Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Estée Lauder CIO Michael Smith on driving simplicity

Jul 07, 2022
IT Leadership Retail Industry

The big-brand executive discusses designing for every audience, dabbling in the metaverse, and striving for simplicity.

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Michael W. Smith is a consummate business-first, cross-functional leader. Known for his leadership at big brand companies including Nike and Mylan, he currently serves as CIO of The Estée Lauder Companies, a Fortune 213 company that operates in 150 countries and generates roughly $17B in revenue.

Michael is also well-known for the work he’s done to give back and strengthen the broader technology community. In 2017, he launched Tech Day for Pink to unite technologists and IT professionals worldwide around breast cancer awareness, education and fundraising. He’s also a co-founder of TechPACT, a coalition of technology leaders and CIOs committed to advancing opportunity, diversity and inclusion in the technology space.

During our conversation for the Tech Whisperers podcast, Smith delved into his leadership playbook and consumer-focused technology agenda, including his philosophy of patient persistence, why CxOs should be focusing on the long view, and what it takes to not just be in the business but be a leader in the business. After the episode wrapped, we spent some more time discussing technology’s role in the consumer experience and how his team is expanding omni-experience into the metaverse. What follows is that conversation, edited for clarity.

Dan Roberts: What is your philosophy and approach around accessibility, both as part of the customer experience and the employee experience?

Michael W. Smith: There are well over a billion people who have some type of physical challenge. There are hundreds of millions of people with visual impairment. For us, it’s about the ability to let all consumers be self-sufficient with beauty and to express themselves through makeup, through skincare, fragrance, haircare—these things that are often a challenge for them to do. Our focus is on how we can leverage technology to make our products and experiences accessible to all.

It’s also about our own workforce and making sure that, internally, we’re doing everything possible to be fully accessible. I think about it from even a talent recruitment standpoint. To create an employee experience that is truly inclusive, you need to be accessible. We had a speaker at our last hackathon that was focused on inclusive beauty, and she mentioned that if you design for the greatest physical challenge, then you design a superior product because it works for everyone. And that is really the greatest hack: to design for every audience.

Michael W. Smith, CIO, The Estée Lauder Companies

Michael W. Smith, CIO, The Estée Lauder Companies

The Estée Lauder Companies

How are you designing and leveraging technology to personalize the customer experience?

When you put the consumer at the center, the silos fall away. The consumer must be top of mind in the beginning, middle, and end.

Like many others, we had to first lay the foundations of basic omni-channel capabilities. Once you’ve established those things (buy online, pick up in store, fulfill in the store from online) you can start to talk about a full omni-experience—not just in retail, but a true omni-experience that takes into account the fact that our consumers are on social media, and they’re interacting and driving commerce through social. They are working with our retail partners around the world. Sometimes they’re on their phone on our sites making purchases, and sometimes they’re in the store. Oftentimes they’re in the store, doing research on their phone. So it’s that idea of really understanding that consumer journey and that she is not tied to one single channel.

That becomes a starting point of our design. And that goes all the way back through how you you drive your creative, how you ensure that your creative content is distributed in the right way. When you understand that consumer and what their preferences are, what their trend transactions are, then you can create the most personalized and high-touch experience.

With our beauty advisors, that individual is interacting directly with the consumer, so we look at how to use technology to help the beauty advisor better serve the consumer. We have thousands and thousands of products, so ensuring that our beauty advisors are fully aware and know what can be done for the consumer is a part of omni.

How are you approaching the metaverse? Do you view that as part of omni?

I do, because our consumers will be in the metaverse. It’s an emerging channel, and I am of the belief that the shift to the metaverse will be much like the shift to when people started to use the internet. With the metaverse and all of these Web3 technologies, the only difference is that I believe the shift, once it starts to happen, once it becomes truly part of the mainstream, is going to be exponentially faster in terms of consumer adoption and general population adoption.

Our approach has been to test and learn. We recently launched the Clinique campaign Metaverse Like Us, which creates a truly diverse representation in the metaverse. We also participated as the only prestige beauty brand in Decentraland’s metaverse Fashion Week. We’ve done some NFT [non-fungible token] launches with MAC for charity through Viva Glam as well for our annual Tech Day of Pink.  

It’s an evolving area, and it’s going to take time for it to play out. So, we’re testing and learning, because once it takes off, we want to be a leader in this space.

People talk about your gift for storytelling and your ability to simplify the complex. What advice would you give other leaders about how to use stories to inspire teams and influence stakeholders?

For me, one of the most important aspects of storytelling is reflection. Reflecting on events of the past and what I learned from those usually opens stories and parallels and analogies.

Storytelling is also how you can take a big complex idea and make it simple. I mentioned in the podcast about our IT obsessions. One of our obsessions is: We Drive Simplicity. When you work in a company with multiple brands, regions, and functions, there is this complexity that just naturally comes with that—and technology by itself is complex—so we are trying to overemphasize on our obsessions, and driving simplicity is a key value for us. We expect people to look for how to find simplicity amid all of this complexity. And it’s not easy. I equate it a little to that saying of, “If I had more time, I would write you a shorter note.” It takes a level of effort to be able to pull that together and make it simple, for each other, for ourselves, and most importantly for our stakeholders.

To hear more from Smith about his leadership philosophies and how they’re helping him anticipate customer needs and deliver superior, innovative products, tune in to episode 5 of the Tech Whisperers podcast.