Christine Abbate: “To create a fantastic work culture, trust your people”

Trust Your People — To make our company a great place to work, we trust each other to do our very best. We support and encourage people to push themselves to do better every day — being open and honest and valuing others is important. Sometimes as a leader you cannot be everywhere and in order to see the […]

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Trust Your People — To make our company a great place to work, we trust each other to do our very best. We support and encourage people to push themselves to do better every day — being open and honest and valuing others is important. Sometimes as a leader you cannot be everywhere and in order to see the bigger picture, you need to step away and trust that your team can take care of the details. This trust has truly empowered the team members to lead and to take responsibility in ways that continue to amaze me.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Abbate, Founder and President of Novità Communications, a Marketing and PR agency focused on the design and architecture community. Prior to founding the agency in 1996, Chris was the Director of Marketing and Promotion for the Italian Tile Center of the Italian Trade Commission in New York. Fluent in Italian, Chris is a co-founder of the BROOKLYN DESIGNS Show, on the Board of Trustees for DIFFA, Board of Advisors for NYCxDESIGN and the Advisory Board of Plus Pool. A creative connector and consummate networker, Chris has developed Novità into one of the top PR/Marketing/Social agencies in the design world — ranked as Observer Media’s Top 50 PR firms. Outside the office, she is often shopping flea markets for finds, searching for porcinis in the Dolomites, or making berry pie.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Christine! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In 1996 I had just had my second child in two years and while enjoying full-timing parenting, was missing my work life. I had left my dream job at the Italian Trade Commission and yearned to have a life that balanced both sides of my identity. I did not want to commute to Manhattan and leave my new babies, so I pitched the idea to my colleagues to let me do the PR side of the business. I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a book about writing press releases and the rest is history. 24 years later, our original client, the Italian ceramic tile industry is still our client. This is due to a workstyle and passion that extends beyond our internal team to our beloved clients. Our work with Italian ceramics grew to cover all design and architecture and our practice grew organically in the process as we work with products and designers from around the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The fact is that every day is really interesting in our world. It is because of the kinds of clients that we work with. We are picky. They have to be both lovely to work with and have a compelling story worth telling. This has been a bit of the secret sauce of our success. We built slowly so that we never took on projects or clients that we were not completely excited about ourselves. Our work has taken us around the world to explore water related products in the Black Forest of Germany to the design scene in Italy and Poland. We have represented the US five times in high-profile installations at the Venice Biennale, EXPO and most recently the Triennale.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Spring is a very busy time for us with so many exciting initiatives. We are the NA representatives for Salone which is the world’s number one design fair so we are gearing up for that. We also represent the Architectural Digest Design Show and NeoCon — two other fantastic exhibitions where the very best design for home and commercial settings are on display.

By working on broader shows, we engage the staff in the action, from the planning to the onsite events. We are all eager to help our clients that include exhibitors, speakers, media partners, etc.

We do a lot of work on the subject of sustainability. We hope that our work in this area is helping to move the planet forward. This is also something that gives our teammates the sense of purpose. We were honored to be selected as the team behind the US Pavilion at the Milan Triennale around the theme of Broken Nature and sustainability. It’s been such an honor to work with so many talented individuals and represent our country on a global scale.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I really feel that many work environments could make their employees so much happier by making small changes. There is nothing that is more appealing to an individual than the sense that they are in control of things — even just the small things. Flexibility can be such an invaluable gift to employees. Now I know not all companies can offer that much flexibility -but even some helps. And certainly displaying more empathy for the workforce and showing appreciation goes a long way in helping to build morale.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

