by Martha Heller

How Estée Lauder Companies developed a culture to attract and retain IT talent

Sep 18, 201910 mins
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Michael W. Smith, CIO of The Estée Lauder Companies, has initiated an impressive array of programs to attract and retain IT talent at the nearly $15 billion global prestige beauty company .

Recruitment  >  Hiring compass pointing toward talent
Credit: Thinkstock

The Estée Lauder Companies (ELC) Information Technology (IT) operations are in New York City, where the unemployment rate is low and the competition is high. When Michael W. Smith became CIO of ELC in August 2017, he knew that recruiting, developing, and retaining IT talent would be as important to the company as process improvement and consumer engagement. That’s when Smith, his IT leadership team, and his human resources (HR) partners initiated a dazzling number of talent programs designed to attract and retain the best and brightest from the technology talent pool.  

“When I joined The Estée Lauder Companies, the company was pivoting to become much more consumer-driven,” says Smith. “In IT, that meant shifting from our traditional back-office and infrastructure work to focusing on breakthrough innovation, unique in-store experiences, and personalized consumer engagement.”

Smith recognized that the move from enterprise IT to technology innovation would require a different skillset. “We needed the ability to think differently, be agile, and engage directly with our business partners,” he says. “That was a bit of a shift for us.”

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In addition to investing in agile development and design-thinking trainings, Smith and his team thought long and hard about the environment in which the IT organization worked and decided to make a major change:

Tech and Innovation Hub

For years, the ELC IT team had been working out of eight different locations in the New York area, which presented obstacles in developing a consumer-first mindset. “We needed a workspace that would allow us to seamlessly collaborate with each other and our business partners, and help us attract new talent,” says Smith.

michael smith elc

Michael Smith, CIO 

In the fall of 2018, IT moved to a state-of-the-art technology and innovation hub in Long Island City, Queens. “The hub provides an elevated employee experience that increases productivity, reflects our high-touch culture, and attracts technology talent,” says Smith.

Two subway stops away from ELC’s Manhattan headquarters, the tech and innovation hub is a dynamic, collaborative space with an open floor plan, and a multitude of meeting spaces designed to foster co-creation and eliminate silos. The hub offers innovative labs, including a retail lab to showcase new in-store technologies and an analytics lab.

Smith and his team are leveraging the new space for recruiting. For example, they hosted an Intern Super Day during which 50 top intern applicants participated in three rounds of interviews and had the opportunity to tour the Tech and Innovation hub and learn more about the company. At the end of the day, they selected the 20 interns they wanted to hire. They also held the company’s first hackathon, attracting college students from local universities. The ELC Hackathon brought in more than 120 participants from 35 universities who competed to “Create Tomorrow’s Beauty Experience Today” to increase consumer engagement with the ELC’s 25-plus brands, including Estée Lauder, Clinique, Origins, M·A·C, Jo Malone London, Bumble and bumble, Too Faced, and so much more.

The ELC Hackathon was successful in providing a new pipeline of ideas, but also in promoting the right talent brand. “The hackathon not only exposed our employees to new ways of thinking, but it enabled curious minds from outside the beauty industry to see what we do and how much fun we have doing it,” says Smith.

IT Dual Career Path (DCP)

Recognizing that advancement opportunities are key to retention, Smith and his HR partners recently introduced an IT Dual Career Path (DCP) with two distinct career paths: Management, which focuses on people management skills development and increasing one’s breadth of knowledge, and Specialty, which focuses on technical expertise development and increasing one’s depth of knowledge.

“The most important part of developing and retaining talent is giving people the opportunity to stretch themselves,” says Smith. “With the IT DCP, you no longer have to be on the management path to keep moving up the pay grade or title ladder.”

On the new Specialty career path, a person might move up the data ladder from analyst to architect to principal to technical vice president. “A technical VP is a very senior person who does not have management responsibilities but has very deep expertise in, say artificial intelligence,” says Smith. “In the past, that person could have only gone as far as their ability to manage people. Now, their opportunities for advancement have really opened up, which is critical to ensuring positive career development.”

