings it home. 

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, affirming that councils, and companies that are helping move the US economy onto a more sustainable footing. In my role, I get to meet the people who are succeeding at building funding or advising the most successful companies in your sectors. And with each show we bring usable insights from these leaders so you can apply them to the business of running your business. My guest today is Bob Fishman. Bob's been in leadership roles with several different energy companies, including Ausra, General Atomics, and the NAES Corporation. He's one of those humble, effective leaders you wanna work for, and he's been an invaluable source of advice for me over the years while he's been approached by one energy company after another that needed a shot of leadership in their arm. And that's the reason I'm excited to welcome Bob Fisherman to Scaling Clean. 

Mike Casey: What about your upbringing set you up for this path that you've been on? 

Bob Fishman: I started off as a naval officer. I joined the Navy when I was 17. My training at the academy and after taught me to lead in difficult situations with imperfect information and make the right decision for the mission and my crew. The template for the training was to eventually become captain of a ship. It prepared me well for dealing with stressful situations and making decisions. I remember one day at Ausra, things were bad and Deborah, our general counsel, asked me how I was so calm. I replied, "Nobody's shooting at us, let's keep it in perspective. We'll get through it, it's gonna be tough, but it's not like the stakes would be if somebody's shooting at you. 

Lessons and Tips on Managing Leadership Teams

Mike Casey: So going to leadership style, how has yours changed over the years? And I'm interested in knowing what are the three things that you know about leadership now that you wished you knew when you were first starting to manage others. 

Bob Fishman: My first real leadership position was right out of the academy. I was on a ship, I was chief engineer, and I was 21 with 43 people working for me. Half of them were older than me, and my direct reports were much closer to my father's age than mine. The first thing I learned & the hardest thing to assess was who talks a good game versus who plays a good game. I was too quick to trust people who seemed friendly and were good at "the gab". It took me a little time to figure it out. 

Bob Fishman: I learned to be slower to judge who I could trust and who I should be warier about. My dad, who was also in the Navy, and the academy prepared me on how to get along with the chiefs and the rest of the sailors as well as the other officers. But assessing and understanding who you can count on and who you can't was a hard lesson.

Mike Casey: So in a generic situation, when someone inherits a leadership team they're hired to manage, what lessons would you give to people coming into established leadership teams that they are now in charge of?

Bob Fishman: I agree that with regard to CEOs some people are better at various phases in a company's development than other phases. For example, Pete Car Wright, who founded Calpine, was a visionary but wasn't the right guy when we became a mature operating company. One size doesn't fit all. I've done a variety of them, some were easier for me to do.

A more mature company was in some respects easier than a startup, just because you've got to invent everything from scratch. I think getting the right team is key. You're only one person as the CEO, unless you have a team that you can trust and is gonna deliver the goods for you, you're gonna fail. When I got to Ausra, I was encouraged by the board investors to retain the existing team, but I waited too long to make changes. When I got to NAES, reflecting on that experience, I didn't waste any time, I changed out the whole senior management team within six months. Having the wrong people there is worse than having nobody there.

Identifying Strong Performers and Making Changes in Team Members

Mike Casey: So let me drill down on that though. You come in, you're the new CEO with an existing leadership team. How do you decide to keep or change out individual members of your leadership team?

Bob Fishman: I look for whether they are playing for the team or themselves.

Mike Casey: What behaviors or performance indicators tell you that?

Bob Fishman: I think it's their actions. If they don't give credit to their team or badmouth other people, it's obvious their agenda is out of line with the company's. At Ausra, I realized we had to make changes and direction, but I had learned from my experience before I joined the company. I had the board's understanding and alignment on the direction of the company before I even stepped in the door. At Ausra, I didn't do either of those things, I was enamored with the idea of running the company but was older and wiser at NAES.


Exploring the Transition to Renewables and Challenges Faced by Cleantech Companies

Mike Casey: Let me follow up on something. You said you came into the power sector and then moved into solar when I worked for you. What drew you to renewables?

Bob Fishman: I was doing renewables in the 1980s when I was doing engineering design and project management projects in California. We did solar projects and agricultural and municipal waste energy projects. We also did a lot of co-generation, which was considered a highly efficient way to use fossil fuel. Even in the mid-eighties, I was doing renewable projects because California was in the lead of encouraging them. 

Additionally, as a small airplane pilot, I saw environmental damage and air pollution firsthand. Seeing the changes in the environment, such as the decrease in the ice pack at Glacier National Park, brought the issue of climate change home for me. This experience made me well-primed to take on a project or a company in the renewable sector because I believed it was worth doing.

Mike Casey: Are there ways in which leading a clean economy company is different than leading companies in more mature sectors? And if so, what are they?

Bob Fishman: The basic job of running the company isn't different, but there are special challenges. The biggest one is customer acceptance of a new technology. At Ausra, even though we had a customer ready to be our lead customer, we didn't have a balance sheet to guarantee our product. Since we were selling to utilities or developers that needed bank financing, the lack of a balance sheet was a problem. We ended up selling the company to Areva to solve that problem. Another challenge is that investors in the clean tech sector are not patient and it's much more capital and time intensive than in the software space. Also, our customers, being utilities primarily are not known for taking technological risks and prefer things that have been done several times before.

Mike Casey: So, given what you said about those differences, how would you describe the role of the effective clean economy company CEO?

Bob Fishman: As a CEO, your job is to set the direction for the company, assemble the right team, define and evangelize the culture and values of the company, and get everyone in the company to buy into that. You also need to develop your people and get your board aligned with you. In terms of clean tech, you need to be able to take setbacks in stride and be prepared to be flexible and regroup. The special challenge is always doing it with very little resources in terms of people and money compared to a more mature company.

