Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal of Atrium: “Be Compassionate”

Be Compassionate. I believe in compassionate leadership. We are all experiencing a lot in our lives currently, and there is no shortage of demands in the meantime ─ personally and professionally. Empathy is central to the work we do, and our community at work depends on it. When communicating constructive feedback today, a great deal […]

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Be Compassionate. I believe in compassionate leadership. We are all experiencing a lot in our lives currently, and there is no shortage of demands in the meantime ─ personally and professionally. Empathy is central to the work we do, and our community at work depends on it. When communicating constructive feedback today, a great deal of sensitivity is required. I make it a point to be thoughtful. Being supportive and aware of individual circumstances can help to frame communication positively. People are far more motivated when they can lean on their strengths, so I never want to focus on what may be perceived as a weakness. Mentoring is important to me. I strive to emphasize individual talents within each respective role and business operation at Atrium. In my opinion, it is the most effective way to grow confidence, productivity and winning teams.

We are living in a new world in which offices may feel obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal.

Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal is founder and CEO of Atrium, an all-inclusive partner for talent and contingent workforce solutions established in 1995 with a trademarked legacy of Applicant-Centric™ recruitment and a mission to build the workforce of tomorrow by putting people first. Often referred to as Atrium’s Chief Empowerment Officer, Rebecca is dedicated to safeguarding the human value in work culture by helping employer brands source unparalleled talent and technology-driven workforce solutions. Rebecca shares her appreciation for mentorship as a corporate partner and board member to 501c3 organization, Girl Talk Inc, and she is recognized by SIA as a 2021 Staffing 100 Most Influential Leader for elevating the industry and advancing the workforce solutions ecosystem through her business practices, processes, philosophies and people-first mindset. As a female founder and CEO, Cenni-Leventhal champions Diversity and Inclusion. She and her business are consistently recognized for innovation and growth by the Women’s Business Enterprise Council (WBENC), Women’s President’s Organization (WPO) and Inc. 5000, topping lists such as Crain’s New York Best Places to Work 2020, Forbes Best Temp Staffing and America’s Best Professional Recruiting Firms 2020.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My story has always been inspired by people. After studying Human Resources, my dream to grow positive culture and relationships within the workforce united my passion to my career path. When I graduated, the job I was seeking was out of reach (by about ten years of experience). However, I was young and optimistic, so “no thank you,” wasn’t an answer I was wiling to accept. My positivity paid off, and one of the staffing agencies I was working with to find a job offered me an opportunity to work with them as their first trainee. I happily accepted and was able to learn the ins-and-outs of recruitment and was thrilled to connect people with well-matched career opportunities. Right from the very start, I knew it was what I was meant to do!

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

The start-up phase of Atrium was definitely an interesting beginning to my entrepreneurial career. I founded my business in 1995 and was one of the first staffing agencies to offer co-paid medical benefits to contingent workers. Our ideology was heavily scrutinized by others in the industry! It was the right thing to do, so we stuck to our principles and took a chance. As a result, we grew a huge pool of qualified candidates, and our placements improved talent retention for our clients. Ultimately, it became a widely recognized differentiator for our business. Putting people first─ listening, valuing and respecting─ is a mission we are honored to continue championing more than 25 years later.

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

I shared a quote by Adrienne Rich on International Women’s Day this year that said, “The most important thing one woman can do for another is expand her sense of possibilities.” It’s a mission I am honored to pursue and a life lesson that resonated with me in college thanks to a woman I admired greatly. She was a smart, independent, and business savvy entrepreneur who was making a name for herself while I watched, in awe. Because of her, I was able to envision myself pursuing my business dream.

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?

My team! While not just one person, we are a cohesive unit, and I absolutely would not be where I am today without each of my partners and the dynamic lineup of talent they are continually building. I am forever grateful for the tenure and loyalty of my executive team. Thanks to their steadfast leadership and dedication to Atrium’s mission, we have overcome many challenges together and shared many successes. Their openness to learning and willingness to adapt, as well as the speed by which they pivot business initiatives to meet new and changing needs is what keeps us growing forward together.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Collaboration and inclusion are two things that stand out when I think of how our teams benefit from being physically together. When we are working side-by-side, we watch and learn from one another- -even just overhearing others’ conversations can be helpful, while witnessing how they handle different situations. Things like having lunch in the café and chatting with a colleague you don’t work with directly can offer opportunities for cross collaboration and problem solving. With an office setting where we are physically together, you are interacting with those you work with on a daily basis as well as those you do not, which can allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the business on a day-to-day basis. There are benefits to in-person human connection. It creates stronger relationships, offering moments for mentorship, team building and employee engagement.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

Fortunately, technology has given us a lot of amazing tools to bridge the gap so we can function cohesively while working separately. Unfortunately, remote technology is no substitute for human connection. In my experience, even the best digital solutions are unable to create the happenstances that result from our in-person interaction. Without a disciplined approach by every individual to stay connected, within and without their respective job functions, we lose some of the camaraderie, and momentum that naturally derives from a physical workplace. Even something as simple as calling a colleague to chat through lunch can be a powerful way to stay connected and motivated. Because so many of our interactions with colleagues are formally scheduled on our calendars, impromptu get togethers don’t happen as frequently as we think could benefit our staff, and we work every day to make them happen!

