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Navigating Careers and Managing Clean Energy Teams with Miranda Ballentine - Scaling Clean Ep. 16

on • 24 min. read

In Miranda Ballentine, we have a CEO with “.com,” “.org” and “.gov” experience. Most know her as the head of the Clean Energy Buyers Association (CEBA). But Miranda’s experience runs a gamut that includes stints as a sustainability director of Walmart, a consultant through David Gardner Associates, and as Air Force Assistant Secretary managing energy budgets for 170 military installations. She also was CEO of Toronto-based Constant Power that develops distributed energy projects.

You can listen to the full interview on Cleantech Leaders Roundtable's website or on  AnchorSpotifyApple Podcasts and iHeart Radio.

Episode 16: Navigating Careers and Managing Clean Energy Teams with Miranda Ballentine


Overview

 

Miranda Ballentine - Background, Mentors, Career

Mike Casey:

While most of our focus is on leaders of companies, there's a lot of management wisdom available from CEOs of clean economy organizations as we did in our interview with Abby Hopper. In Miranda Valentine, we have a CEO with both .com and .org experience and some .gov experience to boot. Most know her as the head of the Clean Energy Buyers Alliance, but Miranda's experience runs a gamut that includes stints as a sustainability director of Walmart, consulting through David Gardiner & Associates, and as Air Force Assistant Secretary, managing energy budgets for 170 military installations. She also was CEO of Toronto-based Constant Power which develops distributed energy projects. And I'm looking forward to learning how our career of wide-ranging experiences has shaped her approach to building and running clean economy teams. Miranda, welcome to the show.

Miranda Ballentine:

Thanks, Mike. It's a pleasure to be here, and I'm looking forward to it.

Mike Casey:

All right. Tell me about your background. If you were going to summarize your career to date, how would you do it?

Miranda Ballentine:

Yeah, I wish I could do it easily. It's been a wavy path, a snaky path, so to speak. And in fact my undergraduate work is actually in neuropsychology, so I spent my undergraduate years studying hippocampal memory and running rats through mazes. So how did I get from there to working on decarbonizing the power system? It's a very twisty and very fun story. But I would say that the common thread through all of it is that I have a real passion for bringing my efforts to workplaces that allow me to make the world a better place. And I've done that in a lot of different ways over the years, and really didn't get into clean energy until about 2001/2002. And we'll talk about the details of how that all happened, but I'll tell you, I use my undergraduate neuropsychology degree every day.

Mike Casey:

Who were your most important mentors, and what did you learn from them?

Miranda Ballentine:

Oh, goodness. Mike, when you asked me this question, I thought, how can I possibly narrow it down? I have had the opportunity to learn from every single person who has been my boss or a colleague throughout my career. So it is hard to narrow this down. I would say that starting with my first boss out of college when I was 20-22 years old and working in a retail clothing shop. We were opening a retail clothing store, and after we unpacked all the boxes there - I was fresh out of college in the dumpster, breaking down boxes and stamping on them with my feet. And the Regional Vice President of this clothing brand was there in the dumpster with me stamping on these boxes. And I thought, ‘Wow, this Vice President is breaking down boxes in the dumpster’.

I didn't know the word servant leadership at that time, but I was definitely struck by this person, I don't even recall his name. So could I call him a mentor? Maybe, maybe not. But very early in my career, I was influenced by servant leaders. Then fast forward I went from the sciences and in my undergrad world into working in business, and you mentioned one of my early clean energy jobs was working for a consulting firm here in the DC area called David Gardiner and Associates. And David was really an important mentor to me because he taught me how to write from a business frame. In the sciences, you write very differently than you write in the business world, and certainly in the consulting world.

So he helped me shift from that passive voice that the science community uses to an active voice. He would always say, ‘Write like the New York Times. Everything you need to say needs to go in the very first paragraph’. I mean, in the military, we call that bottom line up front. But David was a really influential person in my career. Later, when I think of one of the real unsung heroes of the renewable energy movement, and maybe Mike, someone that you should consider adding to your podcast in the future, is a woman named Kim Saylors-Laster. She was the Vice President of Energy at Walmart when I joined Walmart. And Walmart has a phenomenal culture of mentorship, and she became my mentor and had so many pearls of wisdom. As I got married during those years, became a stepmother during those years, became a mother during those years, she really gave me incredible pearls of wisdom and truly is one of the unsung heroes. 

