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 2 of that series, featuring Angie Simon, P.E., president, Western Allied Mechanical.
To see Part, 1, featuring Erin McConahey, principal, ARUP, click here.
LeBlanc: Let's start by learning a bit about you. Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? Where is your business located? Tell us something that not a lot of people know about you.
Simon: I am a native Californian, born in Ventura. I went to school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and continued moving north to the Bay Area after graduation. I have now lived in the Bay Area for 35 years. Western Allied Mechanical is located in Menlo Park, California, in the heart of the Silicon Valley. I started as a young project manager and advanced to president in 2008 and then to CEO in 2019.
LeBlanc: Are there any defining moments in your career that you can recall? How about specific instances that urged you to make pivotal decisions? Have you experienced something that fundamentally changed you? If yes, how did it transform the way you think in business?
Simon: This is my 34th year at Western Allied Mechanical, so there are many. But one that stands out is a specific instance when I was a young project manager about three years in at Western Allied. We had completed a tenant improvement project but needed a final inspection. My foreman was already onto his next project, so I agreed to meet the inspector on-site and walk with him to get the final approval. When the inspector showed up, he asked where the foreman was. I explained that he was unavailable and I was the project manager (PM) and would walk him through the project. At that point, he said he would not walk the site with a secretary and that we should reschedule when the foreman is free. That was a turning point for me. I did not back down. I told him I was quite capable as the PM, not a secretary, and that if he would not walk with me for the final, I would call the head of inspectors and explain how he delayed this tenant move in because he would not walk the project with the PM. He seemed shocked. Then, after a long pause, he said, “Fine. Give me the permit card and I will sign it, but you better not call my boss!”
That moment taught me that you sometimes have to stand up and fight for what you believe in. That you can stand up to bullies and they will back down and that you should never underestimate someone just because of their sex, race, ethnicity, or age. I carried these lessons into my leadership at Wester Allied Mechanical (WAM) and Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA.)
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?
Simon: I love this industry and especially the people in it. The people are what motivate me. Construction is essentially a team sport. For good projects to be successful, it takes many people and a good team. I love watching how, when supported properly, people grow and flourish. My success is directly related to how good of a team I have at WAM. Steve Jobs said “Great things in business are never done by one person; they are done by a team of people.” My team is awesome and motivates me to be the best I can be to support that team.
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? Was this something you had to learn, or were you always good with time management?
Simon: Self-preservation! In 2008, I was a mom of two pre-teen boys, a wife, and a brand new president of WAM when a recession hit. I was forced to manage everything. I totally believe in the saying, “if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more things you can do.” I learned to prioritize by deadlines and just never let up. But, I have found that you do need some down time to reenergize your internal battery.
LeBlanc: Successful people don’t reach their potential by accident. What is your secret to success? Is it something you do daily? What do you think is the biggest driver in your success?
Simon: Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. I try and learn something new every day. I feel that this learning has helped me become a better leader. You can learn from everyone. I have learned our summer interns, from other contractors and from our clients. A good humble leader realizes that they don’t know everything. I still have many things I can learn to improve myself and become a better leader.
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? What are some practices that you use to shift things around?
Simon: Stay calm. Everyone is looking to you as a leader for guidance and advice. They will see fear if you show it. We need to lead with calm and reassurance. I also feel that leaders need to show compassion. I care greatly for all our WAM family and I think they know this. The combination of compassion and calm has helped us get thru these tough times.
LeBlanc: What are the obstacles and challenges you face as a leader? Are there areas that you feel you are still working on?
Simon: I feel the biggest challenge being a leader in the construction industry is the constant pressure you face. Construction has very distinct deadlines with lots of stress to get the job done on time, safely, and within budget. So, how you handle this pressure is important. I try to stay calm, but there are times this is a challenge. I am always working on this to become better. If I stay calm, I build confidence in my team as well.
LeBlanc: What is the best leadership advice you have ever received?
Simon: My former boss said his goal was to surround himself with people who were smarter than him. I feel good that I have done that. Also, it’s not about me. Leadership is actually serving the organization, the company, and the vision. It is not about the person but about the results.
LeBlanc: In your opinion, what is the "secret sauce" that younger engineers or managers miss in leadership?
Simon: I would say three things:
- Perseverance – sticking to a goal is hard, quitting is easy;
- Commitment – learning from your mistakes rather than being discouraged by them; and
- Excellence – doing the best you can in every situation.
LeBlanc: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Simon: There may be two things that people do not know about me — I played NCAA softball for four years at Cal Poly and was team captain for three of the four years. Also, I spent my honeymoon playing baseball at the Giants Fantasy Camp – with my husband and 90 other guys.
LeBlanc: Crystal ball: What does your next level of success look like in your position as a leader?
Simon: I am currently wearing two hats. Besides being CEO of Western Allied Mechanical, I am also president of SMACNA. In that role, I hope to share some of my experiences with the 2,000 contractors that are part of the association. As the first women president in the 75 years of SMACNA — and any union mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) trade organization — I would like to take this opportunity to highlight how our industry needs to focus on inclusiveness and diversity. It is past due for things to change. I hope to make a difference by not being afraid to share on this subject.