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need to Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. A Make-It-Happen Mindset. You must be present even when you can’t be physically present. Being conscious of how you can authentically connect on a regular basis takes extra time and effort. In the absence of a physical workplace, communication can feel less obvious. You may not even notice what is missing! So, you must consciously plan for it, and make it happen. Team leaders can create opportunities for daily interaction and simple gatherings. It’s important to encourage participation in companywide activities. Even if they’re optional and your time is limited, it’s valuable for everyone to engage. For many, getting in front of executive leaders from a distance can be a challenge. If you stay on top of industry trends, you can be a greater resource to the business and create opportunities to share insight at a high level.. By sharing information or offering to take on additional projects and/or lead new initiatives you can assure your efforts are consistently recognized in a remote environment. As a leader in an industry that is constantly changing, there is a great deal of value in having the support of an expert communicator to help continually connect all of the moving parts. Our Director of Communications, for instance, makes it a point to stay connected to those she is not seeing more regularly by scheduling one-on-one time with executive leaders. Whether important feedback and messaging or casual conversations, the constant communication helps us stay on top of evolving business needs. In addition to improving processes, meeting outcomes and results, it is energizing to see a friendly face/ hear a familiar voice. Maintaining some constants amid all of the new and changing variables can be very refreshing.
  2. Be Creative. Tradition is wonderful, but we are learning that there is a lot of value in breaking it every once in a while. Upskilling at all levels is imperative. Learning new concepts and finding creative ways to enhance business operations, service and solutions are central to long-lasting success. As an example, our VPs of Staffing and Enterprise Solutions are identifying new ways to capture the attention of current and potential business without more regular in-person meetings that had been a prominent practice. From virtual coffee to digital campaigns, now is the time to get creative. While our world advances all around us, one of the communications I encourage is a handwritten note.
  3. Be Inclusive. Without a physical space where you can engage with your entire staff at large, making sure every person feels included and valued can be challenging. Create activities for small and large assemblies. Be sure there are frequent opportunities for engagement outside of business obligations. Having a dedicated Employee Experience team, Remote Employee Manager or Culture Committee can help to ensure all employees are heard and engaged. Work is becoming even more personal than ever before, and it’s important for us to make sure everyone feels at home with Atrium. Opportunities for personal interaction are a valuable way to assure sense of belonging for all. Establishing social groups that emphasize shared interests like books, cooking and music can be a great way to keep everyone learning and connected with one another.
  4. Be a Better Listener. The onset of the pandemic was rapid, and we are all moving rapidly, too. Business depends on speed and agility, so it can be easy to get swept away with tasks and what’s needed to get things done quickly and effectively. Listening, rather than simply hearing, can take additional time, but it’s a critical component of communication. When collaborating remotely, it’s an especially valuable skill. Listen. Ask questions. Does everyone have the same understanding of the objectives? Comprehending each perspective can grow valuable insight, so I often take pause before pursuing an action plan. The extra time up front saves even more precious time in the end.
  5. Be Compassionate. I believe in compassionate leadership. We are all experiencing a lot in our lives currently, and there is no shortage of demands in the meantime─ personally and professionally. Empathy is central to the work we do, and our community at work depends on it. When communicating constructive feedback today, a great deal of sensitivity is required. I make it a point to be thoughtful. Being supportive and aware of individual circumstances can help to frame communication positively. People are far more motivated when they can lean on their strengths, so I never want to focus on what may be perceived as a weakness. Mentoring is important to me. I strive to emphasize individual talents within each respective role and business operation at Atrium. In my opinion, it is the most effective way to grow confidence, productivity and winning teams.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

Our VP of Technology made the call to vet new web-based phone technologies. In an instant, it allowed us to avoid some of the phone-related issues we’ve seen impact our peers. The decision-making process involved a focus group to assure feedback was received from a diverse group of stakeholders across various business functions. Ultimately, this led to successful adoption of a cloud-based business communications solution. The innovative, quick thinking from our tech team has been constant since the onset of COVID-19, and for that, I am grateful.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

Telecommunication platforms like Zoom, WebEx, and Teams offered us video platforms which brought a welcomed sense of togetherness to meetings and activities in the absence of our regional offices. Our Employee Experience Managers introduced us to wellness and engagement applications like HayDay and Ten Spot and partners like SYMBA powered internship programs remotely. I’m immensely proud of the creative thinking and collaboration that helped us not just overcome challenges but allowed us to achieve new and evolving goals.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

Teleportation! Women are known for multitasking. Some of the best executives I know relate their skillsets to being a mom. Imagine if we could be present for all of life’s big events, both personally and professionally. The digital transformation is helping us take a bit more of our precious time back, but business could surely benefit from the agility that comes from transforming complex travel/logistics and time restraints into a commuting instant.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

