Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Meet Kimberly Harris: CEO of Puget Sound Energy

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Every three years, the World Gas Conference attracts some of the brightest minds in energy. This year is no different, and as a social media partner for the 2018 event, we are introducing you to some of the formidable women who will be speaking in Washington, D.C., at the end of June.

We’d to introduce you to Kimberly Harris, chair of the board of the American Gas Association and president and CEO of Puget Sound Energy, Washington state’s largest utility serving more than 1.5 million customers across 10 counties.

We caught up with her earlier this year to get a little more insight into her life and career — and how she got where she is today.

How did you get your start in energy?

KIMBERLY HARRIS: I got hooked on the energy industry in my first job out of law school. I was living in Abilene, Texas, at the time, working for the largest law firm in town. I served as outside counsel for the local electric company. That was it — I was captivated by the dedication of individuals in the field. They were first responders who were absolutely committed to customers. Layer on top of that the unique combination of engineering and physics that goes into our business, plus our role in providing and operating infrastructure that’s essential to every business, community and family. And the industry is constantly changing and adapting. I couldn’t ask for a more intellectually challenging and personally rewarding career.

What excites you about the industry right now?

KH: I’m really excited about the way utilities are thinking about energy consumers of the future and adapting our companies to meet their needs. Customers are our north star and the key to the current and future health of our industry. Specific to natural gas, we must ensure that we are building for the millions of Americans who want access to natural gas and its cost savings and environmental benefits. We are advancing new technologies and practices to create cleaner options for the customers we have today and the customers we’ll have in the future.

What are you looking forward to most at the World Gas Conference?

KH: Emissions are at their lowest levels in decades, and Americans enjoy affordable, reliable and safe energy. This is due largely to our domestic abundance of natural gas and an industry dedicated to delivering it in a way that earns the confidence of customers and policymakers. Other nations are looking to learn from our example. I am looking forward to those conversations, sharing our best practices with the world and learning from the natural gas companies in other nations.

How did your career progress to the level you’re at now?

KH: I’m a lifelong learner and curious about everything, and that has enabled me to step out of my comfort zone on many occasions. Some pivotal points are when I first left my law firm and went to Puget Sound Energy. Then I stopped practicing law for the company and took on a new role in regulatory and government affairs. I also took a really big leap and went into operations — that was completely out of my comfort zone! Each of these opportunities opened my eyes wider, not only to the industry but also in how to bring people together, to collaborate and to solve problems. That’s the essence of what I do now, both in my role as president and CEO of Puget Sound Energy and as chair of the American Gas Association (AGA).

Tell me a bit about your role at present. What does an average day look like, and what are some of your professional goals for 2018?

KH: As chair of the AGA, I am leading a forward-looking conversation about our companies and our industry. On a practical level, that means traveling across the country and leading sessions at AGA and industry conferences on every aspect of our businesses, from operations to personnel management. My goal is to inspire leaders at natural gas utilities to embrace the inevitable changes coming in our energy landscape and to have the tools to make the most of those opportunities.

Pink Petro is committed to creating a more inclusive energy industry. Why does inclusivity matter to you, and what do you think about the progress being made in energy?

KH: Inclusion is one of my areas of focus as AGA chair. By inclusion, I mean having men and women with a range of ideas, skills and perspectives who can lead us into the future.

More than a decade ago, AGA helped found the Center for Energy Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium of electric, natural gas and nuclear utilities and the associations that help utilities work together to develop workforce solutions. AGA also started a scholarship program in 2014 that partners with 27 colleges and technical schools to provide $1 million in funding for students focused on fields related to energy. Over a five-year period, more than 200 scholarships will be awarded.

Fast forward to 2018: Our efforts are having an impact, and utilities are taking a more holistic approach to their workforce planning. More work remains to be done, though, and we have to ensure that we’re being intentional about inclusion. It’s one thing to talk about it, but the real work comes in making it a reality. That’s why I take every opportunity I can to tell young people about the rewarding careers that can be found at an energy company, and why I’ve been involved with AGA’s Next Level Leadership Women’s Program.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

KH: My perspective is more about lessons learned. When I have opportunities like this to reflect, a pretty clear pattern emerges, with three key lessons:

  • Never stop stretching. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions, to continue to champion innovation, and to push yourself and the thought leadership of the organization.
  • Surround yourself with great people. Nothing is more rewarding than watching employees knock it out of the park.
  • Celebrate success. This one is hard for utility companies. We’re very focused on operational excellence — so much so that we sometimes forget that we need to stop, celebrate and have some fun together.
Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson is a champion of women in business — from innovators and entrepreneurs to executives and nonprofit leaders and founder of Brave New Word.

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