I got to observe her navigating the complexities of the Fortune Number 1 company in the world which had just set this a hundred percent renewable energy goal. She single-handedly managed the first rooftop solar PPA, one of the first, if not the first utility-scale wind PPA, and watching the grace and professionalism with which she managed those influential conversations was really powerful for me as a growing leader. Likewise, I'll just share one story about a way that Kim really influenced my life and career path. I was at a moment where I had two career option paths in front of me, both at Walmart.

One was a promotion and one was not a promotion. I have always thought in my mind, you always take a promotion when a promotion's offered to you. But she framed it differently for me. She said, ‘You know, ask yourself three questions, presuming financially you can manage the non-promotion path equally as well. Um, but ask yourself three questions. One - which of the jobs allows me to make the greatest difference for my organization? So sort of, where do my superpowers really lend themselves best? Second question - if you have the good fortune to be able to ask this question, which job would allow me to have the most positive impact in the world? And then the third question is, which job is just going to be the most fun?’ Where am I going to wake up and just have the most fun? And it was an interesting, simple framework. But when I thought of this fork in the road, and that way it was very clear to me that I was not going to take the promotion and instead take a lateral move that allowed me to work more directly in the substance that I was interested in, which was decarbonizing energy and helping Walmart develop a strategy to achieve this a hundred percent audacious, a hundred percent renewable energy goal. And that framework has stuck with me over many, many years. And I've used it in many situations, including when I had an out-of-the-blue opportunity to go serve in the Pentagon as a political appointee, which was not a career path that I've had ever anticipated or sought.

Early Years of Leadership

Mike Casey:

I’ve invented Time Machine today, you and I go back in time when you were first someone's boss. I bring a video camera, I tape you, we then come back to the present, and I tape you being someone's boss. Now we split screen the two pieces of footage. What are the differences that you and I see?

Miranda Ballentine:

A lot more gray hair.

Mike Casey:

Hey, watch it there, young lady. You're hitting home. 

Miranda Ballentine:

I started managing people really, really early in my career, Mike. And honestly, for most of my career, I've managed people quite a bit more senior to me, that have more years of experience. So it's been a really interesting journey in both learning to manage people and learning to lead people, which are not necessarily the same thing. So, if I looked back to when I was 22 years old and a store manager in a small retail store, and managing a small staff, and I fast forward to now where I'm the CEO of a 50-60 person organization, or when I was the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force when my team was 60 people, but we oversaw 55,000 civil engineers across the government. Some things look really similar, and some things look quite a lot different.

I have always had a deep passion for helping people identify what they love and what they get out of work, whether that is as simple as what I need to get out of work as a paycheck, and really what I love is raising my kids, or mountain biking and helping people find the value in what their truth is. And work all the way through to help people identify what's the right level that they actually really love. I think there's a myth in today's world that you need to continually get promoted. I just talked about that a moment ago, when actually you can promote yourself right out of the work that you really love to do. 

Mike Casey:

That’s a really good point.

Miranda Ballentine:

So when I look across my career. And when I look back on my career, I would say that is an approach to leading people that has been consistent since the very early years, I just really love getting to know people genuinely, and helping them find meaning and value to their work, whether it's selling cellular phones or whether it's trying to solve the climate crisis. I'll tell you what's very different. I tend to be quite extroverted, Mike. And as an extrovert, I like to think aloud. I like to be creative in problem-solving. I like to do devil's advocate. Sometimes people say there's Miranda A and Miranda B, and that the two Mirandas can argue both sides of an issue. I've discovered as a leader, that the higher up I go in organizations, the less helpful that kind of thinking aloud can be.