Unified communications can be a serious challenge for organizations of all sizes in today’s evolving work environments. Productivity is central to results, and we all want to optimize processes to ensure our day-to-day is not bogged down by repetitive tasks. We have an amazing Automations team who continually optimizes workflows to relieve staff of administrative work that keeps them from the more strategic elements of their job functions. From a communications perspective, it’s not always that simple. Effective communication requires consistency, and while each platform is relevant to a specific audience, the message itself may be the same. We have found that among our employees there are different preferred channels for receiving/delivering information. What works well for one team or function, doesn’t necessarily work well for all. In some instances, the solution can be as simple as a procedural adjustment. So, for example, we often leverage Microsoft Yammer for internal memos, but to be certain the message reaches employees who may not have fully adopted the application, our standard procedure is to select the “announcement,” function which simultaneously automates the message as an email through Microsoft Outlook. We strive to accommodate their preferences as much as possible.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you? Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

It’s an exciting time for technology. Especially when considering how brands stay connected to younger generations like Millennials/Gen Y, Gen X or Gen Z, we must continue to get to know the virtual communities they connect with. In 2030, it’s likely that these three generations will comprise 2/3 of the workforce. So, it’s important to understand how to best accommodate their workplace needs. However, digital, or not, to build inclusive experiences, we must identify which tools speak best to each demographic and find ways to engage all of them effectively. In my opinion, it’s good to try new things and incorporate variety to engage people as individuals. However, it’s equally important to maintain tradition and who you are as a brand at the core. For us, relationships are central to everything we do. We’d love the occasion to strengthen them through VR, AR and Mixed Reality, but I can’t imagine ever replacing the ever-important human connection that comes from building community together by way of actual reality.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

It feels like everything that was cutting edge about sales and marketing in 2020 changed in an instant because of the pandemic. We embrace video meetings and innovative ways to connect with clients like virtual coffee and events. When it comes to chat bots, marketing automation and CRMs, they contribute a great deal of value to the vast amount of work that’s needed today. However, I think we may find that human connection is a business differentiator of future customer relationships. We are analyzing various use cases to study challenges and identify the best long-term solutions for the optimization of communications processes, both internal and external. There are still many unknowns. It’s important to me that we take time to evaluate and truly understand what best complements the talents within our workforce to most fully benefit our customers. It’s been incredible to see the increased speed and efficiency by which we can communicate with the help of new technology. That is something that I think we all can appreciate. It’s an exciting time!

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

It’s true, feedback is easier to demonstrate when standing face-to-face. For this reason, I lean heavily on video communications. Empathy is a vital component of leadership, and I always want my communications to be genuinely received and understood. Prior to giving any constructive criticism, I believe it’s important to acknowledge several positives. Fair-mindedness in today’s environment requires sensitivity. Not only are we all learning rapidly, our work and homes lives are also much more conducive to stress. Burnout is a serious threat to every worker today. As we speed-up our communications and optimize efficiency with the help of technology, we must be careful to acknowledge the increased production and pace of our workforce. While often seen as positive improvements, they can sometimes lead to overwhelm and exhaustion. Be sensitive to the changed nature of work today when evaluating performance. When communicating feedback virtually, it’s important to pay extra attention to your body language. Communicating care and support is essential to workforce success and can be difficult to achieve in a remote environment.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

My dream when I began building my business was to cultivate an energizing and collaborative work environment that inspires community beyond office walls. Relationships are the foundation of the work we do, so while we may not be able to nurture them face-to-face in our newly remote environment, we are still very committed to staying connected with one another — colleagues, candidates, and clients alike.

The enthusiasm we have for personal connections at work is very important to our team’s dynamic. We strive to be hyperconscious of milestone life events and personal achievements. Managers are taking extra steps to assure we are staying connected to conversations that we may otherwise only have heard when working together in an office. It’s perhaps more important now than ever before to check-in on one another, as friends and colleagues.

Microsoft Teams has been a big hit with our employees. The chat feature helps us share messages instantly, and meetings have a video option as well. Even outside of meetings or collaborative projects, some are choosing to livestream their video application to work separately together. Video messages outside of formal meetings are also making an impact. We find that recording and sharing a video message really personalizes the sentiment, and employees love receiving them from one another. Our Employee Experience Manager is also getting creative to assure engagement. From team lunches to trivia and quick hellos, there is no shortage of virtual opportunities for team building, camaraderie, and fun. These all are perhaps more important now than ever before.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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’ve always believed in the power of a pay-it-forward mentality. In fact, the Virtuous Circle concept is what inspired Atrium’s Applicant-Centric™ trademark. In my experience, good begets good, and I strive to give as much as I can as a mentor, leader and mom. I believe that even the smallest ripple of positivity can create big waves of positive change, and my goal is always to make an even bigger splash!

How can our readers further follow your work online? Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success!

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