Episode 5: Navigating the Rough Waters of Cleantech
Abby Hopper is in her 5th year as the head of the Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S.’s main solar trade association widely known as “SEIA.” She’s SEIA’s third CEO, taking over the reins right when the avowedly anti-renewables Trump Administration took power in 2016.
Abby’s a lawyer by training, and a veteran of several top regulatory posts at the state and federal levels. That including leading the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the years that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in 2010.
In short, Abby’s developed an expertise in leading teams within complex organizations facing big, existential challenges. You could call her cleantech’s rafting guide to running Class 5 rapids. And talking with Abby is a bit of a two-fer: She’s a CEO, but she’s also sees a lot of other CEOs in action.
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- From Law Firm Attorney to Renewables CEO
- Journey to a Renewable Energy Career
- Leadership in a Trade Association vs. Private Company CEO
- Experience and Guidance in Hiring and Firing
- Leadership Attributes and Qualities
My goal is to be a fearless leader. I do not wanna operate from a place of fear. I do not wanna be, I am more than happy to compete at whatever level in whatever way, but competing from confidence rather than competing from fear.
And this is Scaling Clean, the podcast for clean economy CEOs, investors, and the people who advise them. I'm your host, Mike Casey. I run Tigercomm a firm that counsels companies that are helping move the US economy onto a more sustainable footing. In each show, we bring you usable insights on how to scale and run clean economy companies to the people who are succeeding at building, funding or advising the most successful firms in your sectors.
Abby Hopper, in our fifth year as the head of the Solar Energy Industries Association, is the US main solar trade association widely known by its acronym SEIA. Abby is SEIA's third CEO taking over the reins right when avowedly anti-renewables Trump administration took power. She's a lawyer by training and a veteran of several top regulatory posts at the state and federal levels. And that includes leading the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the years of foul of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. In short, Abby's developed expertise in leading teams within organizations that have complex structures and face big existential challenges. I'd like to think of her as a cleantech rafting guide to running class 5 rapids. With that, I'd like to welcome my friend Abby to the show. Welcome, Abby.
Thank you, Mike. It's so good to see you.
From Law Firm Attorney to Renewables CEO
How would you describe the arc of your career today?
My arc is a bit of a recalibration right in the middle, right? So I graduated from law school and had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a tax and corporate attorney, and so I went to a big law firm. I was a tax and corporate attorney, and then I started having children. And so that put kind of a wrench in my plans. So I left my big law firm and I went to a little law firm and I kept being a lawyer. And so I was doing the sort of, if you think about a graph, it was a line going up, like my experience was growing and my income was growing, and my standing in the firm was growing. And then I had the third kid and I thought, oh, lordy, this is a lot.
I don't think I can do three kids under the age of five and this kind of practicing law. And so I stepped off of the law firm track. And so I feel like I went like just a big old dive down, the stock market crash. And I thought that's where I was gonna live down in the depths for a while, but it feels like my career's just about to get started. Like I'm really ready to hit my stride. And so I see a couple more decades of upward growth for myself.
So you went from having a vision of being a high-powered law firm attorney, and those attorneys are typically not known for managing big teams of people. So then you take a break from intensity at least, and then you go back into a career which lands you actually running teams of people. What were the big lessons you carried forward?
Yeah, that's interesting. I think that first time I was anyone's boss, not in a professional setting, I was like the deputy head lifeguard at a pool, and I oversaw other lifeguards. I don't know that I took much lessons from that, other than being in charge of scheduling and making sure I got the best shifts, which is not a lesson I would take now. That was the lesson that I learned then, as I think about, you're exactly right, I was a lawyer and lawyers don't manage people, right? I managed half of an admin for the first 10 years of my career. That was my management experience. I spent three years out between law school, between college and law school, and I worked in a number of jobs in this sort of social service world.
