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 4 of that series, featuring Mike Gallagher, P.E., Fellow, ASHRAE, and president of Western Allied Corp.
To see Part, 1, featuring Erin McConahey, principal, ARUP, click here.
To see Part 2, featuring Angie Simon, president, Western Allied Mechanical, click here.
To see Part 3, featuring Brittany Dianat, LEED AP, founder and principal of Infrastructure Factor Consulting Inc., 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.
Gallagher: I grew up in a tiny farm town south of Spokane. After getting an engineering degree at Washington State University, I spent 14 years with the Carrier organization. The last four of those years I served as the commercial manager for SoCal. Since then, I’ve spent 26 years as a contractor in Santa Fe Springs, California (squarely in the middle of the Los Angeles basin). One thing most people don’t know about me is that, like many children of the disco era, I met my wife-to-be at a college dance.
Leblanc: Now let's talk about your career for a bit. 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?
Gallagher: I had a pivotal moment after only about three months into my first assignment at Carrier. I tried to provide a product that a customer wanted with more than one special feature. It was within our capability, but not what we would usually do. I dutifully went through the full chain of command, getting approvals for the unusual features, and placed the order. Of course, when it arrived, it was wrong. I was beside myself and went in to my boss, Tom Kohl, to vent. He gave me almost a minute to vent (check a timepiece; that is a long time), then told me to sit down and shut up. He said, “Mike, you are upset because we screwed up the order, aren’t you?” I vented for about 15 seconds this time, when he again told me to sit down and shut up. There was a pause, and he finally said, “Mike, you are looking at this all wrong. You are upset because, despite your best efforts, we still screwed up this order. You should be down on your knees thanking God, because you are only 22 years old and you have had a chance to learn what might be the most important lesson in your professional life.” Another pause. Then he looked at me and said, “Mike, look at it this way. Of course, everyone is not fully competent. But, instead of being upset about that, you need to ask yourself: If everyone was competent, what would you be worth?”
That experience taught me more about how things really work than any classroom experience could have managed. And pretty much my whole career since then has focused on learning how to get the best results while working with a broad range of people. Because ultimately, it is all about the people.
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?
Gallagher: Probably not what you would expect to hear: gratitude and humility. I grew up a poor kid. My family aspired to be middle class. I worked from the time I was about 10, in my dad’s one-man body shop and with a paper route. I played by the rules and believed in the system. And the system worked for me. My role is to do the best that I can for all that I can. Clients, co-workers, suppliers … if I do my job right it can be win/win for everybody who approaches the situation with integrity. Managing to bring that about provides one of the best feelings that a job or career could provide. It is a powerful motivation — especially during the past several months. It has been a primary driver in keeping me going.
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?
Gallagher: For much of my career, I thought “time management” was simply a joke. We all try to work as efficiently as possible. I felt that you actually had to have some time in order to worry about managing it, and I typically worked 55-plus hours per week for most of my career. I didn’t have any time to be managed. The conclusion that I finally reached at some point in my 50s was that if I wanted to have more time to manage, I had to commit to less. “Less” can come in a lot of forms, including aggressive deadlines, fewer projects, fewer projects involving unusual things, fewer simultaneous client requests … you name it. Of course, in order to make that work, I had to trust others to do the job right, because without that trust it is not possible to delegate. Others simply will not fully meet my expectations regarding urgency and work output, and the sooner that I could accept that, the more realistically I could manage commitments and learn to trust others within the parameters of competency that they had demonstrated.
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?
Gallagher: The biggest driver for me is intellectual curiosity. I want understand “why,” not just “how.” It is a poor day when I don’t learn something. I also am always conscious that others depend upon me for their livelihoods. Creating and sustaining a business situation where they can flourish is very satisfying. As for a secret to success, don’t laugh, but for me it is being religious about my “to do” list. I revise that list at the end of every business day, so that the next morning my activities are prioritized. There are the things I like to do, and the things I need to do. They are not always the same things, of course. My to-do list is my daily prioritizing of those things, and the way I keep myself honest with regard to where I invest my time.
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?
Gallagher: Especially when in a crisis, it is important to not underestimate your people and to be sure to ask them to do something difficult. They expect you to be calm, honest, realistically confident, and determined. They appreciate an honest, even brutal, appraisal of what they are up against. They need to be told how they can help, because that is what gives them some measure of control of their environment. It lets them focus on what they can do and what they can control. Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech is a classic example of how to rally your people to face a nearly insurmountable challenge. I encourage any leader facing a serious challenge to listen to that speech. It is short, powerful, motivating, and to the point.
Leblanc: What are the obstacles and challenges that you face as a leader? Are there areas that you feel you are still working on?
Gallagher: Life is a journey, not a destination, so we are always still working. A couple of years ago, one of my coworkers pointed out Covey’s admonition to “listen to understand, not to respond.” I think that is one of my weakest areas, and I regularly try to improve in that area. I may never fully achieve that, but you have to have a goal. As far as obstacles and challenges, my primary yardstick occurs in the morning, when I shave. I have to like the guy who I see in the mirror. It all starts there, and if my actions or behavior were not the best the day before, it catches up to me in that mirror. A lot of my apologies have started at that point in the morning.
Leblanc: What is the best leadership advice you have gotten from someone?
Gallagher: I’m big on making note of good quotations, and two fit this question. The first is from the musical, “Hamilton.” Washington says to Hamilton: “Part of having principles is that sometimes you need to do things you don’t want to do. Otherwise, they are just vague guidelines.” The other is from MLK, Jr., who said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
I’ve come to believe that leaders are not leaders without both principles and faith in the motivations that support their actions. And if the people they are trying to lead don’t sense that both principles (not vague guidelines) and faith (regardless of whether the full staircase is visible) are present, then the necessary level of trust in leadership won’t be present, and the leader won’t get very far.
Leblanc: In your opinion, what is the "secret sauce" that younger engineers or managers miss in leadership?
Gallagher: In general, younger folks have had less time to learn that they need to focus on the long term. The best choice for the long term will often work out OK in the short term, whereas the best choice for the short term will often sabotage the long term. Another related word is “patience.” Take a breath. Don’t hit “send” on that emotional email. And make others work it out, rather than continually jumping in to do it for them.
Leblanc: Crystal ball: What does your next level of success look like in your position as a leader?
Gallagher: I am in the third generation of owners at Western Allied Corporation. The fifth generation is just starting to buy in. My most important job is to prepare the coming generations to run this company as well as to recruit the sixth generation.