Mark Polson, Creativity and Estee Lauder – the IX Interview

by Julie Anixter

Mark Polson, Creativity and Estee Lauder - the IX InterviewEditor’s Note: We love it when we meet people who are boundary spanners — people who play in and across many aspects of innovation and commercialization, across functions and geographies, and help drive success. Mark Polson, Estee Lauder’s VP Creativity and Business is one of those people. He has a global role developing creativity as competence in a powerful house of brands, Estee Lauder. Here’s a glimpse, from our recent conversation, into what that looks like.

Innovation Excellence: You have a really interesting role in an amazing company. Can you describe what you do at Estee Lauder?

Mark: As Vice President of Creativity and Business I’m part of the global learning and development team, which is an extension of our global HR. In my role I’m responsible for the development of the competency of creativity and innovation within the corporation. We have a number of internal programs that we’ve built, that enable our people to further develop their creativity and innovation.

IX: Estee Lauder is not an industrial company. It’s a company that’s really built around the big ideas of beauty and the personal experience of beauty, which at its heart is extremely creative. I’m curious about what it’s like to build creativity as a competency inside of a company that’s already, you know, perceived to be a highly creative.

Mark: It is. However creativity here used to be viewed as being the domain of a select few people. What we’re really trying to say is that whatever domain that you’re in, be it supply chain, be it sales, be it finance, even procurement – you have the ability to be creative in that role and you have the ability to be an innovator and come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things, and that’s a capability we’re committed to building. So many people don’t view themselves as being creative. At Estee Lauder we’re fond of saying that companies don’t innovate, people do.

IX: How do you make that real?

Mark: One of the main ways that we socialize that idea is starting off by saying creativity, broken down, is very simply problem solving. Creativity is about solving problems, and who doesn’t solve problems on a daily basis? Therefore, everybody by virtue of their innate problem solving skills, is creative. That’s our jumping off point.

IX: How did you get started at Estee Lauder? Can you talk a little bit about your career trajectory and how you ended up in this role?

Mark: My background is industrial design. I was trained as an industrial designer. I spent many years working as a designer both in consulting roles and in corporate roles. In the mid-80’s I moved into the beauty industry. I spent two years at Revlon and then had the opportunity to come into Estee Lauder. I started off in the Estee Lauder brand doing visual merchandising — designing product displays and merchandising. I moved into the package development for a number of years, and then the woman who is my present boss now, who I’ve known for a number of years, approached me and said that she had an opening in her team, the Leadership & Development team, and she wanted me to come over, and help her add component around creativity. We got together and we carved out what this role would look like.

So I don’t have any of the traditional HR background of Learning and Development, but what I do have is training as a designer and in what we now talk about as design thinking. I also had the background in the company and along with the design education, the ability to put this program together.

IX: It’s funny — I was just thinking that you were doing design thinking in this role before design thinking became the vogue.

Mark: Exactly. I laugh about it, you know, when people are talking about design thinking. It’s become such a buzzword. But anybody who has gone to design school or architecture school has been trained that way. It’s so interesting to me that it’s being adopted now in general business circles. I think it’s great. It’s been a long time coming as far as I’m concerned.

IX: How many brands are in the house of Estee Lauder today?

Mark: Approximately 28 brands.

IX: There are so many iconic brands, Lauder, Clinique, Origins, MAC, Bobbi Brown, and the list just goes on. They are brought to life with an enormous amount of investment, energy and brand building kind of at its finest. I can see why people in supply chain and accounting and other parts of the organization might be a little wobbly when it comes to, you know, thinking they can innovate and create! Can you talk a little bit about sort of the legacy of innovation at Estee Lauder?

IX: Innovation is in the heart and soul of the Estee Lauder companies. I think it goes all the way back to when Mrs. Estee Lauder founded the company herself. She was truly an innovator. I think she’s an example of the kind of entrepreneurship often associated with “the garage” and the stories of Hewlett and Packard, Jobs and Wozniak, and Page and Brin.

Mrs. Lauder started out behind her home, which was actually in a stable in Queens with her uncle. She was a young innovator, responsible for creating innovations that are the standards in the industry now, that are seen in the personalized care at the counter, or the gift with purchase, and many others. She really created those innovations. So the whole culture of innovation runs deep and really goes back to the founding of the organization. There’s always been that entrepreneurial spirit in our organization, it still runs very strong today.

IX: And the Lauder family is still leading the organization?

Mark: Very much so. Mr. Leonard Lauder is Chairman Ameritus of the board. William Lauder is the Chairman of the Board of Directors. Jane Lauder has now become the head of the Clinique brand and Evelyn has been involved in a leadership role for many years. Ronald Lauder runds Clinique. Aerin Lauder is our style and image director, and has launched the Aerin brand. It’s very much a company about family values, and I think you can ask any employee the one word that describers the organization, they’re going to say family.

IX: Well family is sort of the first place that we all learn to create, right? It’s sort of that safe first place?  So it’s very interesting to me that this multi-generational family has really kept a very fiercely held vision of this creative, entrepreneurial and innovative company.

I understand that you’re building the creativity competency throughout the corporation. I think our readers would be very curious about what kinds of innovation you’re touching in your programs: business model innovation, social innovation, product innovation, there’s service innovation. Are you touching all of those or are you focused on one more than the other?

Mark: We touch all types of innovation. Product innovation is only one aspect our how our brands innovate. Service innovation is definitely something that’s on our radar as is, in new avenues of distribution. We’re thinking about technology, how does technology touch distribution? Yes, absolutely, business model innovation is definitely something that we’re looking at, and, social causes and altruism have always been part of the DNA of the Estee Lauder companies, and there are many, many activities that go on, more that we can really talk about. Giving back is a deep part of what this organization’s all about. So if you think of the continuum of innovation, and we see it holistically.

