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Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 68: Deborah Philips

Terry Johnston

Deborah Phillips, Chief People Officer at Natural Choice Foods, joins us for WGVU's Powerful Women: Let's Talk

She leads, she strategizes, she volunteers. Deborah Phillips is a seasoned executive specializing in strategic human capital management, currently serving as Chief People Officer at Natural Choice Foods. She has a lot on her resume and shares with us her wisdom on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


Produced by women about women. Powerful women, Let's talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers. And have helped shape our world. Transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Irwin: She leads, she strategizes, she volunteers. Deborah Phillips is a seasoned executive specializing in strategic human capital management currently serving as chief people officer at Natural Choice Foods much, much more on her resume, including favorite daily habits. So welcome to this addition, of Powerful woman, Let's talk. Debra Phillips.

Deborah Phillips: Thank you, Shelly, for having me here today.

Shelley Irwin: We get right into a daily habit of yours. I'm going to spill the beans. Are you addicted to coffee?

Deborah Phillips: I'm addicted to Starbucks coffee. And I think it's because as I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was almost 50. And so my daughter was a barista at Starbucks and got me hooked on it and I have my daily Starbucks as my treat

Shelley Irwin: All right. Let's make sure the community is aware of that. You are successful. Congratulations. Leadership, important in your life. Were you born or made a leader?

Deborah Phillips: I was made a leader and I worked hard to become a leader. I had very strong mother and my mother expected a lot of me. So, I worked hard to become a leader. And I think it came from a nun in school. When I was in 6th grade, and she said to me you're going to be a follower. You'll never be a leader. And I think from then on I knew I was going to be leader.

Shelley Irwin: Did you ever go back to that nun and say, look where I am now.

Deborah Phillips: I wish I could haha.

Shelley Irwin: What was your educational journey to get, you know, to your first job at least.

Deborah Phillips: So like many young women growing up in the late 60's and early 70's. I went to what they call the secretarial school, it was Brown Mackie business school. You know, a lot of women started out that way. And after I finished at Brown Mackie, which is now Brown Mackie college. I took a job as a secretary in the human resources department at a trucking company. I loved everything about human resources. And I had a wonderful boss who taught me all the aspects of human resources. And when that company closed then I went to manufacturing firm and I was working as an executive assistant for the CEO. And that CEO once again, wonderful boss taught me all there was about business and people. And so then I finally had an opportunity. We moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. And I went to work for this very small company called Butterworth HMO that only had 30 employees. And I was going to oversee their HR department and from there I realized then that I needed to go back to school. So I enrolled at Davenport here in Grand Rapids and took all the classes that I could take that round me out in the world of business and people

Shelley Irwin: So you would be considered a nontraditional students

Deborah Phillips: I was a nontraditional student. Absolutely

Shelley Irwin: I see it worked because look at where you are today. Did you choose then your career progression to well, where you are today.

Deborah Phillips: I would say that I chose the career progression in that always wanted to be in human resources. And so once I had the opportunity to step out of that secretarial roll into an opportunity to build a function at this very small company Butterworth HMO, which eventually became priority health and going back to the Society of human resource Management in joining that and really then got my certification as a first, as a professional in human resources. And then after several years I was able to go back and become the senior certified professional. And that says a lot. If you believe in the discipline inside to human resources about people because people are so precious and their lives are so precious when they work with you. If you can become a seasoned professional. Once we take this very difficult test. We have to every 3 years to take credits to stay certified for ever and ever. So you have to be well versed in your discipline in the world of human resources. And that's what I chose to do. I wanted to do that.

Shelley Irwin: Yes

Deborah Phillips: I'd like to say that I had probably somebody that helped me immensely at the time that Butterworth HMO was moving to priority health. Fred Vandenberg was there as an interim CEO and he was a wonderful mentor to me. And he said to me and everyone we spent time together. You talk a language and the language of HR I want you to start talking the language of the business. I want you to make the CFO your best friend. And I want you to learn how through this whole system to follow the dollar and learn how this company makes money. And that's probably the best advice. That anyone ever gave me is that you can wear your HR hat, but you also have to be well disciplined in the world of business. And so that made me then look at the number of classes. I wanted to take that can round about my disciplines on both sides of business and people

Shelley Irwin: Here you give an example of a positive influence in your life versus the nun. They gave you a negative light. Thank you for that. And on the topic of mentoring and what it may take to be a positive person in a young woman's life that could possibly change her career trajectory. How important is it to be a mentor or to be a mentee?

Deborah Phillips: I like to think that every woman who has had a successful career in the starting out in the late 70's in my career. It wasn't always easy. It is for young women today and there were fewer women sitting in a boardroom or sitting in senior executive positions. So I really believe. We reach a certain level. I was elected to responsibility to be that mentor and to give back. Not unlike you what you've done for so many years with all the charities and the organizations you support. But I really believe that it is our responsibility. I'd love mentoring young women to help them with their career, whether it's mentoring coaching, you know, helping them get a leg up or whatever you call it. But I have two words of advice and that Shelley, when I think about it, if you agreed to be the mentor to that young woman or that person. And you said that you're going to commit the time and give them the time. So often I see people say they'll be a mentor, but then they can't they canceled. Every meeting they're going to have. And for anyone listening a young women hit like to reach out to someone from mentoring when you get that precious time from that executive and they give you homework to do or articles to read. Do it. Please come prepared. You are getting that time and an opportunity to learn and grow. And I always like to say to the person I'm mentoring to prepare an agenda and send it to me a day in advance. So I know how to prepare for you. That way it's really a good use of their time. But I wish that every successful woman with the mentoring one or two people to help them move up in their career.

