Thursday, February 29, 2024

Looking the part, finding your tribe: A talk with Deb Hallberg

By Ebony Marie Chappel

Deb Hallberg’s welcoming personality and signature red-framed glasses are what many people notice first. The multifaceted business professional, who has worked in the legal field for decades, has yet another coveted skill — that of being a great connector. Hallberg currently serves as business development manager for Barnes & Thornburg LLP in Indianapolis, and when she isn’t handling things for the firm, she can be found leading and  serving in a number of professional and civic organizations, such as the Business Ownership Initiative, Indiana Bourbon Women, National Association of Professional Women and the Central Indiana Women’s Business Center, to name a few. In 2015, she was inducted into the 2015-16 VIP Woman of the Year Circle, and in 2012 she was named one of Indianapolis’ Top 50 Business Connectors by the US Small Business Conference.

Indiana Minority Business Magazine recently sat down with Hallberg to discuss her unique sense of style, personal career path and advice for young female professionals.

IMBM: You are a woman working in what appears to be a pretty strait-laced professional environment, yet you still have touches of creativity to your look. How did you develop your own sense of personal style? 

Hallberg: I grew up in a white-collar family. My dad was a bank president, so it was always known that you had to dress a certain way, and I’ve worked with lawyers my entire working career. The men all wore suits, the women wore suits and dresses, so there was an expectation. As I advanced in my career dealing with white-collar professionals … if you wanted to have a seat at that table and be taken seriously, part of it was dressing the part.

Clearly, dressing the part is an integral piece to your work today. How would you describe the quintessential Deb look?

Everything (in my wardrobe) goes together, everything matches or blends. I might wear a statement bracelet, necklace or earrings, but everything doesn’t have to be “matchy-matchy.” I own one suit, and everything else is separates. I do not want to wear a conservative lawyer-like look every day; I want it to be more fun-looking but still professional so that if last minute I’m asked to go to lunch with an attorney and a client, I’m dressed appropriately.

You have worked in the legal field for several years. How did you come into this particular career and how has your professional journey progressed?

When I was in college, I was unsure of what I wanted to do, so I took some psychological tests to see what direction I should go in. Some friends of my parents lived across the street from a lawyer who was a partner at a law firm; I met him on a Saturday afternoon and had an interview in his home that day. There was no drug testing or typing involved; I just sat and we talked, and I started the following Monday. The firm was Locke Reynolds (now Frost Brown Todd). I worked there for three years, and it was a small firm. I decided I needed a change, so I came to Barnes & Thornburg and stayed for six years then left when one of the partners left to do his own thing. I worked with him off and on for 18 years, and he also was a manager/partner of the Southern Cross Club resort in the Cayman Islands. I never went, but I was telling everyone how awesome this place was and that was fun, talking to people all over the world who wanted to go there on vacation. Then I left and went to Merchants National Bank (now PNC) and managed their legal department for a few years. I left there and went to a small law firm, and then their corporate department came here to Barnes & Thornburg. I didn’t want to come back, so I went to work for a small startup for nine months, and it wasn’t a good fit. Then I came back to Barnes & Thornburg and have been back for 14 years. It was a really good move on my part to come back. In working with all the attorneys and all the people that I’ve met, I was able to meet some really innovative shakers and movers for this city, really influential people. Over 40 years, I’ve been able to develop a really awesome database of contacts, but you have to really work at that.

For some women, navigating the professional world can be daunting. There are some who require a certain amount of stability and may have even grown loyal to their current employer. Would you agree that the process can be challenging? 

Yes. You get comfortable. It’s easy to stay and not make the decision to move on, and women tend to be risk-averse. It’s risky to make that change, and you’re looking at the unknown. You’re comfortable with what you do, you know your job, you do it and then you go home. My job, it’s different every single day and that’s the best part. I’m not coming in and sitting at a desk doing the same thing every day. I get to come in and interact with a lot of cool people and successful women, which I love doing. I don’t know that I can find that somewhere else. I feel like once you find a spot where you’re appreciated and you can make a difference and you’re receiving what you’re giving, then that’s great. But if you’re not being fulfilled, then maybe it’s time to look on the other side of that glass and see what’s out there.

How has mentorship benefited you, and what advice do you have for others on how to properly seek out and approach a mentor?

I had someone just contact me out of the blue, knew my name, checked me out on LinkedIn, stalked me with emails wanting to meet, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go ahead and meet her.’ It was a great meeting. She was looking for a mentor and wanted to meet me to see if I would be interested in doing it, so that was kind of different. I’ve had women that I’d known for a few years, they’re in their 30s and they’ll say, ‘Oh Deb, thanks for being my mentor,’ and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of it as being her mentor. It was very flattering that that’s how she thought of me,’ but sometimes I think it just evolves. You meet someone and you make that connection and you like spending time with that person. You enjoy the conversation. I love hearing from young women about what’s going on in their lives and what their work challenges are. If there is any advice or wisdom that I can share or suggestions or introductions, that’s what I love doing. I’ve been working in this area for a very long time, and things have changed drastically for women. It’s a whole new world for young female professionals.

In what ways do you feel the workforce has changed for women, particularly in male-dominated industries?

There’s more respect for women. I think (women are taken) more seriously, and more women have a seat at the table. There are also more women in the workplace now than there were, and there are a lot more successful women. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re getting there. The women are also smarter. Technology has advanced so far. I think women, when they enter the workplace, have far more experience than we did many years ago, so they’re just more savvy about the workplace. There weren’t female mentors when I started. I had male mentors when I started, and that’s not bad, but it was also much later (in my career). I have a couple now, and they’re younger, but I can go to them and they understand what I do and the environment. But then I also have my tribe of females that are my age and a little younger, but they’re all female professionals and we can share different experiences, frustrations and challenges and be open with our advice and critiques.

How important is it to have a support group? 

Everyone should have their own personal board of directors. You don’t want them to all look like you — maybe three to four people, men and women. You maybe don’t share as much of your personal life with them, but they can help you with your professional life.

How has your board/tribe helped you? 

It has helped me in making some decisions about my career path. They have been people that I’ve been able to talk to when I was at a fork in the road just to get some advice; here’s pros and cons, what do you think? Am I being crazy? I have talked to them about different instances that have occurred in my professional life, and they’ve talked me off the ledge a little bit. There have been some very critical moments when the board has made a solid impact on where I am today.

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