I worked in a domestic violence shelter for a couple of years and a domestic violence sexual assault agency. And I did supervise people there, volunteers and younger, well, I was 23 and 24, but sort of more junior staff if there was such a thing. I think I was a really terrible manager. Like horrible. I had really strong opinions about it, what everyone should do, and how no one was doing it as I would do it. I found that's not a particularly effective way to lead teams, constant criticism. But as I think about I jumped in and started actually having teams to manage, what I learned really quickly was to recognize people's strengths kind of.
I think if I had to tell you what one of my superpowers is, I have learned that I am really good at identifying what people's strengths are and finding ways to let them shine.
How did you learn to do that? My daughter's 19 years old. She wants to own her own business at some point in the future. What advice do you have for people her age, particularly women her age, about learning to be someone's boss better and faster than you did?
That's good. I have a 19-year-old daughter also. I would tell our young women to be really clear about what they're very good at, and they're very good at some things, to be really clear about what they're not particularly good at, and to identify other people who can complement their skillset. I think they do it. I think it happens a lot kind of by accident, right? Like, I watched my daughter who's a freshman in college and she will do a project with someone. She's really good at research and writing, and she'll do a project with someone who's really good at putting together PowerPoint, right? They sort of intuitively know how to find people that match their skills. Those are some of the things I would say. I mean, I think there's a lot more, there's a lot of other things I would say to people that are thinking about how to be a CEO. But that's the first thing I would say.
Journey to a Renewable Energy Career
What drew you to renewables?
It was more a function of that's what the job was, honestly. And I needed a job. I am not a lifelong environmentalist, right? I didn't recycle until I was older. I was telling someone earlier, when I was young, my aunt stopped giving me presents and started making donations to environmental groups for my birthday. And I was not happy about it, right? Like, I've come to this, I'm now a true believer, but I came to it much later in life. So it was like the job led me to renewables. And then I realized, wait a minute, this is the future, right? This is, if I'm just thinking about my career and where I see growth and where I see opportunity, it's for me, it's clearly in renewables. I think that's where that world is going. But it also has the benefit of that I feel really strongly about it.
You've heard me say this, Mike because we first met in the offshore wind world. Like offshore wind is my first love. I am completely and have been for over a decade entranced by the, the power and the beauty of offshore wind. It is such a clear manifestation of sort of harnessing this incredible energy that our earth produces in a really sustainable way. So that was the first emotional reaction I had. And from that emotional reaction made me see the world in a different way and so I am a true believer for all the business reasons, but also for all the climate reasons and leaving our world in a better place for our children and our grandchildren. But it all happened when I first saw offshore wind.
It was love at first sight.
It was love at first sight, and then I gotta go visit it offshore. I hopped in a couple of helicopters and I was just so happy.
Leadership in a Trade Association vs. Private Company CEO
From what you've seen, are there leadership challenges that are unique to a trade association versus being a CEO of a company?
Yes, I think so. I think two things are pretty different. One, I now apologize, being a trade association executive and CEO, it's much more akin to being a lawyer in private practice, right? When you're a lawyer in private practice, you have a multitude of clients, all of whom are paying you, all of whom would like your attention right now, all of whom depending on their mood and, and personality, I feel like they need to be your number one priority at that moment. And I think traders, companies that are paying a trade association to advocate for them have a very similar mentality. I am your member, I pay you, and your job is to respond to me right now. And so helping myself manage that and helping my team manage that part of our relationship with our members is a really important leadership tool.
I also think the point of a trade association is to be the tip of the sphere, right? Like, I'm the one who needs to go out and take the arrows. That is my job. That is what I get paid for. That is what I will happily do. But I don't do it. Like we're not mercenaries. We don't do it just cause someone tells us to. And so navigating that complex conversation with member companies, like we still need to be credible, right? I still need to care about the reputation of my organization. I care about what I say today and how that will affect what I'm gonna say in six months, right? And whether those same doors are gonna be open to me, that are open to me today. Sometimes our member companies would prefer that I only think about today. What the message of the day is and how they would like it delivered today. I imagine that CEOs of private companies have a variety of different challenges they're managing, but I think those are two that seem really different.
