Narrator: In 1950, Air Force researchers gathered data from over 4,000 fighter pilots and calculated the dimensions of the [quote unquote] “average pilot” that would be most relevant for designing the cockpit for modern fighter jets. Surely, this methodology would help design a cockpit that could comfortably fit the vast majority of fighter pilots. When the researchers compared each individual pilot to the“average pilot,” can you guess how many fit within the average range for most dimensions?
Here on Cruising Altitude, we’re taking an important lesson from this flaw of averages.
When designing a digital employee experience, it’s easy to make broad strokes – to design for the “average” user. But if you actually want to engage your employees, it’s all about personalization and options. About creating a culture where employees feel empowered and valued. But creating that experience is tricky at a massive, multinational corporation like Estee Lauder. Employee preference and culture is incredibly diverse. How do you simultaneously engage workers in Dubai and Hong Kong, Budapest and Auckland? Today, we’re talking with Lisa Cummings Penn about how one size does not fit all when it comes to a great digital employee experience.
Lisa Cummings Penn: Mr. Leonard Lauder has always said, um, that, you know, listen first and lead second. And so I think that holds true for this in in terms of really listening to your people. Um, having really focused, um, intimate conversations with people and really understanding what, what people want, um, and, and, and listening to them and just taking that at face value, you know, some people won’t talk to you one-on-one right. I mean, sometimes you’re going to need to do a survey, like, but just however it needs to happen. Ask for people, you know, ask people for what they want and then listen to what they say.
Narrator: A major part of Lisa’s job is listening to employees. She’s the Executive Director of Employee Engagement in the office of the CIO at Estee Lauder Companies, also called ELC. Known mostly for their cosmetics, ELC also encompasses brands like Clinique, Bobbi Brown and Tommy Hilfiger. They have over 48,000 employees across 150 countries. And Lisa has been at ELC for over two decades. So fasten your seatbelts and put your tray tables up, because today she’s going to share how she manages to offer her employees much more than a tiny bag of dry pretzels. She’s got a whole new menu that offers something for everyone. Welcome to Cruising Altitude.
On Cruising Altitude, we talk about employee experience lessons from leaders at companies with over 30k employees. A lot like reaching Cruising Altitude at 30k feet, things look a little different when you’re managing 30,000 people. On this podcast, we bring you insights from the leaders who inhabit that rarefied air. Today’s episode features an interview with Lisa Cummings Penn. But first, a word from our sponsor.
Lisa Cummings Penn: So, um, currently I am the lead for employee engagement, um, for global IT, uh, for the Estee Lauder companies, um, sitting in the office of the CIO. Um, we have about 650 people worldwide in IT global and the scope really covers, um, a number of different pillars from education, uh, cultural touchstones and events, recruitment through our internal internship programs and events, and also external events like hackathons and, and, um, uh, you know, recruitment activities. Um, and then also activate, activating our I&D strategy.
Narrator: Lisa isn’t the only one in the company dedicated to employee engagement. Since she takes care of the IT side, there are others addressing EX for the rest of the company.
Lisa Cummings Penn: We have lots of different centers of excellence, um, and you know, whether it’s, um, learning, education, things like that. Um, and they do a really good job of making sure that all the different disciplines that have these areas are included. So when we’re working on something, let’s say for, um, you know, onboarding as a whole, as an overall corporate Estee Lauder Companies, you know, I’m on that task force, um, as work stream lead to make sure that all of our personas that we’re looking at in IT are, you know, being looked at as well. And that things that are being developed across the company are not done in a vacuum.
Narrator: Now that we’ve gotten to know more about Lisa’s specific role at ELC. Let’s take a look at a map of the whole company in our first segment: The Flight Plan.