IX: Can you share any specific favorite examples of the impact your program has made?

Mark: While I can’t talk about specific commercial examples, but I can tell you that the work that I do is really about people and, how people view themselves, and how they view their own capacity for creativity and innovation.

Changing people’s mindsets about creativity is the most gratifying part of our work. I had a person who came in every morning in one of our programs say, “This is going to be terrible. I’m not creative at all. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the day,” and at the end of the program she said, “I feel liberated”. She came out with a completely different point of view of how she viewed herself, her own creativity and how she contributes to the organization.

So that’s where I get my gratification. It really begins with people, and what they believe they’re capable of doing. That is what work that we do is about.

IX: Well rightly so. In my travels through the corporate world, I continue to be struck by how much fear and anxiety there is in the workplace, particularly since the last economic meltdown as the job market has changed so dramatically, and there’s more disruption going on in very industry. It seems to me that fear in the workplace is actually on the rise. So I’m curious about your view of fear in the work that you do? Where does fear fit in?

Mark: I think fear comes in an aspect of something that we talk about called climate. What is the climate like for innovation? Climate is something that’s very real. It’s a subset of culture. Climate is something that’s very immediate and speaks to the needs and the behaviors of what’s going on in a particular scene or organization or team. Fear is really driven by how leaders set the environment for the organization.

So I think it’s incumbent upon me, and all our leaders, to set the right conditions that allow their people, their teams to be at their creative best, and part of that is allowing them to be fearless, and you do that by creating trust and transparency. You do that by creating an environment that doesn’t punish failure, but looks to learn from the lessons of failure. There are many other dimensions that compose that climate. But that’s what dealing with fear in a productive way comes down to really. It is about leadership setting the right climate.

IX: I know you’re using design thinking principals, are you doing prototypes?

Mark: Yes we are.

IX: What role do prototypes play in the work that you do?

Mark: We do rapid prototyping sessions, where we get groups of people together based on a particular issue or problem that’s facing the business. And we’re pulling people together from different domains. They aren’t necessarily, have engineering or designing backgrounds. We bring them together, put the problem on the table, break them into teams and just let them come up with ideas and put protoypes together. Then we evaluate them, and iterate and do more prototypes.

IX: One of the key differences between designers and everybody else is that designers really have no problem trying all kinds of things over and over and over and starting and stopping and iterating, and most people who don’t have that design and creativity background, are hesitant to sometimes to do that.

Mark: We don’t live in a linear world. We live in an iterative world. What we’re trying to do is to get people away from being linear thinkers and comfortable working in a more iterative sort of way. And while it does come more naturally to designers, once you get people into thinking about the mindset, you know, they really get into it and they like it. It’s just a new way of doing things for most people, but people do begin to see the results of their efforts of working. So iterating is a more natural way of working.

IX: So what are your personal favorite kinds of challenges to tackle?

Mark: My favorite part the work is moving people and moving the organization through people — to help us get to the best, because, you know, there’s always going to be competition. Great brands have to be fresher than usual, and it is really about, keeping people fresh in their thinking.

I love being able to work across the organization and with different cultures. What we find is that all the ideas about creativity and how people view creativity aren’t a cultural thing, but it’s very much a human thing. So you see this across all cultures of people who struggle with these same issues. So that’s really where my gratification comes from is seeing people across the organization begin to view themselves as creative.

IX: Estee Lauder is a consumer company, and you obviously are a great observer of your interaction with consumers. What are your wishes for consumers, or what do you think the company’s wishes are? I’m curious to sort of bring the consumer into this conversation and understand how you, how you think about them and the role they play in the work you do?

Mark: Consumers are truly our number one stakeholder, and it goes back to the constant belief that we always want to be able to surprise and delight our consumers in new ways. And I think that the way we look at that is, you know, we really, we want to give consumers things that they never imagined that they could have. And that’s I think really pretty much sums it up. They’re really at the heart of everything that we do. Our CEO is fond of saying that we are, we’re consumer inspired but at the end we’re creativity driven. So we want to be inspired by our consumers, but it’s our creativity that’s really going to give them the things that they didn’t even know that they wanted.

IX: What haven’t I asked you that I should ask you? What haven’t you told me about this program, this focus of Estee Lauder on creativity that you think people would like to know about?

Mark: Look, I’ve said it several times but, you know, I’ll say it one more time. In the end, I think when business, when the popular press, when everyone talks about innovation, it’s spoken about in sort of a unanimous, monolithic way as this thing. In the end, for me, it all comes down to people and I think often forget that. So it all starts with people. In business, in all other domains, you can have all the right processes, you can have the right systems in place, all of those types of things; none of that is going to be successful unless you have people in the right mindset, in the right frame of mind to approach innovation. That’s where it starts.

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As Vice President of Creativity and Business Innovation for Global Management Strategies at The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., Mark Polson leads and develops internal creativity and innovation programs to include digital media and consumer insights that heighten and critical build capabilities within the Estée Lauder Companies. Mark also serves as an Adjunct Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology where he teaches in the Graduate School. He also serves on the Professional Development Committee for Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management Program in the FIT Graduate School.

Julie Anixter is the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She also serves as the Chief Learning Officer for RELEVENTS and Executive in Residence for the Disruptor Foundation. The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on future innovators. She worked with Tom Peters for five years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the US Military, Healthcare, Education, Manufacturing and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference. You can follow her @julieanixter