When you are gonna take over the leadership team of another organization, another company sometime in the future, what lessons are you gonna take with you about selecting the right team?
One of the most challenging and most satisfying parts of leading a team is finding the right people and putting them in the right seats. And that's how I've learned. I build really amazing teams. I'm totally biased. I will tell you, I I definitely build very high-performing teams, right? Look at our metrics like objective metrics, high performing but also culturally - just a really good place to work. I give people space to show me who they are and show me what they can do and show me how they like to work and how they choose to communicate with me. When I go to another organization just pay really careful attention to who's doing what and how they're doing it. There's the difference between what it says on the paper and how things are actually get done. And that's important. It's really important for me to figure out early on like someone within the organization that I can trust. That's a lot of gut feeling.
Any metrics or any tracks in the snow that you have found are reliable indicators of who to trust?
I pay a lot of attention to the money. I believe that budget reflects policy and priorities. And so I always make it my business to understand the finances of whatever organization I'm involved with. And especially if I'm running it I pay a lot of attention to transparency. My experience has been that colleagues that share information - I'm gonna have a better working relationship with them, colleagues that keep information tight and only dole it out in small pieces when I ask a specific question and they give me the specific answer, those are probably colleagues that I'm not gonna have a great working relationship with. And that doesn't always come out on the first day, but it comes out pretty quickly. When I got to see five years ago, I met with every single person on the staff and asked a number of questions.
And one of the questions I asked was what makes you the most excited about your job? Right? What do you, what do you love about your job? And what do you wish were a little bit different? I did not anticipate the differentiation among the people by asking everyone the same questions. I followed those lines that people had given me and sort of explored and watched and paid attention. You know, people will tell you I hate being managed. I don't like it when my manager asks me questions about what I'm doing and I'm like, Hmm, not simple, odd, or, you know, I'm so excited about this new thing that catches my attention.
Experience and Guidance in Hiring and Firing
Hiring is always cited as one of the most challenging parts of leading companies or organizations. What have you learned about hiring?
It's been a really interesting growth area for me actually, because I am one of those ones that tries to walk the walk on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Not just say all the words. And so hiring is an opportunity for me and our organization to practice what we preach. And so I have learned a lot in the last few years about everything from how we describe what the role is, how we advertise what salary is, where we post things, the kind of people that are doing the screening, the initial conversations. When I first started being in a position to hire people, I talked a lot like everyone did that I knew, talked a lot about fit and whether people would fit with us. I don't know, it just made sense to me. And I've had my ideas challenged somewhat on whether fit is really an appropriate thing, right?
We usually feel like we fit in with people who are very similar to us. They have similar backgrounds, similar life experience, similar perspective. That's why they feel so comfortable. And so I've had to challenge myself to be willing to be a little uncomfortable or a lot uncomfortable and not look for fit in that same kind of way. I still hire people that I think will add to the culture, but not people that are just comfortable to me. That's been a real, I would say, the biggest change in hiring. I practice passing along the gift that was given to me. People took a chance on me. I will always hire the person that I think is the most curious, the most intellectually stimulated by the role.
And it could be any role. We're gonna hire an office administrator soon to sort of manage the office. It's that from the northeast policy position to whatever. I hired my chief lobbyist that didn't note anything about solar when I hired her, but I knew that she was the best person for the job because she knew how to lobby and she could learn about solar, right? And so that, I don't know that everyone in the solar industry hires that way. I think a lot more are gonna have to, if we're gonna grow at the rates we wanna grow. But I do, I always will hire who I think is the smartest person. And I can happily teach them solar.
What's the guidance sheet offer on firing people?
Do it. Do it. 100% do it. Earlier in my career I was HR council for my the agency. I was a lot of other things too, but that was one of my duties. And I was shocked by the reticence of organizations to hold people accountable. I don't share that reticence. My guidance is you deserve to have the team in place that you want. And you don't do anything illegal, but don't be afraid to make change.