An unhappy team can totally change your dynamic. Productivity will decline, new ideas will stagnate and all of this will compound your bottom line but also the well being of the team. A happy team wants to come to work — an unhappy team doesn’t.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Stronger together — By empowering others to share in the mission-based goal of creating a great work culture and have accountability, a team becomes stronger together — it is about creating mindshare and knowing takes a village to make a company whole. This means creating an environment where people help each other, jumping in when your teammates need an extra hand — working together grows trust and respect for one another — in the end it is all about teamwork toward a common goal. So many times, we have heard about other agencies being cut-throat. Our company is truly the most supportive environment I have every experienced. Everyone works hard — yet everyone is there to support each other. It is truly awe-inspiring. e.g. Right now is our busiest time of the year so everyone is working to help achieve our goals.
  2. Everyone has a Voice — It is important to not only lead by example but keep an open mind and be open to change — Continuous improvement is as important for us as individuals as it is for the business itself. Learning from our experiences and being able to use feedback to improve our performance is key. We recognize sometimes the best ideas come from others or trying new things. Value everyone’s opinion at every level, this allows space for personal growth and fosters a community where new ideas are welcome and great ideas are born. e.g. We love our interns and sometimes when we have our team meetings they will bring new and fresh ideas we hadn’t thought about. Let everyone have a voice and they’ll feel empowered. We really don’t focus on the hierarchy.
  3. Get Personal — We understand there is not a one size fits all solution for work, in every aspect from benefits to hours to even location. Everyone’s personal workstyles and needs for success look different depending on the life stage each individual may be in. For instance, a mom may want to work from home to be there to pick up the kids from school or others may work better with a later start — knowing there is flexibility and personalization based on needs and preferences not only fosters a great work environment but creates success and builds trust. We also look to play into each person’s strengths to allow them to really grow — while we expose them to new things as well. Encouraging and facilitating personal training and opportunities for leadership in our industry is critical and we have facilitated language classes, board participation and volunteer opportunities.
  4. Do the Right Thing — Every day we act with integrity which is vital in keeping the trust and respect of our customers and colleagues. We believe in expressing our gratitude verbally as well as celebrating the little and the big things is key for us — this could be a 2PM Starbucks run or ‘fun’ catered lunch at local favorite just because. At Novita from interns to VP’s everyone is celebrated and appreciated verbally and non-verbally. Our team stands up for what’s right and always consider how our actions impact the business and the wider community.
  5. Trust your People — To make Novità a great place to work, we trust each other to do our very best. We support and encourage people to push themselves to do better every day — being open and honest and valuing others is important. Sometimes as a leader you cannot be everywhere and in order to see the bigger picture, you need to step away and trust that your team can take care of the details. This trust has truly empowered the team members to lead and to take responsibility in ways that continue to amaze me.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Again, I cannot emphasize enough the flexibility culture. If someone needs to work from home, allowing them to do it, and trust that the work will be done — I find that people work even harder at home without distractions. This is the future with remote workers having new tools that make them highly productive members of a team.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Fair and Fun. The team is like another family for me, so I like to look after them that way. If they need to be home to look after a sick child I’m not going to make them take that as vacation or a sick day as that isn’t a vacation is it?

When the weather is inclement I won’t force them in as we can work anywhere in the world if needed. I trust my team to deliver and they tend to usually go above and beyond for us as well as our clients.

As for fun we all like to let our hair down and you can usually find me dancing up a storm at our annual summer party we throw for our clients and friends. We also are a creative bunch so have twice yearly planning sessions where we regroup outside of the office and make bread or holiday wreaths and recently visited a wonderful farm in NJ to learn about farm to table dining.

We encourage personal development, which I think is really important. We pay for training opportunities and encourage our teammates to make time for volunteer work as it is so important to their own personal development and life satisfaction.

I try to really let my team leaders lead — offering my support whenever they need it. I think they really appreciate the autonomy and control that this gives them. I try to share the international travel opportunities with the team fairly — and give young parents the opportunity to pass on travel as it keeps them far from their young children.

I try to really listen and praise everyone when they have done a particularly good job. We have regular discussions about performance and am trying to do more profit sharing to give back to the team that makes it all happen!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have helped along the way…and I so value all my relationships and the support I receive on a daily basis. But, I do need to give a special call out to my Senior Vice President, Danielle McWilliams. Fifteen years ago she joined us as an intern and she made such a big impression that I hired her straight of school as our second full-time employee. Since then she’s helped grow the business, offer counsel and is a good friend. In fact, Danielle and Kristin Coleman, Alexandra Zwicky and Lucy Mathias are all critical leaders that have contributed to the company’s success and have over 44 years of combined service.. And they are all under 35.

I have also been lucky enough to have collaborated with other PR professionals in other agencies that have been friends and supporters and mentors to me. Our industry is lovely that way too. We are friendly competitors that compete against each other — but are also very supportive and work to move our industry forward.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We offer our services pro bono to the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS and are there to help them with all their signature events. They do so much educating and fundraising we are so fortunate to be able to collaborate with them.

I also feel that by working with clients that are making a difference on the sustainability front and telling their stories, we are creating awareness and demand for lasting products that are made responsibly.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I studied international relations in college with a minor in art history and I wondered what kind of career that would lead to. I have found myself in a truly global company that is using design/art/architecture to bridge gaps and create synergies across the world. I really believe in that quote that if you “put good out there, it comes back to you” So far, our team and our clients have truly been sharing great design, cultural awareness and sustainability focused work and it keeps evolving and expanding with so many good projects and opportunities coming back to us. We are positive and hopeful and care a great deal about our partners and each other and that really makes a difference in the work that we do and the lives that we are leading.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I really feel that the idea of allowing parents to work around their kids at home is so powerful. Eventually those kids get older, and the parents that have been afforded that opportunity never forget it and are really different workers.

But this goes beyond parenting. We have remote workers across the country and the world. Initially, I was nervous about it all but now I see how well it can work for the workers as well as the agency. They seem healthier and happier and the employees that want to come into the office have that environment too. But even for the remote workers, it is important to create moments when then can gather with the larger office community — either through an internet connection or in person.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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