It was a pleasure meeting Debbie Oberbillig on a gusty and grey Seattle afternoon. As Founder and President of Allen Partners, a business coach, and board member, Debbie is extremely busy. She was kind enough to sit down with us for an exclusive interview about her career path, what she would advise her 20-year-old self, and the lessons she’s learned along the way. Debbie is intelligent, insightful, and an inspiring leader, and we were very impressed, to say the least.
As further proof of her success as an entrepreneur, Debbie was a 2015 Enterprising Women of the Year Awards winner. We are not at all surprised by this, as Debbie has grown her company, which provides finance and accounting talent optimization services for companies of all sizes and industries in the Pacific Northwest, from the ground up. We admire the fact that Debbie is a hard worker, but that she is also curious about the world and gives back to her community. No matter how busy her schedule is, Debbie will make time to help others. We’ve been inspired by her, and now it’s your turn.
Name: Debbie Oberbillig
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?
Debbie Oberbillig: “Seizing Your Youth” is appreciating who you are in this moment, being open to opportunities and exploring the world around you. I have observed that people are really getting serious early and kids aren’t allowed to be kids anymore. I think that your twenties should be spent figuring out who you are. Don’t be afraid to try new things – be bold and be brave. See the world, join the Peace Corps, or move to a new city. Discover who you are in order to determine what you want. That might be counter-intuitive to what you think you need to do – there’s a lot of pressure to start your career right away – but now is the time to learn who you truly are, which will help you pursue a career that you can truly be passionate about.
CJ: What school did you attend for undergrad and how did you determine what to study?
DO: I never graduated from university. I started working at 15-years-old and didn’t go to college until my thirties. My parents were children of the Depression so work was highly valued in my family. I also loved working and having money and the freedom that money gave me so I did not go to school right away. In my thirties I thought about getting a degree, so I started attending classes at a community college. I also took some classes at the University of Washington, but I got recruited by a great company and never finished. I originally was going to get a degree in business, but if I were to go back now I’d do something more fun like philosophy or psychology
CJ: You are the Founder and President of Allen Partners, a company you started in 2003 that provides finance and accounting talent optimization services for companies of all sizes and industries in the Pacific Northwest. What motivated you to start Allen Partners?
DO: My mom owned a successful agency similar to Allen Partners and I worked for her, which was where I learned the business. About the time my mom was getting ready to retire, I was recruited to work at Hall Kinion, another staffing firm, by a really smart woman who quickly became one of my professional mentors. With her guidance my specialty became organic growth, opening up new offices around the country. We grew the company from $3 million to $300 million while I was there. That experience and training is what led me to take the next step in my career, which for me was to start my own business.
CJ: What does your role as President entail?
DO: In the beginning I used to do everything. I’ve been a recruiter, a salesperson, the accountant – virtually everything. As we grew over the years I brought in two partners who also worked for the company and were passionate about its success. One of them is Director of Sales and Recruiting, running the sales division on a day-to-day basis, and one is the Director of Operations and Finance. As President, I focus on promoting the company by networking and continuing to grow our business with new clients.
CJ: Allen Partners focuses on employment intelligence and hiring smart. How do you go about recognizing and developing top talent? What are the most important skills to have in order to be considered “top talent”?
DO: Recognizing top talent is hard. It’s what all of our clients struggle with. It’s really a combination of practical and soft skills. A lot of people go to school and get their degrees and have practical work experience, but the determination of their success is equally based on soft skills. It’s just as important to be able to get along with people, communicate what you need, articulate what you’re looking for, and know what your values are. These are things that are not regularly taught or easy to teach and rarely thought about when attending college, but they are just as important.
Recognizing talent requires more than just looking at a resume, it takes a good conversation and asking the right questions to determine if candidates have the interpersonal skills, critical awareness and thinking abilities to not only do the job, but be an integral part of the team. It’s finding the right combination of hard and soft skills. It’s a secret sauce. Some people have it intrinsically and some people have to learn it.
CJ: What are the greatest lessons you have learned from running your own company?
DO: I’ve learned a lot of lessons. When you have a business, it’s imperative to remember that culture and profit are equally important. If there’s no profit, there’s no company. Profit is not a dirty word. You can have fun and have a great culture, but in the end, if the company’s not making money it doesn’t succeed. There were times when I didn’t think enough about the bottom line, and other times when I thought about the bottom line too much. A successful company learns to balance people and profit. You have to really care about both.
CJ: In your role as President, leadership is important. How have you learned to lead and what does it meant to be a leader?
DO: I’ve learned a lot over the years through trial and error that has made me a better leader. You have to care about your people and be empathetic. You have to also hold people accountable and recognize that people won’t always like you or the decisions you have to make as a leader. You want to take care of people, and you also have to do the right thing for the company.
CJ: As a recruiter and leadership advisor, you have observed many different types of leadership. What are some ways young people can become better leaders?
DO: You can be a natural leader but also have leadership challenges. One of the biggest things that I’ve observed is that young leaders struggle with holding people accountable because they want to be liked. New leaders many times avoid the tough issues, but to be a great leader you have to address issues right away. If something comes up and it’s a problem, it’s up to you to tackle it. Giving people feedback isn’t necessarily bad, although you have to learn how to do it effectively.
The other thing is that sometimes people feel like they have arrived when they’ve been promoted, and they stop doing the work needed to be a great leader. Great leaders lead by example, which is an old-fashioned saying, but it’s really true.
CJ: Bellevue LifeSpring is an incredible organization that fosters stability and self-sufficiency for Bellevue’s children and their families through programs that feed, clothe, and educate. What do your duties as a Board Member involve?
DO: When I first joined the board, Bellevue LifeSpring was building up their staff, so I was able to put my recruiting skills to work right away, as well as offering human resources assistance until we hired someone who could handle it. I really believe in the organization so I am always involved in our events, either by sponsoring, volunteering or both.
CJ: What does a day in your life look like?
DO: Lately I’ve been spending a good part of the day working on something I’m really passionate about – growing my professional coaching business. Coaching helps people see things in a new way by asking specific questions that transform how they observe the world. By simply looking through a different lens, you can change the choices you make and consequently, the results in your life. I love helping others to change their lens.
I’ve also recently become a Daring Way™ Facilitator candidate, which is a bit of a different coaching style based on the philosophy and findings of Brené Brown; a research professor, bestselling author and a top TED Talk contributor.
Of course, I’m still very involved in Allen Partners, although I’ve been able to step back a bit, as I’ve mentioned, to allow myself time to grow these other areas of my life.
CJ: How do you stay organized and efficient?
DO: I’m naturally very detail-oriented, which helps me stay organized. I use Outlook for scheduling, and I’ve just started color-coding to track how much time I spend on my projects. There is no secret to balancing, whether you’re going to school full-time or working full-time. It takes practice and dedication.
I’ve started a new thing: in the morning I write in my gratitude journal while I have my first cup of coffee. I just sit by myself and I think for about 30 minutes each day. I’ve noticed that we just don’t spend enough time reflecting. After that time, I prioritize my day by writing down the top five things I need to do. I do those five things first, and then after that anything goes. When you limit it to the top five, you’re usually able to get it all done.
CJ: What is the best moment of your career so far?
DO: Right now! I’ve had a great career and I’ve been really lucky. I love everything that I do and it keeps getting better. My first jobs were office jobs where I worked 8am-5pm, and I just think right now is really fun because I have so much flexibility.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
DO: In my twenties, I didn’t have much of a life besides working and socializing. I would tell myself to travel more – try new things, meet new people. I got very serious about work too soon, which is why I now really encourage young people to “seize their youth!”