Lisa Cummings Penn: Our industry is, um, w it’s a beauty industry, right? I mean it’s the Estee Lauder companies. We are the premier prestige beauty company in the world. Um, and we’re also tech. So in IT. So it’s sort of like this convergence between tech and beauty. So with that said, I mean, we, we don’t have one persona, because there’s so many of this, and this is, you know, whether we’re talking about, um, IT or the Estee Lauder Companies. We have such a wide range because we have such an incredibly diverse workforce and that workforce represents our incredibly diverse customer base. So. We can’t really say, okay, we have this persona or this persona. Um, it really varies by region, by function, by brand. Um, and even within our brands, each brand sort of has its own smaller culture that, um, are all unique to that brand. And it’s really what makes us so strong as an organization and as an, as an IT department.
Narrator: But since Estee Lauder Companies encompasses many different brands, they need someone supporting each and every brand.
Lisa Cummings Penn: We have a lot of different, um, ways that we do through, through different, um, you know, roles in our IT org. One way is through, um, we have a tech lead role. And that role really works, um, you know, with, within a brand and really, it sort of sits within that brand, but also, um, you know, reports through to IT and, you know, really works with that brand and helping them to, um, deliver their global brand strategy through driving technology. So that’s really a direct way. And then of course we have, um, you know, our leadership, um, our, our CIO, Michael Smith is on, you know, our executive leadership team within the company. And so we’re always working with our key businesses and stakeholders to make sure that we understand, um, really clearly what the business needs are.
Narrator: But no matter who is heading EX within a particular segment of the company, ELC has a unified vision for employee experience. First off, they take it very seriously.
Lisa Cummings Penn: I think if we’re not looking at the employee experience, employee engagement, um, then you know, we’re not getting the full picture. We’re not doing it right.
Lisa Cummings Penn: We’re such a people first organization. Um, you know, again, our, our employees, our customers, our stakeholders, everything we do is people first. So it’s really no surprise that, um, That we’re so focused on employee experience. I mean, our mantra is “Bringing the best to everyone we touch.” Right. And, and within IT, we’re so focused on, um, you know, a high touch experience. So this is all really within our, our company’s DNA. I think part of what we like to say is that everyone owns employee experience, um, because it is such a, you know, a broad, um, thing across our company. And, and again, something that we we’re so focused on. Um, but then, you know, within, um, as we talked about, you know, there’s, um, centers of excellence, but then we have this team within the office of the CIO, which is, you know, my role leading the employee engagement. Um, and again, this is specifically now to IT, um, where our CIO, Michael, you know, he has this entire team dedicated to focus on, focusing on employee engagement. So we really all work hand in hand, um, to make sure we are really focused on, um, employee engagement, employee experience. Um, you know, a perfect example is right now with, with our return to work, which we are still virtual. Um, but we are looking forward to getting back into the office, um, and just really working as a company and an overall organization to make sure that we are taking every aspect of our return to work, um, you know, into account and really making sure that, um, we’re working together across all departments to make sure we’re, you know, doing the right thing, um, and making it work the way that it needs to work for everybody.
Narrator: I think the phrase “making it work,” will resonate with many companies who had to shift to remote work during the pandemic. What’s clear is that Lisa isn’t just making it work, she’s going above and beyond to make sure employees feel included in the experience even while working virtually. So let’s hear what she’s doing to tailor the experience to each and every employee in our next segment: First Class.