As a leader, you still just think of yourself as you, for me I'm just me, right? But once I reached a certain level, I realized that when I was thinking out loud, people were either taking it as the direction, okay, we're going to go do this. Or if I was creatively problem-solving, sometimes it felt confusing to folks beneath me. And this really became very clear when I was in the Pentagon. And here's a funny story. We were visiting a base, and I wondered aloud why the doors were painted that color. And the next thing I had was a briefing on my calendar where people were explaining to me why the doors were painted that color. So that has only accelerated as a CEO leading people, the sphere within which one can do that creative banter thinking aloud becomes much, much smaller. And as a leader, I have had to become much more explicitly clear when a decision is made that we're moving out of versus we are still in brainstorming mode. So I would say some things very similar to my early years as a manager, just my passion for helping people grow and find a meeting in their lives and careers that link between lives and careers, and then some things have shifted in terms of how I manage and lead people.

Managing vs. Leading and Advice for Young CEOs

Mike Casey:

Give me a few sentences to distinguish between managing and leading. I like that you distinguish them. I'd like to hear your just two-three sentence difference definition of each.

Miranda Ballentine:

Yeah. This distinction between managing people and leading people is truly one that I'm still growing into, truth be told, in part because I am a leader who really as very passionate about the subject matter and the content. So I like to go deep into the content, which sometimes can feel to folks like managing in a way that is more hands-on, I would say, than what they would hope for from a CEO. So I see a leader as someone who is setting direction, someone who is building culture, driving inspiration and vision, driving the North Star, where managers are more in the details of the day-to-day work, that the staff are doing, looking at deadlines, tracking deadlines, holding people accountable to deadlines. And certainly, as CEBA has grown in the last year, for example, we have really built out our Vice President tier. And as that Vice President tier has built out at CEBA, I have had to hand more and more of the day-to-day management of the organization to the leadership team, to the Vice Presidents, and really focus more on leading the troops, finding the North star, linking the work to the big vision and the outcomes we're trying to achieve. So that's how I would describe the distinction, at least as I see it.

Mike Casey:

What advice would you have for young CEOs in their first CEO job, whether it's .org or .com, what advice do you have for them?

Miranda Ballentine:

So the one other thing I would add about leading an organization as a CEO, in addition to the culture, the vision, the strategy, there are two other important components. One is resourcing, and the second is problem-solving. The more senior you get in the organization, the bigger the problems that come to you. If they're small problems, people in the manager, director, and vice president tiers solve them.
So those would be the other two things that I would add to that distinction between managing and leading. Well, as it happens, Mike, I will be talking to a classroom of freshman and sophomore students tomorrow at my nephew's college in Asheville, North Carolina.

So I'm really looking forward to it. And now you've teed me up for that discussion.

Mike Casey:

Nice, nice.

Miranda Ballentine:

What I always like to tell young people who are thinking about entering a career in clean energy, a career in corporate sustainability, is first and foremost, I think one of the most important pieces of self-knowledge that you can glean early in your career is whether you are more of an entrepreneur or whether you are more of an intrapreneur. They have very different skill sets. And certainly, in college, there's a lot of celebration of entrepreneurship. You can join entrepreneur clubs, you can take classes on entrepreneurship. Everyone celebrates people having startups. There's very little discussion even in colleges today about being an intrapreneur. And the skillsets required to influence and persuade and move big systems, both types of leaders in the clean energy sustainability, climate change movement are absolutely critical.

We need intrapreneurs breaking glass, building new things, coming up with wild and crazy ideas. And it is those large existing institutions, whether it's massive companies like Walmart or massive government agencies like the Department of Defense or big universities, just the number of zeros behind the impact that they can have when you can move those big ships is really astronomical. So, I mentioned before about my mentor, Kim Saylors-Laster, and the influence and persuasion that it took when no other companies had done rooftop solar power purchase agreements when no other big companies had set supply chain Scope 3 greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, for her to navigate the system of lawyers, the general counsels, the contracting agents, the chief financial officer, it's a different skill set. And yet when you can move these big companies as an intrapreneur, it's really astounding the level of impact you can have.

