SCHENECTADY — It took 59 years of rising, flopping, miscarrying, restructuring and bucking tradition for Debra Best to produce her current inventory of insight on human resources from beyond workplace walls.
She gives some of it away for free.
Then she counts on companies seeking her guidance via networking, social media or search engine optimization. When they don’t need her anymore, she tells them.
“They rent or lease the parts of my brain that they need,” Best said.
Her firm, Deb Best Practices, typically has between 20 and 30 clients. Services include leadership coaching, strategic planning, project management, conflict mediation, complaint investigation and social media strategies.
A number of her clients are in the Fortune 500 and NASDAQ; are technology firms, retailers, government services or nonprofits; and employ single digits, triple digits, or even sextuple digits of workers.
Regardless of the type, Best prides herself on rigorously learning about each client’s firm before offering insight.
“A really good salesperson doesn’t shove a product down another prospect’s throat,” Best said, recounting sales-turned-human resources lessons from her father, Howard Markowitz. “A really good salesperson tries to discover what a prospective client’s needs are.”
FORGING HER PATH
As a child in Rockland County, she would examine how her father, a salesperson and Marine veteran, managed his clientele, networked and attracted business. Besides career tips for the future, Best recalled Howard and her mother, Shirley, often on the move. She changed homes six times before going to college. Best, who moved 18 total times ending in 1993, restructured her career three times as an adult, and later became a working mother with a stay-at-home father. She doesn’t draw parallels between her life path and the career paths she heard about from adults during childhood.
“I was raised to think I should always be in one place and do one thing,” Best said.
Now, along with serving clients, she’s a volunteer adviser for the Unitarian Universalist Society in Schenectady, an executive committee member for [email protected] magazine’s advisory board and a member of several Capital Region coworking spaces.
Best calls herself an “intrapreneur-entrepreneur,” meaning she has both pushed her entrepreneurial ambitions and developed projects within an existing firm. The human resources consultant also believes intrapreneurship will be the future of human resources.
Successful professionals and departments, she said, will perform more than clerical work.
Additionally, Best expects future recruitment processes to be increasingly automated. While she believes that finding recruits faster online has helped companies, she also said human interaction must be prevalent in order to keep service well-rounded.
“I think that, still, human resources people don’t realize that they’re businesspeople,” Best said.
Best believes her business savvy made her stand out at an interview for Trans World Entertainment in 1997. The Albany-based retail firm hired her after Best showed then-CEO Bob Higgins a business plan drafted for her husband’s picture-framing company three years prior.
General Electric trained her in the early 1990s to work “shoulder to shoulder” with operations partners shortly after she transferred to human resources from communications.
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At the time, she was regularly commuting more than an hour each day to work. At GE’s Pittsfield, Massachusetts, site, layoffs rolled through the plant each month. Looking for protection, she thought human resources would place her in a position less likely to fall victim. The company laid off Best, but she was able to get another job in Waterford at a different plant for five more years.
Prior to joining General Electric, she worked for the New York State Assembly as a research writer. She got the position in 1983 after graduating from the University at Albany with a legislative internship under her belt. Seeking higher pay led Best, a former English major, to make her first major career shift in 1989. Although she never worked in an exclusive writing job again after that, Best has since published columns in [email protected] magazine and Times Union blog posts online to attract an audience. Best started writing for [email protected] in 2012, the same year she formally organized her firm, launched a website and earned a New York State Women-Owned Business Enterprise certification.
For half of her career, she worked as a freelance human resources consultant. Hosting a Rensselaer County Regional Chamber Leadership Institute event in the mid-2000s, Best started drafting a business plan for a consulting firm, but later stuffed it in a drawer.
In 2009, AWESCO, which was since renamed Noble Gas Solutions, laid off Best as human resources director. Through networking, she found temporary employment at Statewide Financial System by 2010, despite many companies freezing new hires during the Great Recession.
A bevy of company owners, CEOs and CFOs, in meetings, soon asked Best for consulting and career services. That’s when she acknowledged a demand for her expertise in that field.
“People couldn’t afford to hire a professional at my level, but they needed the help,” she said.
Since opening a firm, Best usually works a flex-shift schedule at the BizLab coworking space in Schenectady, remotely, and mostly with clientele onsite. Because economic growth has created a candidate market, a period in which qualified individuals are more and more particular about their employment opportunities, Best advises employers to make schedules more flexible whenever possible. She’s found that inflexible schedulers often struggle with recruitment.
A survey of 501 hiring managers conducted by USA TODAY and LinkedIn last year found that 57 percent of organizations offer flexible schedules. The percentage was five points higher than 2015.
“I want to tell you, I think that shift is helping everyone,” Best said. “Whether you have children or you have elderly relatives, or you just want to travel, everyone wants to do what feeds them.”
‘PAY IT FORWARD’
Trans World Entertainment didn’t offer paid family leave at the time of the birth of Best’s son, Noah, in 2001. After two weeks in the hospital recovering from a C-section, Best spent the remaining six weeks working remotely and ended up receiving the biggest bonus of her career that year.
Seeking adequate time and resources, Best and husband Joel waited nine years into marriage to have a child. She went through six miscarriages in three years before Noah was born. The couple previously wanted multiple children, but decided against it with Noah as the final attempt.
Having several miscarriages at work, Best recalled several colleagues being shocked after learning about the situation. At 5 p.m. one day, she received a quick hug from a coworker after talking about what happened.
“What was very touching is that I knew I was valued, but it was great to know that they cared about me,” Best said.
Best eventually learned that she had polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder that often causes infertility. Thanks to hormone treatments, Best and her husband were able to conceive their son. The couple was so vigilant about pregnancy, they didn’t announce it until the sixth month.
Showing support for her ambitions to get back to work after pregnancy, Joel, a writer and artist, decided his work was flexible enough to watch Noah at home. Along with becoming a parent, working with mothers changed Best’s human resources perspective.
At Trans World Entertainment, she once accompanied a mother and her 3-year-old daughter to an interview in 1999. Best voluntarily stayed with the woman’s daughter when the mother attended other interviews. Best recalled company officials at the interview taken aback by the situation. In response, she told them they shouldn’t praise workplace diversity and balk at a parent for bringing her child along.
“I think that that’s the reality of it, is that we can’t pretend we don’t have lives outside of work,” Best said. “And we have to show compassion and support, because I believe in the breaks that I had,” she continued. “And it’s important to pay it forward.”