Lisa Cummings Penn: One size does not fit all, right. I mean, it is just, and that, that is something that, um, I think we’ve always known, but being virtual has just been such an eye-opener for us, that it just, there’s just so many different types of people. The way people learn, the way people want to engage, um, and the way people react to, um, change. And it just is really important that we are always looking at the one size does not fit all as, as a true best practice. One thing. Um, I would say that, um, we’ve done, um, since the pandemic is we sort of had this pivot to what we were calling IT quick connects, and we used to have, um, like a quarterly town hall meeting. And, but you know, when you’re in your office, you’re always running into people and having these hallway water-cooler conversations, um, you know, you don’t have those anymore. And so how do you sort of create those moments? So one of the things we’ve done is we’ve had these quick connects. And we were having them pretty much, sometimes weekly, sometimes not. It wasn’t really as, um, you know, calculated. It, it was more, do we have topics we want to share? Are there things we want to talk about as a global IT team? Um, every topic was, um, you know, it was not announced to people because we felt like if people want to join, they will join. They were never mandatory. You know, some people joined all the time. Some people joined when they could. But it really gave us a chance to be together. And, um, again, if you’re that type of person who wants to connect in that way, then you can do that sometimes. It’s an open zoom where people can communicate. And other times it’s just, um, you know, maybe a webinar depending on what, what the topic is. Um, and then, you know, really I think going back, you know, the third thing is just really focusing on looking at the ways that people like to connect. Right? Some people want to come to events. Some people like digital technology, other want to just go to the internet or have one-on-one meetings with their, um, a colleague or, um, or, uh, a boss. Um, somebody might want a newsletter and somebody else wants to have a, wants to have an ask me anything session with leadership. So really making sure that we’ve been hitting upon all of these personas and styles. Um, as I think the third sort of best practice or strategy that we’ve engaged in.
Narrator: Lisa has different ways of measuring whether an initiative, like a webinar, for example, is truly successful or not. One easy way is simply seeing if employees show up. You can gauge engagement by employee attendance.
Lisa Cummings Penn: It’s oftentimes interesting to think, like, you might have a topic that you think that everybody is just gonna, you know, flock to. Um, and you know, but, but with that, you know, because we weren’t announcing what the topic was beforehand, we didn’t always have that like view of, of that lens of, well, maybe they didn’t want to attend because they weren’t interested in that. Or they thought they knew everything about that. We did look at, um, to see, you know, throughout the course of these quick connects how many people were joining. Um, and sometimes we would look at well, are there other things happening because we want to make sure that we’re not over communicating with people and when there’s weeks where a lot of, you know, bigger things or other things are happening. Um, but typically it was really more just looking to see how many people were joining and how, and if that shifted over time.
Narrator: But poor attendance doesn’t always mean disinterest. It can also be Zoom fatigue. Because let’s be honest – we all get a bit tired of being on remote calls. This is something Lisa is working on with her team, and offering some relief.
Lisa Cummings Penn: Prior to the pandemic, we were not going in and IT five days a week. So we had the option, you know, Mondays and Fridays to be virtual. So we were already in the, the, um, the, sort of the role of having Zoom and Teams video calls. And one of the things we did when we weren’t remote was okay, obviously video is always first, right? But now you’ve got people who are like working in their basements because their kids are homeschooling. Their kids are like running around, you know, in the background or they’re the dog is, you know, running past. And you know, you really have to look at it in a different way because it’s just, it is just so, so different. And, um, but it is interesting, you know, some of us, do I find, try to just like, if you, cause we are all on Microsoft teams, so sometimes if, you know, you can see if somebody is available, right. And right before this call, I just video called somebody just to check in and say, hey, what’s going on? How’s it going? You know, how is this whatever? And to, and it’s just to be a little bit more organic and authentic, right. And I’m not so planned because everything is so planned to a point. We have, uh, you know, several different, um, sort of principles that we, we look at. Um, you know, one is we have, um, in IT we have no meeting Wednesdays, so there are no IT to IT meetings held on Wednesdays and, um, we’re we’re we stand by it. Um, and it really gives people time to just catch up on their work, um, because there are so, so many meetings and, um, and I think also really think about the meetings that they are having the rest of the week, making sure that they’re meaningful. Um, but you know, you might have a meeting with somebody. In another department or a brand, which is fine. Um, but use usually Wednesdays tend to be lighter. So it gives sort of people time to breathe and take a break. Um, from the very onset of us being, being home, I mean like the first week, um, you know, our, our CIO, Michael Smith, he, he is always sort of shared the message that, you know, we need to be taking time for ourselves. So if that means, you know, leaving at one o’clock every day, if that works for you, just leave, just go outside, go for a walk, go for a run, take whatever it is that recharges you, make sure you’re doing that. Right. Um, so we’ve always had the support in that way. Um, we look at how we are really a global company, because we, we can’t always just hop on the phone, um, with, you know, whether it’s Asia or India, whoever we need to because of the time difference. And so we have principles around, um, times that we have meetings in the evenings versus the mornings so that people in North America, aren’t always scheduling meetings with Asia in their nights. And vice versa. So really looking at the scheduling and making sure that people are, um, looked at globally and, um, you know, making sure we have ways to, to address that.