Hardest interview question you were ever asked and the most valuable interview question you have ever asked a candidate.
So when I took that step off of the law firm career path, I became the Deputy General Counsel at the Maryland Public Service Commission. I didn't know anything about energy. I didn't even really know what the Maryland Public Service Commission did. It was great. That was the gift that I needed that I didn't know I needed. And it was awesome and I loved it. And then two years later, I got an email from a friend who happened to be the governor's general counsel saying Hey, would you be interested in interviewing to be the governor's energy advisor? And I honestly thought she had the wrong Abby Hopper. I was like, what me? Are you sure? I was like, really? I said, sure. So the hardest interview question I had was walking into the governor's office in Maryland, state capital, and his chief of staff whispered in my ear Hey, he really likes offshore wind. He's gonna ask you how to start an industry here in Maryland. That was the hardest question I’d ever had, because he did ask me and I don't even remember what I said, but whatever I said I got the job. And then we did go on to pass groundbreaking legislation, but then I was not ready for that question.
I literally asked every candidate I interviewed. So my organization's small enough that I interview every single person before we hire them here. I always ask them what job they think they're applying for, like, what do they understand it to be. And it's very telling both in terms of how well my team has articulated, what the actual job is, it's telling in terms of what they pick up and are interested in. And it's telling in terms of the level of enthusiasm that they talk about it. And it provides standardization, which as we all know is important if you're thinking about how you're equitable and, and how you're approaching hiring. I always ask people how they like to be managed. Always. And again there's no right or wrong answer. It just gives me more information about the ways in which they communicate or don't communicate or receive information or provide feedback. Those are two things I always wanna know about every candidate I interact with.
Leadership Attributes and Qualities
Last question. You and I recently talked about what it's like to be in our fifties. And given what you know now, do you think there's an ideal age to lead a large organization from a life wisdom standpoint?
No, as a side note, I am so comfortable with my age. I worked hard to get here. I worked my ass off to get here. I'm totally happy with where I am, and I'm super excited about what the next 50 years will bring. Like I said, my career's just about to get started. I don't know that there's an exact age. As I reflected on your question I think there are experiences that one should have before one is in a big leadership position, and one of them is to have failed, honestly. I have failed in various ways in my career. In situations like a particular matter or particular instance where there was certainly failure. I failed like interpersonally, and because of that, I have developed humility about my own abilities and capabilities, but also I keep coming back to the word grace.
Other people are gonna fail too. I think a good leader, a strong leader kind of recognizes that we're actually managing human beings and not workers or employees or whatever euphemism we wanna use. Like we're actually managing human beings. And so human beings are common with all their strengths and flaws. And being able to continue to motivate them and get the best out of them while they're being their human selves is really important. So for me, having my own failures and my own sense of humility and my own having received grace and being willing to give grace is important. But I also think a lot about my goal is to be a fearless leader. I do not wanna operate from a place of fear. I am more than happy to compete at whatever level in whatever way, but competing from confidence rather than competing from fear of making decision.
And that's why you asked about firing, you fire - fire fast. Like here at SEIA, we sometimes do stuff and sometimes it doesn't work out, and that's okay. I just as a human and as a leader, I don't wanna lead from a place of fear. And that is not an age-specific attribute, but I think it is one of those sort of life attributes that makes people good leaders. So yeah, I think it's more of an experience than an age. But that's what I look for. I have bosses and I imagine I'll have bosses of some variety for the rest of my life. And when I think about who I wanna work for, who will I follow as a leader? It's people with those characteristics.
Abby Hopper, this has been an absolute delight. I have just loved having you on the show. Thank you for joining us and sharing with us with such humility and grace, what you've learned in your several decades of career and being so impressive. So thanks for leading the industry. Thanks for being on the show. We just really appreciate it. We appreciate you and what you're doing.
Oh, Mike, it's such a pleasure and I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you. Thank you.