As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Whitney Benner.
Whitney Benner is Dataminr’s Chief People Officer. As part of the executive leadership team, she oversees HR strategy, internal communications, talent acquisition, learning and development activities, and HR operations. Prior to joining Dataminr, she served as the Chief HR Officer for Cision, the market leader in PR and marketing communications software and services. During her tenure, she was responsible for creating and implementing the HR strategy for the organization, focused on developing talent, and initiated the company’s first global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) program.
Whitney has more than 20 years of global HR leadership experience, having worked at PR Newswire, Medialink and MJI Broadcasting. She earned a B.A. in psychology and philosophy from Skidmore College.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
I’ve spent the last 20 years building my global HR experience and, today, I am the Chief People Officer for Dataminr, the world’s leading AI platform that detects the earliest signs of high-impact events and emerging risks from publicly available information. Before my time here, I held leadership positions in top PR and media companies including Cision, PR Newswire and Medialink.
I studied psychology and philosophy at Skidmore College and wanted to use that foundation to help guide me in being the change I wanted to see in the corporate landscape and beyond. It was clear 20 years ago that there was a lack of understanding and appreciation for diversity and inclusion efforts as part of company culture.
Beyond the plethora of new data out there that positively correlates diversity with better financial performance, to me, it just made sense for board rooms or a brand’s employees to reflect a country’s increasingly diverse population.
So, I made that passion a key part of each of my roles. I’m most proud of my continued work to ensure that building a diverse, inclusive, performance-driven culture is part of Dataminr’s journey.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career, in one of my first real HR leadership roles, I worked with senior management and got approval to add an additional holiday to our company holiday list. I was so excited to share the good news that I sent out an email to staff right away. Almost immediately, I got a call from an angry Regional Vice President who was upset that he didn’t have advance knowledge of the update. Because the company was a 24/7 operation, we still had to schedule staff to work regardless of holidays.
Lesson learned — always try to loop in your management team for feedback before making broad announcements, even if you think the news will be well received!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Interestingly, one of the things that had the most impact on my career was the Dale Carnegie Course — a course centered on tackling complex challenges and building team harmony — and the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
In one of my first roles, I was selected to go through the course, and ultimately coach the management team through it. I was pretty junior and an extreme introvert. It really helped me realize that just because something is uncomfortable, doesn’t mean you can’t do it well. It also made me aware that the more you push yourself to get out of your comfort zone, the easier it becomes. It was a real moment for me and made me realize that I did have leadership aspirations, and it gave me the confidence to pursue them.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
While I personally haven’t started a company, our founder and employees share the commitment to real-time data being a force for good.
In a world characterized by unexpected events that can impact operations in innumerable and unforeseen ways, relevant information can surface anywhere at any time — and our founder, Ted Bailey, realized over ten years ago the value of using that to accelerate humanitarian response efforts for the public sector and better decisions for the private sector to protect their people and assets.
In the office — and virtually — you can feel the passion for that in a meaningful way. Purpose is also embedded in the business directly. For example, last year, we announced a partnership with UN Global Pulse, the Secretary-General’s innovation initiative on big data and AI. Together, the partnership helps to equip thousands of UN personnel with Dataminr’s First Alert product for the public sector, advancing the UN’s efforts to utilize technology and accelerate humanitarian response efforts.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I’m very big on openness and transparency with my team. I value their input and perspectives tremendously, and find that by being direct and open about any challenges the business is facing, the better our outcomes as a team are. That trusted circle, with diverse opinions and ideas that people feel safe to share, makes all the difference.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’m a mother of three, and the beginning of the pandemic tested me in many ways. I was having to help the kids adjust to online learning (one of my children is pretty young, so I suddenly became her PreK teacher), and I was working crazy hours to help my company ensure a successful transition to a remote environment. It was exhausting and stressful. I’m sure this story is no different from that of many others out there, but I did feel tested. There are no easy answers to address these challenges, but creating schedules, setting some personal boundaries, and asking for help when I need it has been helpful.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back, it’s clear that COVID-19 called for fast decisions and faster implementation, which caught a lot of HR leaders off guard. Luckily, we were able to use our own alerts on COVID-19 to guide our decision to move our workforce to virtual, but as organizations are generally straddling the line of in-office and virtual operations, it is clear that the pandemic has redesigned HR for the future.
One of the immediate challenges we faced was replicating our culture for the virtual workforce. By trial and error we had to figure out what worked, what needed redesigning, what new considerations we needed to take into account, and more.
We began exploring the critical competencies that employees would need to work together digitally, including staying closely connected and empathetic. Surprisingly, I found that working remotely had started to create stronger relationships between teammates. Our frequent video calls provide a glimpse into the personal lives of our coworkers, increasing transparency and creating opportunities to celebrate employees for personal victories, such as adopting a new pet.
It is vital to allow room for modification in how we work day-to-day. Naturally, the relationship between employee engagement and performance changes during crises, so organizations need to be fluid in adapting to those new needs. We are constantly reevaluating employee experience strategies to consider whether and how to shift performance management and expectations.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I’ve mainly just tried to be there for my family and friends — if anyone is feeling isolated or anxious, I’ve jumped on a FaceTime call or offered my support by way of a text conversation. I’ve encouraged some of them to speak to a therapist if it felt more severe, and have also suggested therapeutic apps for meditation, yoga and exercise.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
This pandemic challenged leaders across functions to think creatively about effective management, business continuity, and the future of their respective industries.
COVID-19 has pushed the way employers view the employee and candidate experience. For example, how HR leaders, regardless of industry, approach talent acquisition and retention had to be reimagined. We had to ask ourselves, what perks are transferable to the remote worker? How can we sustain a culture that was reliant on in-person interactions and activities?
The results of these internal questions created a path for a new future of work post-COVID. Companies are hiring in locations that they never considered before and are looking at a new set of critical skills while recruiting. Another trending opportunity is employers playing an expanded role in their employees’ physical and mental well-being.
We are in a moment that I don’t think anyone could have imagined or predicted, however, it’s been exciting to see the evolution of how we collectively think about building a positive culture and developing talent.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
The past year has dramatically changed the workplace — creating a deeper understanding of what can and can’t be achieved in a remote work culture. Post-COVID, I think we’ll see more managers being open to employees working remotely. We’ll also see more deliberate decision-making around work travel now that we’ve seen that we actually might not need to catch that train or plane to have an effective meeting.
One initiative I am particularly proud of is Dataminr’s commitment to mental health during this time. Destigmatizing conversations around mental health is incredibly important, and we’ve found that taking small steps towards setting boundaries can go a long way in helping employees recharge. This could be anything from encouraging paid time off, to allowing employees to skip the video camera requirement during meetings. Mental health has taken center stage during the pandemic and I expect it to continue to be a focus in the years ahead across industries.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
For me, rebuilding goes back to the idea of making space for growth and continuing to identify passionate prospective employees moving forward. Now that we’re working during a time where recruiting talent isn’t entirely dependent on that candidate’s location, there are endless possibilities of connecting with the right candidate who may be across the country or in the same neighborhood.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I’d encourage other business leaders to approach hiring and employee engagement activities with empathy, as some employees have struggled to adjust to the new normal. Rebuilding and growing in the post-COVID economy has opened access to talent not previously considered available. This is a huge benefit when it comes to growing an organization and building connections. If you’re able to approach prospective and current employees with an authentically human-centered outlook, rebuilding will come naturally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My very favorite life lesson quote is Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world.” This has always resonated with me, but even more so now. Be active, be present. If there are things that you see happening out there that you believe need to be addressed, get involved.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me on LinkedIn or check out our Dataminr blog to follow along with company updates and advice.