So I love to tell young people to explore, that being a consultant is a great way to explore that because you can have clients that are big clients that you're helping to move big, big ships. You can have clients that are small clients that you're helping to break glass, but do some studying and try out different jobs early in your career. Second, I would say, what we've already talked about a little bit in this podcast, don't go up for up’s sake. Again, I think as a society we celebrate promotion, promotion, promotion. And the reality is each level, whether it's an analyst type of role or a manager level role, or a director or a vice president or a chief, the C-suite, each does very different things. As we said before, you might promote yourself right out of the things you love to do.

So really finding where you are waking up and just having a blast, if you love analytics and you love just digging into those details, there's no reason you need to be a vice president because you're not going to do a lot of analytics there. You're going to have people doing analytics for you. And then my last piece of advice, my third piece of advice that I would give to young folks, and I do give to young folks and to myself every day, is to do an amazing job at every job you have. I find that a lot of people always have their sights on what's next, and are talking about what do I need to do to get this promotion or that job. Whatever job you have, do an amazing job at it.

I just think if you really do a phenomenal job, you can learn from what you're doing now, and you will be seen and your talents will be tapped and you'll have the opportunity to grow. So do an amazing job at the job you're doing now.

Mike Casey:

Is there a subset of advice you would give to young women professionals? I have a two-thirds female firm. I sometimes think I've got limitations on my ability to mentor and to coach them, that I may not even be aware of. So whenever I have a female guest we're interviewing, I really like to bore in on this question that they can speak to from their own experience.

Miranda Ballentine:

Yeah, it's a great question and it's one I get a lot. I don't, Mike, if I was unusual in that I never really experienced my gender as a barrier or that it made me different in any way. This is funny, because it's not that I've only been in female-dominated industries. I mean, there were more people named Robert in my MBA class than there were women.

I'm not kidding. We had more Bobs and Robs than females. So the energy industry is definitely a male-dominated industry. Retail tends to be much healthier in the gender balance. But at the tops, it’s still very male-heavy, and certainly in the Pentagon, at the top, much more male-heavy, for me, in my career, my bigger challenge has typically been age, for whatever reason I've typically been quite a bit younger than my counterparts or the people I was managing. But in all cases what I suggest to people is to do an amazing job at every job. I will say that I have suffered from one of the attributes that I think many female leaders and female professionals suffer from, which is a sense that women are a little bit less likely to step into a job that they haven't done before.

They tend to raise their hands less frequently, less readily for promotions until they're a thousand percent sure they can do it. And of course, these are generalizations. This is not true for all men or for all women, but in general, men are a little bit more confident raising their hands, saying, ‘Well, I haven't done it yet, but I'm pretty sure I can’. And who knows what drives that, whether it's societal or whatever. But I would encourage women to be brave and step forward for opportunities that they're not quite sure they're ready for but think they can and trust their leaders and mentors who tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘You're ready. Come on up, let's go do the next thing. So that would be one that I would say I may have experienced.

But in terms of looking across my career, I have not felt some of the gender-based biases that you read about. So I'm not great on that one. I do like to mentor women to be very intentional about their educational choices. I'll give you one example. This is again in sort of the Sheryl Sandberg ‘Lean In’ kind of movement. One of the observations is that females tend to choose different majors in college, and they tend to choose majors that don't ultimately even have a path to CEO and C-suite level roles. So it's almost like they're creating a glass ceiling for themselves before they even get started. And I'll give you one example. This was many years ago, I was speaking at a business school conference for women in business at GW, the George Washington University, which was my alma mater.

And a young woman came up to me and she explained to me that she thought that she was facing some gender bias because she wasn't getting any calls back from internships that she was applying to. And she was really interested in being a sports business newscaster. And the George Washington University actually has a fantastic sports business program. So I said to her, ‘Oh, well, you know, tell me about your resume. What other internships have you done? What classes have you done? What papers have you written, that might make you an attractive candidate for this sports business internship you're interested in?’ And she said, ‘Well, actually I chose a major in sociology. Cause I thought that might be safer, and I haven't really taken any classes in sports business. But it's really what I'm passionate about. And I just don't know how to get that internship’. 

