By Nicole Hehl
As a child, Debbie Willis had a clear, practical career goal to work in an executive level position.
“I liked details. I liked solving problems. I liked the written word and communication,” Willis recalls. “So back then it was like, ‘I’m going to be an executive secretary.’”
She pursued that ambition well beyond her childhood goal to her role as president and designated broker of property services at Scottsdale’s P.B. Bell, whose mission is to make lives and places better by developing, improving and managing multifamily housing communities.
Willis transplanted to Arizona in the early 1980s looking for career opportunities, which were limited in her hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota. When secretarial work didn’t challenge her, she used a placement agency to land a temporary accounts payable position at P.B. Bell, where she has been since.
For someone inclined to boredom, the variety of the multifamily housing industry continues to intrigue Willis more than three and a half decades later.
“Our business is so interesting,” Willis says. “I think it’s what really got my attention and was a big catalyst in keeping me here in this industry and in this company.”
According to Willis, every day is different. With the company growing, the real estate market changing, and the diverse products and clients, she never gets stuck in a rut.
Willis also is excited for those just starting a career to discover the possibilities of the multifamily housing industry, including property management, accounting, finance, human resources, maintenance, marketing and legal.
“I just think it’s a real great industry for young people starting off to kind of see what aspect they’d like to get involved in,” she says. “You’re dealing with clients, employees, and customers. You’re managing multi-million-dollar assets. You can go off in so many different directions and find your niche.”
To find the career success that Willis has achieved, she advises to be flexible and patient.
“You’re going to have positions that may not be exactly what you wanted but may be part of the growth,” she explains. “Have patience and really be passionate about what you’re doing. If you put in that effort, it’s going to turn into something bigger and better.”
For Willis, that patience and flexibility was born during her three years in accounts payable. The laborious process of typing and manually entering 2,000 checks per month pushed her to make herself accessible to other areas of the business.
“I get bored easily,” she admits. “I’d get done with what I had to do and search out other things to occupy my time. I kept learning more and more about the business and other people’s positions.”
Her flexibility to take on more and the drive to learn got her noticed, and she was promoted to property supervisor over a portfolio of communities. As the company grew, she continued taking on responsibilities and was promoted to vice president, senior vice president and finally president of its property services department.
“I’ve been fortunate that my tenacity, hard work, attention to detail, passions—all of those buzz words—worked for me,” she says of her climb up the ladder. “You’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to make yourself visible. You’ve got to know your subject matter so you can come across confidently.”
Confidence is what Willis feels earns trust and wins people over, and when paired with vulnerability, is a winning combination for a successful executive.
“You need to be confidently vulnerable. Understand who you are and who you’re not and what you can and cannot contribute,” she advises. “The things that I’m good at, I know I’m damn good at. I’m not afraid to admit I’ve made mistakes. I’m not afraid to give a project to someone else because I think that they would be better equipped to handle it.”
When it comes to balancing life with work and avoiding burn out, Willis’ tips are to plan and stay organized. Constantly work on better communication, more efficiencies, better staffing and improving every aspect of the business, so you can walk away and take the break you need.
“I know that if I walk away for a day or a week, I’ve got processes and people in place that will keep it running,” Willis says.
When the busy executive does take that chance to walk away, she enjoys relaxing with loved ones and enjoying the outdoors on getaways to Pinetop, Rocky Point, and annual summer visits—never winter—to South Dakota and the beautiful, serenity of the Black Hills.
At home, Willis relinquishes the leadership role to her 9-pound, long-haired chihuahua, Milo, and admits, “He rules the roost, as all small dogs do.”