To explore the role that inspiration plays in leadership we interviewed Deb Conklin an industrial engineer and CEO of Reddy Ice, the largest manufacturer and distributor of packaged ice products in the United States. Deb is a CEO who has become what I would call a “turn around” specialist. This generally means that the situation she steps into as a leader is generally very broken. Not just financially broken, but fraught with broken commitments to customers, communities, investors and perhaps most importantly to our discussion employees.

A broken or bankrupt company is clearly not an inspiring place to work, there is not a lot of trust to build upon if any. Resources are likely to be very constrained so there is no option to throw money or more people at the problems which means you have to go in and get more out of what you have. You have to get people to believe things can get better and then you have to inspire them to go all in and make it happen.

Deb’s story about how leading Reddy Ice from bankruptcy to the success they are today is a great study in the role inspiring a team plays in successful leadership. I would share with readers that even when on the other side of a screen hundreds of miles away I could feel the enthusiasm and excitement that Deb brings to this topic. Her spirit is infectious.

She starts off getting right to the core of the challenge, “I can have the best data to backup my opinion and belief. I could have a perfect strategy. I can have the mission and goals aligned with everything we need to do. But if people don’t believe, you cannot influence the outcome. If you can’t create that emotional connection and inspire people to be the best of themselves to maybe change to be willing to grow and do different things, I don’t think you ever win.”

As an engineer oftentimes our first instinct is to run the numbers, to solve the equation. From those perspectives it might seem to be obvious, but most likely not everyone agrees. Even data driven teammates may get the same answer but see the conclusion very differently than you do. Worse maybe people don’t even care about or see the problem to begin with, yet alone agree with the answer.

Earning trust and being able to inspire people has to start with being authentic. Deb likes to talk about college football and her mom’s spaghetti. It’s who she is, it is not a show. She connects this with strategy, “If you’re not your real authentic self then people don’t believe in the strategy. They can see through that and I think that’s one of the best leadership skills I have, I’m just Deb. I don’t try to pretend I’m anybody else.”

When it comes to connecting with people a long track record of producing the right answers can work against you. Put another way, “what got you here won’t get you there.” Leadership is very often being okay with not having the answer, recognizing that you don’t know what to do in a certain situation and you need help. Recognizing that you need to pull in people to work on figuring out the answer and to get there as a team.

Inspiring others for engineers can often start with being able to get past being the person in the room that has to have the answer. When you are in that mode, you can’t be vulnerable. You can’t be as authentic. Lacking either will prevent you from inspiring your team. This can be obvious when you don’t actually know the answer and have no choice but to seek support from others. It is even more important to understand when you are most certain of your conclusions.

Podcast and Video as well as more background on Deb and Inspire are HERE