Belinda Ross travelled away from home for the first time at age 19 on a Forest Service work assignment. She watched her mother cry as she headed toward what would become a growth-oriented, challenging, productive and fulfilling career. In this day of job mobility, Ross counts nearly 35 years in the same place as a human resources specialist in Lufkin, Texas, for the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas. She has served on union partnership council and multicultural advisory committees, been a recruiter, taught ethics, served as an advisor to a leadership team and has practiced nearly every human resources function during her career. In the end, she is well respected for her work, has always been country at heart and is one happy Forest Service career woman.
What advice do you give employees in today’s workplace?
Find a mentoring network of people who will actually help you through the processes you need to do your work.
Good communication skills and being proactive in your work are also very important. I’m the type that if you gave me 20 things to do, when you came back to check on me I had most of them done. I tell managers they need to be proactive in their roles and advise them on proper procedures, processes and legal requirements and how they can partner with their human relations specialist to fulfill their management team duties.
Also, I’d like to remind employees about the Federal Occupational Health Program for those who may be feeling overwhelmed and need someone to talk with. I think a number of employees are addressing family, credit or job issues. Sometimes life can hand you a bumpy ride and I can honestly tell employees that by calling the counselors at 1-800-222-0364 they’ll find someone who can really help.
Why did you want to work for the Forest Service?
I was working in a Social Security office after some business school training on the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program. My coworkers encouraged me to take the civil service test. I scored a pretty good score, was interviewed for a Forest Service job and decided to take it and begin working towards career growth and opportunity. With all the changes we’ve made, I’d have to say theForest Service is an awesome organization to work for.
I was 19 years old when I started here and had never been on an airplane. The Forest Service gave me the key to one of their trucks and sent me to the airport to fly to Atlanta, the first place my little country self ever travelled to alone. This is a long time ago but my mamma “boo-hooed” because I actually got on the plane and flew away from home. But this allowed me to see that I could do something with myself and the Forest Service is still like this. I worked with people who believed in me and I had mentors to encourage me in areas of talent. They helped me find my vision and build my strengths: public speaking and being detail-oriented in my work. They believed I could do those things.
What excites you about your job?
The people. For example, when I was in staffing a few years back, I called a man to offer him a job. I could tell the phone line was still open, but I couldn’t hear anything. This went on for a minute or so then he started to speak. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get a job for more than a year and when I heard your voice I just had to put the phone down and I started jumping up and down.”
Well, I know I made his day, but he made my day. So it’s the little things like that I enjoy. And things like helping someone with a pay issue or showing someone how to get insurance for their child. There are so many people-oriented things we do in human resources, and I just love helping them.
What are the unique challenges of your job?
I’d say the constant learning curve. I struggled with the tediousness of keeping up with all the reading, learning the laws, learning all the rules and regulations and every time you thought you had it figured out, you’d discover there was some little part you had forgotten to look at.
I learned about the Forest Service, and I learned the rules that made it work. There’s always a challenge to master. The work can be demanding, but when your heart is in the right place you always know that everything will work out. It’s not a piece of paper or a process, it’s a person you’re touching and that’s what counts.
You never let your ego get in the way. It’s not about you, it’s never about you. You always have to treat people with kindness and consideration because no matter how bad your day is or how messed up things are at your house or what your child did, the other person has problems too. You look around and say, “They are part of my family, too.” So pay it forward. I see the particular issue and say, “This is my engineer,” or “This is my forester,” or “This is my biologist.”
You bring such a wide range of abilities to the table and you say these are things you don’t learn in college?
On the job, you learn how to treat people, you learn how to be part of a team. You learn how to get people to cooperate when you’re good at what you do. If you have good communication skills, good negotiation skills and a solid sense of self, you can go in a room with 20 people and have them work for you because you know it’s not about you and that you’re not the most important person there. Those 20 people are the most important people and you apply the lessons you’ve learned to let them help you get the job done.
Like many organizations, the U.S. Forest Service has experienced a lot of changes in its personnel systems over time. How have you advised employees in navigating these changes?
Time and technology have shifted a lot of our practices. Electronic systems and centralized services driven by budget changes have replaced a lot of ways we’ve done things over the years, including more automated training opportunities. Newer employees haven’t experienced the older ways the agency has grown through and so adapt more easily to using the electronic systems to find answers to their personnel questions. Some of the older employees are a bit more resistant to using new, centralized services because they are used to dealing with a local person. I’ve worked on the forest my whole career, in human relations since 1983, so they have a certain degree of trust in asking me to help them.
I advise people to think in multiple directions and take the initiative to get the help they need and suggest three steps. First, review the (internal) human resources web page at the Albuquerque Service Center where they’ve outlined answers to the most frequent questions. I tell them it’s a good idea to become familiar with this page for helpful information. Second, learn how to submit their questions through the electronic ticketing system as these can be directed to the best person to help answer questions. The third step is to talk to your local specialist for advice on the information you need and what kinds of questions to ask. I’m quick to tell people what I know about a subject and then refer them to the call center to get the best advice on a specific issue.
If you could have dinner with five famous people who would they be and why?
First, my mamma. I would love to sit with her now that I am her age when she passed and talk to her about how she raised six kids with practically nothing. She cleaned houses for a living and lived with sheer will and determination. I would love for her to see my successes.
Second, I’d like to visit with President Obama and be able to talk with him on a deeper level with no holds barred and share in the conversation.
Third, my former supervisor of 10 years named Philip Ingram, who died last year. I’d like to tell him how he changed my life. Mr. Phil gave me his trust. He showed me that I could run a personnel shop and made me believe in myself.
The fourth person would be Maya Angelou because she’s been through so much. I caution people about being mistreated or basing their behavior on false perceptions so they don’t miss the real story. Maya’s fortitude, strength and advice are so relevant even at this late date.
Last but not least would be Lady O - Ms. Oprah Winfrey. I believe that people are born blessed, that your destiny is laid out. So all the things that have happened to me and in my life, both good and bad… I have been wonderfully blessed, and I’d just like to talk with Lady O and tell her about being born blessed, not the weather and the light stuff but the real stuff of life.
Do you have a particular memory that stands out in your Forest Service career?
I actually have two.
One year, it was really hot and we had a drought going on here in Texas. My grandpa, who lived to 96, lived in the country. He didn’t have running water. He was just an old guy living in the country, and we loved him more than life itself.
He went out one day even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to and lit a fire to burn some trash because that’s what old country people do. The fire got away from him and it was just burning, burning, burning. The Forest Service had some land across the field from where he lived. I have to tell you I cry every time I tell this story. I know most of the firefighters and employees by name. Well, once the call went in that he had started a fire, they brought the bulldozer, they brought the helicopter, they brought the whole Forest Service because they all knew he was my papa.
I saw the whole Forest Service show up and while the fire burned the wood on his house, it did not burn his house down. The helicopter found a pond out where there wasn’t any water and dropped bucket after bucket on the fire. He burned 26 acres but he didn’t lose his house because the Forest Service rolled that day.
My other favorite memory involves becoming certified as a human resources specialist and earning employment and classification authority. In 1997, I was flying back and forth to training classes in Atlanta while taking care of my daughter in high school, learning the rules and knowing when and how to apply them. It took me about a year and a half, but by 1998 I had achieved both getting the job and earning the necessary certifications to perfect my work. That was an awesome ride.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.