BABE #206: JULIE LANKA — Accounts Manager & HR, West Michigan Roofing
At BWH, we believe that no one hustles quite as hard as a single working Mom. Today’s Babe is a prime example of exactly that, and she happens to be the Babe who taught (and raised) our own Creative Director, Mara to be a BWH herself. With 20 years of service industry experience, countless hours of volunteer work, two daughters, and a invaluable HR experience under her belt, Julie Lanka — aka Mara's mom — is a BWH to be reckoned with and we are honored to share her story today!
Hometown: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Current city: Grand Haven, Michigan
Alma mater: Western Michigan University
Degree: Business Administration
Very first job: Sales Clerk, Famous Footwear
Hustle: Accounts Manager, HR — West Michigan Roofing
Babe you admire and why?
Mara Strobel-Lanka, because of her neverending ability to be open, honest and kind. She is generous of spirit and fun to be with. In my darker times, I can find comfort in knowing I was even a part of creating such a beautiful, spirited human.
How do you spend your free time?
Volunteering—at my younger daughter’s school, Kiwanis or any organization that invites me to do so.
Favorite fictional female character?
Merida in the Disney movie “Brave.” I love Merida’s fierce devotion to being true to herself and sticking with what her gut feels to be right.
Current power anthem?
Well, this shows I need more music in my life—I have to go with Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
What would you eat for your very last meal?
I would do it up right. Several courses, from amuse-bouche to dessert, and with each course I would have a paired wine!
What’s something you want to learn or master?
Fine wines—I would love to become a sommelier!
What’s something most don't know about you?
I earned a yellow belt in Taekwondo (with two stripes).
Tell us about your hustle.
I am the accounts manager and do HR for West Michigan Roofing. I joke that I only manage two accounts: payables and receivables. The company only has 22 employees, so we all pitch in where needed. I have no role in scheduling or in anything technical about construction, but I manage the administration of all other aspects of the business.
What does your typical workday look like?
My days are not glamorous, by any means. I wish we could go back to the good ol’ nine-to-five (like the movie), but instead I’m more like a “7:50 to 5:15 on a good day” worker (not so catchy, huh?). I do everything, from the most menial tasks of housekeeping and answering phones, to the tough things like handling client disputes and reconciling accounts and payroll; and then also the fun stuff, like planning employee parties and making birthday lunches.
What led you to pursue a career in HR?
HR honestly plunked on my lap. In business school I had three or four classes covering just HR, but I didn’t go out looking to work in that field, per say. My first job was with a small manufacturer that was rapidly growing, and I was the one who took on HR duties simply because nobody else had any idea of how to do them. I’ve always had the willingness to take any refresher course or seminar I can to keep current, and that willingness has kept me in the running ever since. I am well suited for HR because I’m a rules person, but not to the extreme of being inflexible. Plus, I am a natural nurturer, which helps in many facets of HR.
In your experience, what are the most important traits when it comes to leading an office?
I think integrity is key in any leadership role. Most people can learn the tasks in any office environment, but without being known for your accountability and your intention to always do what’s best for the company, your role will not be in leadership. I developed my knowledge base by working in many office environments and taking note of the best practices I’ve seen. But for me, integrity hasn’t been hard to develop—it’s almost involuntary. I try to encourage others to focus on integrity by steering clear of drama and staying focused at work. There is a time and a place for everything, and work really does need to be the time and place when you’re focused on performing well.
What did your hustle look like before you started at West Michigan Roofing?
More of my life than not I have worked two jobs—one main one, and then also a side hustle. For about 20 years, my side hustle was as a server or bartender. I can’t say enough about the skills I developed in the service industry! Sure, it may be the only industry where clients come to you, literally hungering for your product, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy sales gig. It’s a great starting point for anyone in sales.
How did your experience in the service industry influence your role in HR?
In HR, it’s really critical to be able to read people and know where they can fit in as a member of a team. Working as a server/bartender was a constant exercise in reading people. It’s also very physically demanding work, so I could empathize with the factory workers (much to their surprise) about hard physical labor. That empathy bought me some “cred,” and as their HR person I was much more approachable than I would be had I not had developed some rapport. I’ve always had leadership qualities. They have come so naturally to me that I was called a bully in elementary school. I had to learn how to reign them in when needed, and to pick and choose when to lead and when to allow others to do so. I think that came from seeing my parents and uncles volunteering and taking on leadership roles in their volunteer organizations while I was growing up.
