Karine Leblanc, sales engineer with U.S. Air Conditioning Distributors, helps busy consulting engineers with HVAC design projects by supporting them with various system ideas and efficient equipment solutions.
Leblanc served on the ASHRAE society board of directors from 2014-2017 and became the first female Region X Director Regional Chair since 1959. She is now serving as the president-elect of the National Speaker Association’s Los Angeles Chapter. She has received the ASHRAE Distinguished Service award and was awarded an honorary medal as part of the 50th anniversary of the University of Quebec for her exceptional contribution to the university.
Not your typical engineer, Leblanc is passionate about helping engineers step up their leadership skills by learning how to build lasting relationships, communicate effectively, and become an influencer without relying on any title. Leblanc recently conducted a number of interviews with HVACR engineers. Here is Part 1 of that series, featuring Erin McConahey, principal, ARUP.
LeBlanc: Let's start by learning a bit about you. Tell me about yourself. Where are you from?
McConahey: I was born in Los Angeles.
LeBlanc: Where is your business located?
McConahey: We’re located in Los Angeles.
LeBlanc: Tell us something that not a lot of people know about you.
McConahey: I was the L.A. city-wide girls shotput champion in high school. I won with a throw of 42 feet, 3 and ¾ inches.
Leblanc: Now let's talk about your career for a bit. Are there any defining moments in your career that you can recall?
McConahey: The earliest one is when I inherited a couple of complicated projects when my boss left the firm and I tried to hold onto the work for my company and then do it well. This was a defining point to me because I had to step up to request help from others in the company outside my office but hold the ownership of the client relationship myself for the first time.
Leblanc: How about specific instances that urged you to make pivotal decisions?
McConahey: There have been times when I have volunteered for certain leadership roles because I felt I was uniquely qualified to make a difference. This typically was because I had a different of background or perspective that came from being somewhat of an “outsider.” One example of this was when we were trying to rejigger our graduate recruiting and induction program. As an international company, a lot of our senior hiring managers hadn’t gone through the U.S. university system. But I had relatively recently. I could help us change the way we looked for candidates and conducted interviews in order to reach a more diverse pool of candidates.
Leblanc: Have you experienced something that fundamentally changed you?
McConahey: I ended up getting appointed to two “side gig” leadership roles that ran in parallel for a five-year stint: One was to the trustee board of the employee-owned company where I work, and one was to be the diversity and inclusion advocate in its Americas region. To be successful in the first role, I had to learn a lot about governance and how a large international company works. For the second, I had to learn a lot about how to change the operating culture to maximize opportunity for all of our staff regardless of background. Early in these roles I was studying a lot, and then got to the point of learning facts about the “right” practices but then felt unprepared to address the ethical and moral implications of the actions that are taken at each scale. In order to dig into those questions more, I pursued an online master’s degree in ethical leadership that helped to give more structure for framing moral questions in a business context, and I believe that this combined with the other responsibilities truly fundamentally changed me for the better.
Leblanc: How did it transform the way you think in business?
McConahey: It made me think about how complex decision-making by leaders have the potential to affect the lives and livelihoods of many, many people. And that it is incumbent on the leader to consider the wider influences and impact of every decision by ensuring that diverse perspectives are advising them when they test the possible outcomes to assess to whom the relative benefits accrue.
Leblanc: We all know that talent alone is not enough to enable us to reach our full potential. To be a successful leader such as yourself, you have to bring more than just talent. Can you share what it was that motivated and pushed you to meet your potential?
McConahey: I like to feel like I’ve contributed to the world in some way, either through how I help other people to achieve their potential or how we all together build something real in the world that help folks to achieve their goals. I take pride in my work and I like to see things get built because it is a physical representation of effort that will last beyond my years. As I’ve gotten older, I have come to more strongly realize that “who I matter to” means something to me, not just in relationships with family and friends but also indirectly in what I leave as a legacy in the world. I have managed a chronic illness now for almost three decades, and so I am quite conscious that legacy is built every day in the interactions we have and not just some high and mighty goal in a far off future that is guaranteed to none. It has not been in explicit pursuit of my aspired potential that has brought me to where I am but rather the small actions each day, the slow growing into myself that reveals my increased capability to me and others.
Leblanc: There is a lot of talk in leadership about time management. With the understanding that we all get the same amount of hours per day, how do you manage this yourself?
McConahey: I’m pretty good at time management in terms of efficiently using my time, but I’m not good in terms of controlling my efforts to only work hours. I sometimes feel like leadership is a bit like wearing a suit of Velcro because not only do you have to deal with your problems, other people’s stuff gets stuck to you as well. So, the best laid plans sometimes have to get superceded for an urgent situation that has arisen, and it takes time to take care of the people affected and resolve the issues as best as possible so that we can all move on and get back to some semblance of normalcy. I unfortunately tend to then “catch up” in off hours when it’s quiet and folks are otherwise engaged and not calling, emailing, or IM’ing me. This is a bad habit.
