Atrium CEO Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal: “Why you should take more risks”

Authority Magazine
Jan 27, 2020 · 13 min read

Take more risks. Identify the fear that’s keeping you from the reward you’re seeking. Then make a plan to overcome it. Never allow fear to dictate your decisions. If you believe in your vision, the value of your fear is worth far less than the value of your mission. Challenge yourself to try something new. That’s how you continually learn and grow. I’m raising honey bees despite my fear and hesitation, and it’s become my favorite pastime! It’s hard to put yourself out there and be vulnerable, but new experiences build confidence. Sometimes the hardest part is as simple as getting started. As my business and social trends continue to evolve, I’ve had to adapt. It pushes me out of my comfort zone, but it’s key to remaining relevant. If you stay true to who you are, your message will be appreciated by your audience. Perhaps more importantly, your authenticity will be appreciated by you.

had the pleasure to interview Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal. Rebecca is founder and CEO of Atrium, a leading workforce solutions firm founded in 1995 with a revolutionary Applicant-Centric™ recruitment model. Today, Rebecca continues to focus on strengthening the human value in work culture through her all-inclusive talent solutions that complement partnerships across fifty states. Often referred to as Atrium’s Chief Empowerment Officer, Cenni-Leventhal not only nurtures talent within her organization, but also shares her passion for mentorship with Girl Talk Inc. and New York Business Journal. Atrium is recognized as a champion of supplier diversity, topping the lists of 2019 North America Staffing 100, Inc. 5000 and Diversity Business as a leader of Women, Diversity and Privately Held organizations. Honored by the Women’s President’s Organization as one of the top 50 Women 2 Watch as well as one of the 50 Fastest Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies in North America, Rebecca and her business’s devotion to people and Humanistic Resources is demonstrated by Atrium’s recent recognition by Crain’s New York Business as one of 2019’s Best Places to Work. Dedicated to a legacy of good, Rebecca ensures that her founding principles– listening, valuing and respecting– remain the heartbeat of her organization.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

eople- my story has always been inspired by people. I followed my passion and studied Human Resources at the University of Wisconsin. After graduating college and not being able to secure the high-level HR roles I was naively seeking, I frequented many staffing agencies. I was optimistic despite being told I did not qualify for the positions I was targeting. On a particularly challenging interview day, after a series of “no thank yous,” I made a final stop at yet another agency. This time, I couldn’t take “no,” for an answer and asked to speak with the management team directly. My persistence paid off. The Director appreciated my pluck and asked if I’d be interested in working for their staffing agency as their very first trainee. I obliged and began learning everything I could about the industry. I fell in love!

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

I don’t know if it’s the most interesting, but I was thrilled for Atrium to participate in a segment on ABC’s “20/20” with Diane Sawyer last year. I mean, who doesn’t love Diane Sawyer? The episode was entitled “Screen Time,” and takes a deep dive into how our mobile devices impact our daily lives and our perception. It was so much fun for my team and me. We learned a lot!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The foundation of my 1995 business plan was considered a funny mistake to many people in the industry. I was one of the first agencies to offer co-paid medical benefits to my contingent workforce 25 years ago. The concept was heavily scrutinized, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I resolved to believe in myself, and beyond becoming a trademarked differentiator for my business, Applicant-Centric™ grew retention rates, and we were able to build an incredible pool of referral talent based on a foundation of trust.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

For me, it happened the other way around. The role found me! It’s a leadership position that I never imagined having when I was busy making my plans for life and career. There’s a lot to like and dislike about being in the role of CEO. I never considered myself an entrepreneur, but rather a people person. In this industry, my skills have organically taken me into my role as CEO. The freedom to create my own path is something I value greatly, and something I encourage those around me to pursue as well. It’s motivating to see team members thrive in their role when given the required autonomy. It’s what continues to drive innovation within our organization and relevance within the market today. I couldn’t do what I do without the talented people that surround me.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

CEO’s make hard decisions–constantly. Between a heavily saturated schedule, flurry of leadership opinions, ever changing client needs and the pressure of market demands you cannot afford to get stuck at road blocks. You always have to reflect on the big picture to think ahead. There is a special balance of emotion that must be understood to successfully run a business and treat people with kindness, respect and dignity. Trusting in your judgement and remaining steadfast to your vision are essential for long-term success.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

The ability to impact change is my favorite part about being an executive. I often tell people that the word “no” does not exist in my vocabulary. I see it as a moment for pivoting. As an executive, I can pivot as needed. Being adaptable is essential to business and the freedom to make those decisions is fulfilling.