Narrator: But planning and meetings are necessary to make remote work…work. Luckily, some of that work can be fun too. Lisa has been deep in planning a hackathon. Last year, the challenge was to develop a technology to help fight against breast cancer. 160 teams competed against each other, and the result was an app called Roses for a Cause. The app gives directions on how to self-screen for breast cancer, offers incentives for things like cancer assessments, and shares data safely with the user’s doctor. It can even connect users to social groups for those diagnosed with breast cancer and could be used by people in remote communities to help catch breast cancer early. Really cool things come out of these hackathons. And this year it’s a hack for accessibility.
Lisa Cummings Penn: The last two years they’ve been virtual. And so that’s so different. Because normally, you know, we have people come in to our Long Island City tech hub, um, and you know, it’s, it’s about, you know, 36, 48 hours. Um, and you know, looking to design something right and collaborate. And so now we switched to this virtual, um, hackathon. Last year, we had no idea what, what it was going to be. And I mean, we, we literally thought if we can get a hundred people, we are going to be so excited. We had almost 850 participants from around the world, 13 countries. I don’t even remember how many times. I mean, it was just, it was crazy. It was amazing. I mean, that was a major pivot because it shifted our focus. It shifted the amount of support that we needed, um, internal coaches for the teams, you know? And so we, we had to do a major pivot. And so, um, now we’re prepared this year, right. So, um, you know, it, it, it works because we had people to really jump in and we had this core team and to jump in and support it, but we, we never had any idea. It was so unforeseen that we would have that kind of reach. It is an external hackathon. We post with, um, our university contact contacts. We have a pretty, uh, pretty incredible summer internship program. Um, and so we, we post with a lot of our university contacts. We post with, you know, our, our business stakeholders, our external partners. Um, and we just, just put it out there and, um, just whoever wants to participate, we want to participate. And, and if you’re internal to ELC, we definitely want you to, um, to participate and, you know, you can have an ELC team, you can have a team with people external to, to your, um, you know, one of your partners, maybe whatever, we just, we just want you to participate and have fun, create. But you know, at Estee Lauder and IT, these events are there cultural touchstones for us. And it really symbolizes for us innovation and creativity, um, and how we’re going to serve, um, our consumers, but also just do good for, for others. Um, and, and show people how much fun we have while we’re doing it. Um, so it’s, it’s, it’s really, it’s a, it’s a cultural thing that is embedded for us.
Narrator: Besides hackathons, ELC offers a Europe program in which college students learn about business in Europe. It includes immersive language study, and an exploration of the region’s culture, history and politics.
Lisa Cummings Penn: The, the Europe program is really, um, it’s just, it’s one of the many different things we do as a company to attract diverse and young talent. Um, But, you know, we, we work with Europe, um, which are, um, students who are from, you know, underserving, um, backgrounds and usually would not otherwise have, you know, the ability to have, have exposure and access to, um, a lot of these opportunities. So we do an internship program, um, with them and we bring in, um, multiple students each year. And, you know, we, we. they are a part of our team. And we, um, we work with them to, you know, get different skills, um, both technical, um, and also, you know, exposure into the professional world and really into their immersion into the corporate workspace.
Narrator: The Europe program is one way ELC appeals to potential employees while they’re still college students who haven’t entered the job market yet. And they do have current openings for both employment and internships.