And I said, ‘Well, maybe you need to start by changing your major and it might not be a gender bias at all. It might be a bias towards students that are in the major and are studying the field that the internship is related to’. And that was a great example in my mind of a female making a choice that felt safe to her and was a sort of more socially acceptable career path in sociology for females than maybe sports business, which is more sort of socially acceptable for males. I don't know what happened to that young woman, but it was an instance where potentially she may have been thinking of something as a gender bias that the gender component may have been influencing in a very different way.

 

Hiring, Firing, and Team Building

Mike Casey:

Interesting. Hiring is always cited as one of the most challenging parts of leading organizations and companies. What have you learned about hiring?

Miranda Ballentine:

Oh, goodness. Hiring. This is such a phenomenal topic, especially right now when the labor market is still very tight. And there is a high demand for professionals in the clean energy and sustainability field. I take a pretty particular approach to hiring. So a number of things that I've learned along the way. First, I think it's very important to have a diverse panel of interviewers. Second, I think it's very important to consider a diverse range of thinking styles when asking questions of interviewees. And I'll go into each of these. Third, I think it's critical to see work samples in advance of hiring someone. And fourth, I think it's really important, this one's a little bit more obvious, to ensure that the candidates have ample opportunity to ask questions of you about the role. 

We all have implicit biases and we can do our best to see our implicit biases and try to mitigate them. And obviously, the thing about an unconscious bias is that it's unconscious. So one way to help mitigate that is to have a diverse panel of interviewers. So at CEBA we always have panels of interviewers from different levels of the organization, from different teams, from different gender identities, racial identities, and different educational backgrounds to try to at least diversify the biases that may be brought to bear and help one another question our assumptions and approach. It can feel maybe a little intimidating to the interviewee because they’re interviewed with the panel from day one. But from my perspective, it's really an important way of getting a broad perspective. And the reality is that everybody that you hire is going to work with people across the organization. And you would be surprised that there could be times when for the hiring manager, they're completely sold on someone, and you have two junior people who are like, red flag, red flag, red, right? So it's really good to know during the interview process. We talk it through, we say, tell us more. Tell us, what was said, what was the approach that was a red flag for you? Help us understand. 

Sometimes it's like, ‘Wow, that was really legitimate.’ And this person's going to be working with folks at all levels. And if two of the interview panel both felt the same, chances are that's going to ripple when this person's engaging across the team. And other times it may be, ‘Huh, that's really interesting. Let's go back and probe that a little bit more. Maybe that was something that somebody said out of nervousness. So that's how we approach it. We have a conversation as an interview panel. Ultimately there is a single hiring manager who makes the decision.

But getting input from a broader set of colleagues, I have found to be incredibly useful. It does require investment. You think about a four-person panel-interviewing three people and then debriefing. It's a significant investment of resources from the organization. But I also find that our young people and our junior folks really love it, because they also get to observe the more senior people doing the interviews and how the senior folks are asking questions. And it helps them grow as managers and leaders as they think about how they're hiring folks too.

Mike Casey:

That's really interesting. So, okay, conversed process, firing people. What advice do you have on firing people?

Miranda Ballentine:

Oh, goodness. I wish none of us ever had to fire people. It's my least favorite part of the job. So my advice is not to delay, but also be sure, be intentional, have compassion for the person who's being let go. It's a terrible thing to have happened to you. And be very thoughtful and intentional about communicating to the team. You're never going to get it right every time because when it comes to personnel issues, there are sensitive matters that really can't be shared and shouldn't be shared. And there's always going to be a level of ambiguity and uncertainty and anxiety that ripples through the organization when someone has to be let go. But I just wish none of us ever had to do that part of the job.

Finding Relaxation and Joy in Hobbies

Mike Casey:

It's not fun. Okay. This is my favorite question. And we've just started asking it like the last four or five interviews. What habits or practices or things perhaps have you found help Miranda Ballentine perform at her best as a CEO? I have heard answers that range from, ‘I go to the opera to, I get up at five o'clock in the morning to, I hike with my spouse on weekends to, I work on old cars, and anything in between’. I'm really interested in particulars as well as principles.