I also really enjoy engaging my creative side and am as deeply involved in those facets today as I was in the beginning. It’s important to me that we stay connected to our 1995 roots as we plan for our future, and I strive to constantly evolve. From the messaging behind our content to the design and color schemes of Atrium’s NYC headquarters, I enjoy all stages of the creative process.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Balance. It doesn’t exist. As a business owner and executive, the work never ends– and we don’t want it to. There are always ebbs and flows, and you must learn to ride the waves. Family is everything to me, and it can be challenging to meet the demands of being a Mom while also taking care of business. Sometimes there doesn’t feel like enough time in the day- that’s when I remind myself to prioritize what’s important.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

That being the boss somehow makes it easier. Leadership may come naturally to some, but management is tough. Your team is depending on you to provide sound strategy, and the decisions you make impact the success of your business and the businesses you are supporting. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding. The relationships I’ve grown through my journey are what make it all worthwhile.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women have a unique and special role in this universe. While our role has great challenges that most men do not necessarily have to face, it is full of boundless opportunities as well. Let’s face it, women are the carriers of humanity. That’s probably why women, in my opinion, are so well-suited to lead, create new businesses and opportunities for other humans, and manage to get through the challenges of, and all decisions related to pregnancy — including whether or not to have children, when to have children and then transitioning to intertwine your new (and never-ending) parenting responsibilities with your professional life. The everlasting link between motherhood and businesswoman is lifechanging. It’s a challenge that men, quite frankly, do not have. But women are also uniquely equipped with an innate quality of being able to manage it all and succeed! We have immense values, skills and talent and are well suited for our special role as mothers which is invaluable to the home as well as the workplace.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I don’t think I had true expectations when I began building my business. I was twenty-four, hopeful and simply excited to follow my dreams. My inspiration comes from people– those we help find jobs, those we help find talent and those within my organization who grow our community. That’s no different today than it was back in 1995. My job, on the other hand, is quite different today! My business grew organically, and I grew along with it. I’m fond of the day-to-day and ever since “starting-up” find it motivating to be “in the grind.” The metamorphosis of my role has been from doing to teaching, and my focus has shifted my responsibilities from those of instant gratification to big picture initiatives involving long-term strategies. Whatever the task at hand, I will always be thankful to be a part of an industry where I can continually influence on behalf of our greatest resource, human value.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

People who thrive and grow into executive roles have a great acumen for relationship building and strong communication skills. They know how to adapt to change as well as adapt to different environments, culture and management styles. But most importantly they take chances through “calculated” risks. Don’t take the executive career path if you don’t enjoy problem solving.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

“Just do it!” I love Nike’s slogan. Don’t over think it– take a chance, and make it happen. Knowledge is power, so never stop learning. Consistently seek new information and challenge yourself and your team to develop ways to “do it better.” Innovation and creative thinking improve process and cultivate an organization’s growth mindset. That is the kind of culture that allows your team and your business to continue scaling.

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?