Lisa Cummings Penn: We are definitely hiring, um, if people are interested in technology and beauty, then please go to our ELC.com careers page. We have a lot of roles to fill. We just opened also a tech center in Bucharest, Romania. Um, and we have a lot of roles to fill and, um, we are just always looking for really talented people. Um, so please, please, um, apply. We also have our, um, internship programs open right now for application. If, if people are currently a junior, um, and they will be graduating at the end of 2023, we have lots of different internship, um, opportunities, both in IT um, and across our company. And they can be found on the same ELC careers page.
Narrator: ELC really has a lot going on as far as engaging both current and potential employees. We’ve talked about some of the great options they provide employees. Let’s get into personalization, which is another aspect of EX that Estee Lauder Companies does well.
Lisa Cummings Penn: It goes back to, um, just really creating moments for people that they will connect with. And, um, and, and also keeping, you know, keeping into account that what may attract me in one moment to like a, you know, ask me anything session for maybe a project that we’re doing. For something else I might just want to read a newsletter and I don’t want to do that. So I think it’s really creating moments for people. Um, and those moments can be these sessions. They can be larger scale events. They can be, um, newsletters. We have a huge award ceremony that we do, um, each year in IT, um, called our elite awards where, um, you, in order to win an award, you have to be nominated by, uh, an IT colleague. And, um, elite stands for Estee Lauder um, IT Excellence Awards and it’s a really, really big deal, um, to, I mean, being nominated, let alone become a finalist or win. Um, and, and the last two years we’ve done it virtual because it’s something that’s really, it’s important to people. So it’s, it’s really about creating these moments and making sure that, um, even though we can’t all be together, that it feels like we are together.
Narrator: And one way Lisa creates moments for employees is by recognizing them for their hard work, especially during the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Lisa Cummings Penn: It’s always so important to do that, but now, I mean, look at what, what people are doing and achieving, um, during this time and, and it’s, it’s, there’s so many factors. It’s during this time of being virtual it’s, you know, so many people obviously have been affected by the pandemic and what people are dealing with, you know, at home and on a personal level. And, and yet people are just, I mean, really just still coming, you know, showing up every day and just really just doing amazing things.
Narrator: As much success as Lisa has seen in running employee engagement at ELC, she acknowledges that it’s important to have support from the higher ups. That’s something that not all EX leaders benefit from.
Lisa Cummings Penn: I’m a part of, um, an advisory board for women tech council, um, which is a national organization, um, you know, focusing on, on women and, um, and, uh, you know, getting women in, into the, the talent, um, the tech pipeline. And so I think, um, you know, I don’t know if other organizations are as much there. You know, I think, I think especially within IT, you know, I think maybe like, as an overall org, people are thinking about their employees, but not always in IT. And really sort of understanding that when you come up with an idea, like if I, if I come up with an idea, I know that my office of the CIO is going to listen to that idea and there’s a good chance that we’re going to, we’re going to put that into practice as long as it’s a good idea, right? Um, not every idea you come up with is good. And I think that there’s a challenge sometimes within large IT orgs for, um, coming up with things and having the support behind you to be able to do something maybe differently than what’s happening in the larger organization. So, um, and, and that sort of part of the benefit and what makes us so strong is having this group within our IT org.
Narrator: We’ve been coasting right along so far, but the seatbelt sign just turned on. So let’s get ready to visit some rougher parts of employee experience in our next segment: Turbulence.
Lisa Cummings Penn: Before the pandemic, we had these weekly IT meetings and it was, uh, not, not everybody in IT. There was a group about, I’d say 50 or so. Um, and it was really focused on keeping people, um, aware of things that were happening across IT. So we could really understand the risks, the interdependencies, and just talk about what was coming down the pipe. Um, and we kept them going throughout the pandemic, but then over the summer, we decided to put a pause on, um, a lot of our regular meetings just to really give people some time back, um, and, and really encourage people to take vacation time that they were, you know, so well-deserving of, and, um, you know, we wanted people to take their time. So we tried to do something where we were calling it like this office hour concept, where we would have, um, you know, people on the line and breakout rooms. And you could just pop in and out, um, to talk about things as you needed to. Um, but it didn’t really work. Um, you know, people were already sort of taken,We did it in the same time slot as the, that weekly meeting was. So people were already taking back that time slot, um, focusing on other work, um, and, and people were taking their time off. So, um, it just, it just didn’t work. And we, we just, we literally sent out a note and said, listen, we tried it, it didn’t work, and so we’re moving on.