Miranda Ballentine:

I do not go to the opera unless my darling 25-year-old cousin is dancing in the opera, which she does in New York. So I will bear the opera to get to see my beautiful young cousin dance. 

Miranda Ballentine:

Okay. So orchids get a bad rap because actually, orchids do best when they get the right amount of sun and are mostly left alone. Most orchids can right on thrive with water every two weeks. If you forget a week, if you're traveling to COP in Egypt and you don't want to ask your husband to water 30 orchids, they actually thrive, most people overwater orchids. I have two hobbies that I really have enjoyed in the last 15 to 20 years. One is raising backyard chickens, and the other is I have a goldfish pond in my backyard. Both of them are incredibly peaceful to me. And both of them survive some level of neglect pretty well. You put an automatic door on the chicken coop and you have a big thing of food and a big thing of water.

And if you don't collect eggs for three days, that's okay, right? But it's incredibly rewarding to me, I love being a parent as well for a lot of those same reasons, but children don't do well with benign neglect, so that requires a lot more engagement. I would only recommend that if you are sure you've got the time and passion and thick skin for the children. Otherwise, get an orchid.

Mike Casey:

Okay.

Miranda Ballentine:

Children have to be watered more than every two weeks.

 

Fostering Organizational Culture and People Development

Mike Casey:

My son is now two inches taller than me and 17 years old, and he likes to comment on the growth of my bald spots. And it's just helping me develop a thick skin. So he's the most beloved punk that I know. But all right. Good. I’ve got two closing questions. One, when you look back on your career, have you observed that organizational success is more reliant on what you don't do or what you do do?

Miranda Ballentine:

What you do do.

Mike Casey:

Why?

Miranda Ballentine:

Probably not for the reason that you would think. I think from building your organizational strategy, it's as much about what you don't do. But success is so reliant on people and culture. And culture cannot be cultivated by not doing, if you're not intentionally cultivating culture and cultivating people, your culture will develop in ways that are not healthy or useful for the ability to achieve a mission.

Optimism of Addressing Climate Change

Mike Casey:

Are you a climate optimist or a climate pessimist, and why?

Miranda Ballentine:

Well, I wish that I was able to pull up the Mahatma Gandhi quote right now, because I'm not going to get it exactly right. But I will paraphrase Gandhi who says that he's an optimist that good will prevail, not necessarily because there's evidence that it will, but because it must. And that's how I feel about the climate crisis. We have all the tools to solve the climate crisis. There are other crises and other challenges in the world that really to me feel much more challenging. And there's not a clear answer, but we know how to solve the climate crisis. And I believe that humanity's survival instincts are going to kick in. And that we will solve it for ourselves and the current ecosystem of biodiversity. At moments when I get really blue, I take confidence in the fact that the earth is going to survive. And I believe the earth will thrive after every great extinction there's been a mass explosion of new life. And to me, it's a question of whether can we continue to make this beautiful planet hospitable for us as humans. And I think we can. I think if you're not an optimist, it's very hard to be in this industry.

Mike Casey:

Miranda Ballentine, thank you for taking your time and spending it with me. Thank you for your leadership lessons. Thank you for what you're doing at CEBA for this whole sector. If anything saw us through the monkeywrenching of the Trump years, it was clean energy buying. I think it's one of the engines that continue to drive our sector's growth. And I feel good about you tending to that garden because I think you're doing a good job. And I just want to thank you for it. So I'm grateful that you came to the show.

Miranda Ballentine:

Well, thank you, Mike. I really appreciate you having me and the opportunity to share whatever lessons I've had. Hopefully, they were useful to somebody out there. And I've really enjoyed your other guests and look forward to listening to your future guests. So thank you. 

Mike Casey:

Miranda Ballentine, thank you so much. Cleantechers, we’ll be back with another episode of Scaling Clean.