Shelley Irwin: Class, learning accountability. Never ends. What do you look for in your leaders?

Deborah Phillips: So I learned something I used to love the word resiliency and grit. There were 2 things that I always look for in people and there's a blog that I get every Sunday. Now that started since covid and through this I have watched how the world works , changing because of what we've been through and the empathy that we all need a person that I get their blog when I when I appreciate that it is that he talks about grit, but he adds that the front side of the grace, grit plus grace. Those are my two things now when I'm looking people today because the gray side for me means empathy. It means that I can care what people are experiencing. We care so much. We should care so much differently about the people we have for what they're experiencing because of this pandemic. So my new word you're now grace plus grit and I think resiliency is important. I do think that people, you know, leaders really need to be able to bounce back, but also recognizing that grace time to be prepared to come back and be strong again. We'll take bumps and hits along the way

Shelley Irwin: as we should. Imagine that's one of the reasons why you're so successful in the human resources field. What do you look for when you are looking for or having to be having ops to be on the board or a committee. What should one look for in saying yes or no.

Deborah Phillips: You know, I'm glad you asked that question. I do get asked that frequently from young women. That says can you help me get on the board. And the first things I say to them as what are you passionate about. Because as women more often than not we're going to serve on a nonprofit board. So if you're going to donate your time, you want to be absolutely passionate about their mission believe in it because you'll be investing your time to make sure that they can be successful. So love what they're doing is what I suggest that

Shelley Irwin: It’s okay to say no

Deborah Phillips: And is okay to say no.

Deborah Phillips: Make a note on that more fun facts besides the coffee Debra Philips you are described and I'm quoting by others as shy and reserved. Yet a naughty sense of humor is that the secret to success tell me more.

Deborah Phillips: Well, I am an introvert that by nature. And I think I am often described by people oh Deborah your so shy and reserved. And I know that’s not who I am in my close circle of friends. So I do have a sort of wicked sense of humor that can be naughty. So I probably couldn't say exactly what that looks like. This I can say.. Shelly experienced it once most recently at a retirement party. We had and people were surprised to see me come out of my shell a little bit.

Shelley Irwin: What happens at that party stays at the party

Deborah Phillips: Exactly right.

Shelley Irwin: Again, it's all about moderation and balance,

Deborah Phillips: not maybe the secret my success.

Shelley Irwin: I want you to talk about the treehouse. What does this mean?

Deborah Phillips: I loved the treehouse master and I want a tree House. I had the perfect trees in my yard. I know what I want to do. And my tree House will have a fireplace. It will be small. It will have an indoor bathroom and it will be cozy like a cottage. That's what I want. I picked put the trees and not sure that my husband is going to allow me to get the tree house master to build it for me. But still, that's my dream. That’s where I will be in full retirement.

Shelley Irwin: Appreciate that. I'm to ask you about Elvis

Deborah Phillips: I loved Elvis since I was a young girl. Haha, I've been to his house several times, concerts. And so I used to tell people that if Elvis had met me, he'd marry me, he just would. I just I just tell people that all the time. So I love Elvis.

Shelley Irwin: Live the dream. And I understand you. You were a princess at birth,

Deborah Phillips: Haha, sometimes people label you things sometimes shy, reserved. Many people also say you're such a princess. And I think it's because my husband is so much for me because I had a very busy career and his was less busy. So I told my son in law once that I was really born a princess and switched at birth and for so long and believe that until I finally had to tell him and break his heart but am I a Princess yes.

Shelley Irwin: And there's nothing wrong with it.

Deborah Phillips: I even have that the tiara

Shelley Irwin: What is your secret to success for young woman , Deborah.

Deborah Phillips: I think the secret to my success. So I think one of my former CEO is wrote and talked about. I took a long-term approach to strategic planning with the impact on people. And I say that because that's what she wrote in my review and I've always appreciated that. So the secret to success. There's so many day-to-day issues in nature that you can get wrapped up in and you think about I got to make that decision today because, you know, HR is not soft skills. What we do in HR is hard and sometimes heartbreaking decisions that impact people. And so what I like to say. My secret is to success, is I looked out for the long term. If you think over the life cycle that people are going to be with you or that you want them to be with you what they might need when they come into early in their career. It's not what they need later in your career. So if you can do the data and the analysis. If your people looking over them over the life cycle. Of their time with you. And then how do you take that data and say what should the organization and people look like 5 years out, what jobs might they be doing under the new skills and what you need to upskill them and then more importantly, if they're not new skills where they'll be new jobs that don't exist today. What will those skills look like. I think the secret to success is not taking that everyday look. But taking that look, that takes a long term aspect of the people that will be with you through the life cycle

Shelley Irwin: You have a motto to leave me with

Deborah Phillips: Well, I will say this, you know, being in HR. And I firmly believe this my motto is someone once said companies need to have strategy. Absolutely. Companies need strategy in a good strategy. But at the end of the day, I'm going to bet on people and not strategy. That's my motto. is companies need to understand that the end of that day that strategy. are words on a piece of paper and it will come alive to the people on your team to nurture them and invest in him.

Shelley Irwin: I do have that quote “You take a long-term strategic approach to organizational growth. Ineffectiveness always advocating for to impact on people.” And of course, that lives on forever with you. Thank you for this conversation, Deborah Philips.

Deborah Phillips: Thank you, Shelly.

Shelley Irwin: That does it for this edition of Powerful women, Let's talk. I'm Shelley Irwin.


>> For women about women. these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful women, Let's talk. Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcast, please rate and subscribe. Powerful women, Let's talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University, the views and opinions expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU it’s underwriters or Grand Valley State University.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.
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