Narrator: Lisa has a motto when it comes to things that don’t work out quite as planned.
Lisa Cummings Penn: Like we always say fail fast and fail cheap. So let’s not use all of these resources and, you know, bandwidth of people and money trying to figure out like every last thing. Let’s just, we’ve got a great idea. Let’s just throw it and do it. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But at least, you know, we tried it and, um, again, we fail fast, we fail cheap.
Narrator: So she’s going to figure out another idea to help solve the meeting problem, because it’s still important to keep communication open across the IT department.
Lisa Cummings Penn: We’re actually, um, gonna we’re regrouping next week to have a conversation on this exact thing. And, and, um, you know, those, those larger 50, 50 ish people meetings, now what are we going to do? How are we going to solve for that? Um, cause I think it is something that is a real time discussion and you know, we do have a brief that goes out. It really goes out after each session, like updating that people can look at and add notes to, and, you know, to help put the agenda for, for each week. Um, but no, I mean, we’re not really watching pass, and part of that is because you do want to have the dialogue. So if you’re sitting, uh, watching a video about something that took place, I mean, I imagine it could, you know, maybe even be a little bit frustrating if you want to add commentary or feedback or you, you have, uh, um, information on what people are talking about that, you know, could have helped that, that conversation. But, um, yeah, no, we have to, we have to solve for this and we have to find a way to keep people updated and keep people engaged, um, without, you know, so, so many meetings. We want the meetings to be meaningful and valuable. Um, and no, I don’t think we want people watching, you know, watching videos of that. But hopefully, you know, that this, this, um, meaning that we’re talking about, you know, that’s something that really helps that group, you know, because it helps you identify risks, interdependencies, things that are coming down. So it helps you prepare, you know, more for what you are doing in your, your, your everyday job.
Narrator: Even though Lisa is coordinating these meetings and finds them important, she’ll mostly just be listening. She takes that lesson from the founder of ELC.
Lisa Cummings Penn: Mr. Leonard Lauder has always said, um, that, you know, listen first and lead second. And so I think that holds true for this in in terms of really listening to your people. Um, having really focused, um, intimate conversations with people and really understanding what, what people want, um, and, and, and listening to them and just taking that at face value, you know, some people won’t talk to you one-on-one right. I mean, sometimes you’re going to need to do a survey, like, but just however it needs to happen. Ask for people, you know, ask people for what they want and then listen to what they say, because it’s really frustrating when you ask people, what do you want? And then, oh, I’m sorry, we can’t do that for you. So if you’re not willing to do things to support and engage them, then don’t ask the questions.
Narrator: Listening to your employees is crucial. But it’s equally important to give them options for how to communicate with you. Whether that’s face-to-face, email, survey or any other way to connect…give them a choice. Lisa knows that you’re more likely to get an answer that way. If you’re successful, you might need to be ready to hear from 62,000 employees. But it’ll fuel your ability to connect and lead well, no matter if your employees are in Dubai or Auckland. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned today–whether it’s cockpits or employee experiences– one size definitely does not fit all.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Cruising Altitude. This episode of Cruising Altitude is brought to you by SocialChorus. SocialChorus is the creator of FirstUp, the platform that makes the digital employee experience work for every worker. FirstUp brings personalized information and systems access to every employee, everywhere.
No matter whether they’re wired, distributed, or on the front line. That’s how they help Amazon AB InBev, GSK, and many others stay agile and keep transforming. Learn more at socialchorus.com.