Leblanc: Was this something you had to learn, or were you always good with time management?
McConahey: I was always pretty good with time management. My parents had us pretty well programmed for filling time with enrichment activities when my brother and I were young: piano lessons, Chinese language school, church, chores, and then sports as we got older. So time management and keeping track of all of the incremental things that had to get done was something I learned naturally almost as soon as I started in elementary school.
Leblanc: Successful people don’t reach their potential by accident. What is your secret to success?
McConahey: I think I’m blessed with curiosity that manifests itself as “serial obsession” — I tend to get into some topic of interest of research for a while and do a really deep dive until I feel like I understand enough to apply it, and then I move on to some other interest for a while. Over the years as a professional, I’ve tended to swing between topics explicitly related to my field and those that aren’t. The thing that is the secret to my success is that I have a mind that is tuned toward connectivity and synthesis, and I often find that even the odd investigations lead back to changing my insights on the world and thus on my work. I suppose upon reflection that this is not so surprising since it is my unconscious that is leading me toward these explorations to try to fill gaps in my wholeness of perception and insight. I also have been told that I listen well and ask good questions. I see this as an auxiliary form of information gathering requiring respect and full presence. If you can listen and synthesize competing ideas in real time, it helps to quickly resolve conflict with the best most current information shared the most important people of the moment (i.e. those in front of you), thereby empowering them to move on together more confident in a common goal.
Leblanc: Is that something you do daily?
McConahey: The research is longer term; the listening is available all the time for all of us.
Leblanc: What do you think is the biggest driver in your success?
McConahey: If we mean driver as motivator, then I’d have to say that my parents raised me to always try to “do my best,” and because things often came easier to me than to others, they also raised me to “be a good human being” who was conscious of and accountable to others when taking action. I think that these two things are probably the biggest driver of my success.
Leblanc: Leaders distinguish their success during tough times. What advice do you have to offer during a crisis, such as the current situation with COVID-19, where tough calls have to be made?
McConahey: I think that transparency (as much as a leader has latitude to use) is greatly appreciated. Clarity on the reasons why something has to happen and humility about the unknowns are key during these times. I also think it is important to get feedback before taking action, but when a decision is made, it’s the leader’s responsibility to absorb uncertainty and create clarity of direction for their colleagues. This is what calms people down so that they can continue with productive action with stabilized emotional states. This absorbing of uncertainty puts a great burden on leaders that is often not acknowledged, so they must cultivate practices of stress relief that are appropriate so that stuff doesn’t spill over to unintended victims. Personally, I take a walk every night to unwind from any tension and I tend to use certain kinds of music and centering in a similar way.
Leblanc: What are the obstacles and challenges you face as a leader?
McConahey: I continue to struggle as an introvert with some of the seller part of my job as a leader who needs to win work. I’m good with folks as soon as we get to know each other and can work on designing something together, but starting up new relationships is always a little bit hard.
Leblanc: Are there areas that you feel you are still working on?
McConahey: Plenty of things — there’s a lot about financial things that I’m still trying to figure out. I’ll never love it, so I accept having basic understanding and then have a team I trust who helps give me advice. I tend to believe the research that people are happier when they do what comes from their strengths. I think that my greatest hope as a leader is that we can help people figure out what their strengths are and then put them together to compensate for each other’s weaknesses in a way that each can appreciate the interdependence.
Leblanc: What is the best leadership advice you have gotten from someone?
McConahey: “They don’t care what you know until they know you care.”
Leblanc: In your opinion, what is the "secret sauce" that younger engineers or managers miss in leadership?
McConahey: Leaders inherently hold some kind of power that others do not. Many young people assume they want power without understanding the burdens and obligations of it. I often have said in the context of women’s leadership, but it applies to all leaders: Some people seek power to hold it for themselves, and some people seek power to give it away. When seeking a leadership position, each of us has to ask ourselves why we wish to have that position? I have turned down what would seem to be prime positions where I didn’t feel that my particular unique skill set or vision was necessary. Because I didn’t need another job or another title just to have one. I only take new roles where I am convinced that I have something to contribute that can really make a demonstrable difference. So, to me, it comes back to the three things I’ve mentioned before: When seeking a leadership position — in the role, who will you really matter to and how? Is it the context for you doing your best? Will it be the right situation for you to be a good human being? If you’ve got honest and balanced answers that can expand your positive influence, then say yes for sure, and you’ll figure out how to do it despite any current misgivings.
Leblanc: Look into your crystal ball to find the answer to this one: What does your next level of success look like in your position as a leader?
McConahey: Circumstances are such that I’m in a juggling mode at work, and in a “scanning” mode when reflecting on the world at hand. We are in a moment where climate change mitigation and adaptation in a socially equitable manner is an absolute necessity. With the time I have left in my career, I’m trying to figure out what it would look like to do my best to be a good human being who matters to generations of people I’ll never meet.