Smith’s advice to CIOs in establishing a dual path for IT staff? “Make your HR partner your best friend,” he says. “The DCP sounds simple, but it is a huge effort defining each step for each path,  the requirements, the pay grade, and then there is the change management of actually rolling it out.”

Smith also advises that CIOs invite members from middle management to design the program. “One of the most successful things we did was ask each one of my direct reports to delegate and empower someone from their teams to run the program,” says Smith. “Now, the whole organization is brought into it.”

Reverse Mentoring

In 2015, Fabrizio Freda, president and CEO of The Estée Lauder Companies, established the Global Reverse Mentorship Program, which pairs senior leaders at ELC with digitally savvy millennial and Gen Z employees to learn from one another. The program originated from a need that Fabrizio saw in the company to help senior leaders keep their fingers on the pulse of the next generation of consumer behavior.

“My reverse mentor just showed me an AI-driven app that helps identify biases in job postings so that you can ensure your postings are bias-free,” says Smith. “I thought that was fantastic.”

Smith is not the only happy reverse-mentee. With 470 reverse mentors working with over 300 senior leaders in 22 countries, the program has gained considerable traction since its inception. Understanding that employee engagement impacts retention, Smith and his HR partners have initiated a number of team-building charitable programs, as well.

IT Summer of Service

Before Smith came on board, the IT organization held an annual IT Day of Service, when the entire global IT organization took the first Friday of December to participate in a service activity, such as working in a food bank or helping out in a children’s hospital. The feedback was so positive that Smith extended the concept and implemented the “IT Summer of Service,” which allows employees to pick any Friday from May to September, to participate in a community service program. “In addition to helping the community, the IT Summer of Service is a series of team-building events that allows IT employees to take on a role in managing and planning volunteer events for their team,” says Smith.

Tech Day of Pink

The Estée Lauder Companies’ Breast Cancer Campaign is the company’s largest corporate philanthropic initiative. Founded in 1992 by the late Evelyn H. Lauder, with the launch of the iconic Pink Ribbon, ELC’s Breast Cancer Campaign unites and inspires people globally in its mission of creating a world free of breast cancer. To date, the company has raised more than $79 million globally, of which $65 million has funded 260 medical research grants through the Breast Cancer Research Foundation® (BCRF).

In 2017, when Smith had been with the company for a month or so, he had an idea. “I wanted to get our IT team together and do something around the globe to support breast cancer research,” says Smith. “We’ll ask people to wear pink on the second Thursday of October, and if they take a selfie with hashtag #TechInPink201X and #TimeToEndBreastCancer, I will personally donate money to breast cancer research.”

The inaugural Tech Day of Pink had more participants than Smith expected, so the next year, he expanded the reach of the initiative to external partners and colleagues from other companies. “More than 200,000 people participated in the second annual Tech Day of Pink, so this year, on Thursday, October 10, we are doing it again, and we anticipate even more participants,” says Smith.

Since culture is, in the end, what attracts and retains IT talent, Smith makes sure that the programs he implements in IT are not creating an IT sub-culture, but they align to the culture of ELC as whole. “ELC is a highly collaborative, high-touch culture,” says Smith. “All of our programs amplify the best of who we are.”

About Michael W. Smith

Michael W. Smith is CIO of The Estée Lauder Companies (ELC). He is a seasoned leader who brings a mix of IT, commercial, and functional expertise with more than 25 years of experience across retail, technology, and pharma industries. In his role, Smith is responsible for further advancing the company’s innovation in technology to effectively support and enable the company’s growth strategy and the evolving needs of its brands and business. He also drives global technology solutions in key strategic areas for the company, notably retail, digital, social, and analytics.

Prior to joining ELC, Smith held leadership roles at Nike Inc., where he spent over 22 years in multiple brand and technology roles, and Mylan NV, where he led Digital and Innovation and Global Business Services, in addition to serving as the company’s CIO.

Smith is currently a member of multiple advisory boards, including Accoy Pharmaceuticals, a healthcare company; CausePoint a technology company; and Incture, a software company. He holds a bachelor’s degree in humanities and management information systems from Christian Brothers University.

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