Mike Casey: If you were an advisor to clean economy investors looking for the right CEO for their portfolio companies, what types of backgrounds would you encourage them to favor?

Bob Fishman: Having a technical background for a technical company is important, obviously good communication skills are important, and a certain business development acumen is important because if you can't get those first few sales, you're not going anywhere.

Mike Casey: What advice would you have for younger Bob Fishmans who are running clean economy companies? 

Bob Fishman: Accept the fact that you own it, whatever happens, good or bad, and you own it, you just have to deal with it. You don't know it all, so listen to customers, your people, and your investors. Be prepared to take advice and understand it's not all about you, it's about the company. 

Tips, Insights, and Common Mistakes in Navigating the Hiring Process

Mike Casey: Hiring is always cited as one of the most challenging parts of leading companies. What have you learned about hiring?

Bob Fishman: Chemistry is important not only with you but with the rest of the team. Do due diligence on someone, get as many reference checks as you can, the best ones are the ones they don't put on the list. I had two experiences where I hired a guy who I had worked with 10 years earlier and had had a good experience, but 10 years later he wasn't the same guy. So, you gotta be careful, even if it's someone you know. I think if you're good at making hiring choices, you'll bet about 600. You not gonna bet a thousand, and statistically, the average hiring success is probably closer to 50%.

Mike Casey: Wow.

Bob Fishman: So, just accept that and if you do, you'll probably know in the first few months, don't be afraid to admit you made a mistake and act accordingly. But you're not gonna get it right all the time.

Mike Casey: What is the hardest interview question you ever asked a candidate?

Bob Fishman: The most insightful one was probably "Why should I hire you? Why you compared to anybody else?" Their answers are always revealing because it tells them a lot about themselves and their motivations.

Mike Casey: Go back a little bit in history. Who were your big mentors and what did you learn from them? 

Bob Fishman: I've had a lot of bosses. Some were good, some were terrible. You learn a little bit from every person that you work for about what you want to be or what you don't want to be. And even the bad ones, you might learn something useful about business. I had one fellow, brilliant guy, PhD, nuclear engineering from Virginia and an MBA from Wharton. And he had the EQ of a nut. If he wasn't screaming, he couldn't finish a sentence without using a four-letter word. And at the top of his lungs, he was intellectually brilliant and, and just this horrible guy. But he was a smart businessman, and I learned from him how to evaluate certain business aspects. I  knew I never wanted to behave that way or be that guy, but you learn something. 

But the one guy who stands out as my, really, the guy that I remember saying I was at Parsons Brinckerhoff, and they bought a little consulting company I had, and the CEO of Parsons Brinckerhoff at the time was a guy named Jim Lammie. Jim took a liking to me right away. He's about 20 years older than me, which is interesting because he's a West Point guy. 

But we hit it off, and he became my mentor for about 10 years. And I remember we had this leadership development program at Parsons Brinckerhoff, and they said what do you wanna be when you grow up? And I said I wanna be Jim Lammie.  He was a tremendous communicator. He was inspirational. He knew how to listen. And he believed in servant leadership before anybody had ever heard of the term. He was based in New York. I was based in San Francisco, this is a little anecdote about him. And so typically, whenever he was in San Francisco, which is about once a month, he would do his business with other people in the company and he and I would have dinner and then he would take the red eye back to New York because he didn't wanna waste the whole day flying. 

Even though he was in his sixties, he was still taking the red eye and putting in a full day the next day. And we would have an argument every time at the end of dinner because I'd say, Jim, I'll drive you to the airport because he didn't have a car. 

He'd take a cab, and he says, no, no, you live in the other direction. Here's a CEO who won't let one of his vice presidents take him to the airport because he doesn't want to have him spend an extra half an hour in the car, because he thinks that would be an imposition. Whereas, other CEOs, and I saw this, particularly with the Japanese, when I was at NAES, a Japanese-owned company. 

When one of their senior managers comes, they have people carry their bags for them, walk them to the car, and meet them at the airplane. With Jim, it was, I'm just a regular guy who happened to get lucky and he remembered his leadership training from West Point, and he was the leader, but he wasn't any better than anybody else, but you would do anything for him. He was so inspiring,  the most ethical person I ever met. 

Servant Leadership

Mike Casey: In closing, let me ask you to just unpack that term, servant leadership for people who haven't heard it before, don't know what it is. And I include myself in that. 

Bob Fishman: Here's an example. In the Navy, the Academy, we were taught that the officer eats after his crew eats, your primary job is to take care of your people and take care of the mission, and lead from the front. But your job,  it's not about you. It's about you taking care of people and you taking care of the company or the ship in the case of the Navy. And that's your job, it’is to serve the people, serve the mission, and enable success. 

Mike Casey: So ‘leaders eat last’ ethic to quote Simon Sinek. Is that right? 

Bob Fishman: That's just how I was taught.  I don't know whether Simon Sinek said it or not, but that's just how we were taught - the officers eat last. 

Mike Casey: And that sounds like that served you well throughout your career. 

Bob Fishman: Yeah, one of the things that if you wanna get loyalty from your people, make them believe, don't pretend, make them really believe because you do care about their wellbeing and care about their personal success and that you're really there for them. And if you believe that, you get a lot of loyalty. 

Mike Casey:  This has been wonderful. Thank you. It's so nice to hear your voice again. And what's really wonderful is to get your wisdom again. And I've benefited over the years from it, and it's really a pleasure to share what I benefited from with a much bigger circle of people. Thank you so much for your time. 

Bob Fishman: It's my pleasure, Mike.