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
My biggest career milestone was very recent. I’d had enough of HR in factories. They are too susceptible to the smallest hiccups in the economy, and they can be such a negative environment—they just suck the joy right out of me. So despite that being where I was most qualified, I decided to avoid working in factories at all costs. It took a couple of tries before I was able to find something different that worked for me, and boy that was a really brutal few months of wrong turns and of starting over time and time again! My current position did necessitate some sacrifices (it has no benefits, and almost no paid time off) but I am finally out of that toxic world of factories.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
As HR, I’ve always known what everyone makes, and had a part in determining those wages in many instances. I can say that as women, we are all affected by making much less than our male counterparts—and I’m no different. I know I make a fraction of what my male counterparts make, and many times they get benefits I do not (even if they are the intangible ones, like golf with the big-wigs or drinks after work). I do see some ways, however, that being a woman has made me better in my role. For instance, as HR I’ve tapped into my nurturing motherly self on many occasions, and I know I made some experiences much more tolerable for my peers as a result.
What’s one of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work?
In my area, small manufacturing companies do not value HR as they should. They have smaller budgets, and it’s so difficult to quantify or put a value on the benefits of employing an HR professional. Larger companies seem to get it—they are able to grow and prosper due to following best practices. But the smaller ones I worked for see HR as a role that can be discarded when their budget shrinks, with just a few of the duties dispersed amongst other employees. I cannot say I overcame that obstacle—I simply left the industry.
What do you look for in prospective employees during the hiring process?
At every step, I’m looking for signs that candidates want this job. Did they follow the instructions for applying? Did they tailor their cover letter or resume to show the relevance of their experience to this position? Are they willing to interview right away, more than once, near or far? Do they have good questions about the environment and the position itself? Have they envisioned their daily routine here? Have they thought about what this position might turn into over a couple of years?
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
My best advice for anyone looking to break into HR is to either get your master’s degree, or go into HR in healthcare instead of manufacturing. The jobs in HR that do not require a master’s degree are more readily available, but rarely have job security or competitive salaries. Also, the larger the business, typically the more opportunities for upward mobility.
What motivates and inspires you? What does success look like to you?
This is a great question, and one I do not think of often enough. Thankfully, my wonderful daughter reminds me periodically to think about this. I definitely am aware I need more beauty in my life, in the form of the arts—every form of the arts. Music and being in nature inspires me, and wanting to be a great mom, leader, daughter, friend and employee motivates me. To me, success looks like being content with what I already have, and striving for more learning/sharing/growing opportunities.
What is your philosophy on work-life balance?
That elusive work-life balance can be so tough to make happen! I have not yet mastered it, if I’m being honest. I wish I could claim to have some glamorous ways of managing stress, like rock climbing or going to concerts and dancing the night away, but as a single mom I am pretty content with nights at home with my kiddo, playing Rummikub or watching “Modern Family” at dinner. The simple things ground me.
What are some notable experiences you’ve had on the job?
A factory worker came to me once, afraid to go home because he thought he would hurt his wife or his own self. He was very clear he didn’t want to harm me and that he was coming to me because he trusted I would take him seriously and get him some help. Thankfully, our company had a really good employee assistance plan, so we were able to speak with someone in triage at a local hospital, and they sent the police to take him to the hospital right away, where he was admitted and received treatment. On a happier note, I was able to give the good news many times to temporary workers that they had earned a permanent position. One time that news was greeted with tears of joy, hugs and songs of praise because now this gentleman could afford treatment for his sick mother. That display of gratitude and joy has stuck with me for over three years.
What’s your ultimate dream job?
The ultimate dream job would be a sommelier. Can you imagine learning so much about something you love that you get paid to help introduce others to your passion and help them enjoy it!? Not to mention, you could work anywhere—your work could be fun travel!
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Keep an open mind and try to grow it a little every day.
In partnership with:
Warby Parker is home to a trendy, socially-conscious eyeglass collection (with a kickass startup success story.) At BWH, we're big fans of their Home Try-On Program, where you can select 5 different frames online, have them delivered to your door, take 'em for a spin, pick out your faves, then send them all back — all before spending a dime. Learn more about it here.
*This is an affiliate partnership. That means when you shop using the links we provide, a portion of your purchase comes right back to us, so we can (1) keep the lights on and (2) continue creating content for you. Of course, we only promote brands and products we genuinely stand behind. Thank you so much for your support!