It’s difficult to choose just one. My partners at Atrium are without a doubt, the business pillars. Having them on my team and seeing the success they generate within their teams fills me with immense gratitude. I could never be where I am today without the loyalty and tenure of leaders. They have been with me since the early years, and we have overcome many challenges together. They have taken on different roles throughout the evolution of the organization, and we continually grow together. We are only as good as the people who surround us.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’d like to think I’ve had a hand in making people’s lives a little better, because that was the vision I had when I made the decision to begin building my business. The design of Applicant-Centric™ was to improve the job seeker experience, and integrity is the foundation on which all of our partnerships are established. Atrium’s purpose is to help people find jobs and develop careers. The jobs we create and/or fill through our business partnerships keep people working and happy in their roles (over 80,000 in the past five years). It’s a responsibility we take to heart, and our philosophy is centered around the virtuous circle principle. We strive to maintain a constant current of positive impact at Atrium. Our Employee Experience Managers provide opportunities for giving on behalf of many worthy causes throughout the year. And our Atrium Cares program incentivizes employees to spend a day volunteering with a 501(c)(3) organization of their choosing. I am passionate about the development of potential through mentorships. I encourage a coaching management style within my organization and support non-profit mentorship program, Girl Talk both personally and professionally. Kindness is something that will always be valued within my organization.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Believe in yourself. Know that you will be doubted and trust your vision. I have lost count of the number of times my ideas have been labeled “crazy.” The path less traveled is exactly that. Not everyone will understand your journey, so you have to trust your instincts. When I founded Atrium in 1995, it was with the intention to change the industry. And as we all know- change is hard, but it is good! Not everyone will understand your journey.
  2. Take more risks. Identify the fear that’s keeping you from the reward you’re seeking. Then make a plan to overcome it. Never allow fear to dictate your decisions. If you believe in your vision, the value of your fear is worth far less than the value of your mission. Challenge yourself to try something new. That’s how you continually learn and grow. I’m raising honey bees despite my fear and hesitation, and it’s become my favorite pastime! It’s hard to put yourself out there and be vulnerable, but new experiences build confidence. Sometimes the hardest part is as simple as getting started. As my business and social trends continue to evolve, I’ve had to adapt. It pushes me out of my comfort zone, but it’s key to remaining relevant. If you stay true to who you are, your message will be appreciated by your audience. Perhaps more importantly, your authenticity will be appreciated by you.
  3. Be patient, you’ll get there. Big dreams and even bigger expectations can be incredibly motivating, but the bigger they are, the more time it takes to achieve them. It’s easy to become be impatient. When I first started my business, I wanted to be ten years ahead of where I began. Impossible? Yes. But striving for it anyway? Of course! Don’t burn out. Pace yourself and stay the course. When I am feeling overwhelmed by visions for the future, I make sure to break down big goals into stages. That way, I can feel the progress more immediately. Take pause, have resolve and always follow through.
  4. Ask for help. Don’t assume people don’t want to help you. In my experience, it has been overwhelmingly the opposite. It’s hard to ask for help, but it’s even harder to carry a heavy load alone. Utilize your support system and trust in your advisors, mentors, network and friends. Many of my friends are my mentors, and some of the mentors I’ve grown to know have become my closest friends. We all lean on one another from time to time. Lend your care to others and ask for guidance when you need it. Then, pay it forward and share what you’ve learned with someone who needs your help.
  5. Change is good. It’s inevitable and key to your metamorphosis. When you pivot, adapt and take a new path, you learn and grow. A mentor once told me, “it doesn’t matter how you start your business today; its’ going to look different tomorrow, and that’s a good thing.” Man, was she right! The evolution of my business is a result of remaining flexible and facing market and consumer challenges with optimism and solutions. The staffing industry thought I was CRAZY. Twenty-five years of change later, we remain.

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

Take chances! I want everyone to feel confident enough to invest in themselves and their passion. Too often, we limit opportunities for ourselves based off of that dreaded “not good enough” feeling (aka Imposter Syndrome). I want all of us to feel worthy! We need more participation. We need contributions from a greater population of people. That’s what builds better communities and generates the diverse, creative ideas needed for growth and progress.

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

“I think I can! I think I can!” The Little Engine That Could was my favorite book as a toddler. Its message about the power of positive thinking and hard work still profoundly resonates with me today. In the story, the larger engines are asked to pull a train up a big mountain, and they all refuse. The request is finally sent to the small engine as a final plea for help. The little engine agrees to try. I strive to never say, “no.” I choose to try. I love sharing this message with anyone who will listen. My favorite mantra which can often be heard in and out of the office is “you got this!”

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Oprah! How could you not admire someone who doesn’t even need a last name?? I could name many people who inspire me. Those who exhibit strong characteristics of kindness, discipline, resilience and longevity stand-out to me. If I had to choose just one, I’d love to have breakfast or lunch with Melinda Gates. Whether for business or the greater good, she puts an incredible amount of heart and smarts into all she does. The opportunity to learn from either of these women would be invaluable.

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