Customer-centricity as the source of innovation

Published by Anna Andrzejewska
June 22, 2021 @ 9:29 PM

During the May 5th Spotlight interview, CIONET had the pleasure of hosting Michael W. Smith who serves as the Chief Information Officer for The Estée Lauder Companies (ELC) - a visionary leader with over 25 years of experience across retail, technology, and pharmaceutical industries. Michael recently appeared on the “Forbes” list of 50 innovative technology leaders transforming business for a radically different world. Michael is a strong advocate for diversity and equality in the workplace; he is the founder of TechPACT – a coalition of CIOs and technology executives committed to leading the charge for inclusion in the technology industry addressing a vast underrepresentation of women and people of color in the sector.

In a conversation with Mark Zawacki, Interim CEO, CIONET US & Canada, Michael shared his outlook on customer-centricity and how the transition to digital influences the CX, highlighted key directions of The Estée Lauder Company’s development in the near future, exchanged thoughts on leadership as well as the “digital divide” and his efforts to tackle inequalities in the workplace.

Michael W. Smith is a seasoned leader who brings a mix of Information Technology (IT), commercial and functional expertise with more than 25 years of experience across retail, technology and pharma industries. Prior to joining the ELC, Michael 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 Chief Information Officer.

When Michael W. Smith joined the ELC in 2017, the company was focused on becoming more of a consumer-centric organization. In the interview he underlined that successful companies are in a constant state of transformation, ready to respond to the consumer’s ever-changing needs. How to achieve that? Michael stressed the importance of executives staying in touch with the consumers – by being “on the ground”, spending time in actual stores for first-hand exposure, and avoiding conclusions based solely on feedback from digital surveys. Additionally, he mentioned market research involving individual users is critical and provides insights back to the organization to deliver products and services that are truly innovative

During the conversation, our speaker touched upon the change to digital and how it affects the customer experience. Last year’s developments during the pandemic rapidly accelerated the shift to digital – consumer groups who hadn’t previously considered online shopping were forced to change their habits, and – as Michael predicts – this shift is expected to be more permanent.

As a response to a new global situation, the ELC internally developed new ways of working to create the best possible customer experience; including  creating cross-functional teams (consisting of representatives of the ELC’s IT department, marketing, 25+ brands as well as their online business partners). These teams in turn were responsible for coming up with new ways of using data and analytics to create new, compelling and unique customer experiences. The collaboration of tech functions with 25+ brands and regional leadership was a clear opportunity to create highly personalized in-store, mobile and digital experiences that were authentic and unique to each of the prestigious ELC’s brands.

For the past 2 years the ELC has been strongly focused on cloud migration, developing new digital tools and capabilities in manufacturing and creative, as well as enhancing their online presence. All of these efforts allowed the company to pivot quickly in 2020 during the massive shift to online. As Michael revealed, the key to successfully navigating the past year’s challenges was an extensive training program demonstrating how employees can use available tools for remote collaboration to stay connected throughout the organization. 

When asked about the biggest trends that will shape the ELC’s future, he underlined the importance of cybersecurity investments, the growing use of AR (not only for virtual trials but also for the employee experience in manufacturing facilities) and AI in data analytics to drive personalization in a safe way that respects individual privacy. The ELC post-pandemic offers their office and IT employees a hybrid work opportunity to retain top talent through enhanced flexibility while maintaining a way to build upon their great culture at the same time. The company’s digital technology centers (one in Long Island City, New York and another coming soon in Bucharest, Romania) are designed with that philosophy in mind.

During the interview, Michael touched upon two important initiatives he has been involved in recently, which include the Tech Day in Pink – this year celebrated on Oct 14th to raise awareness of breast cancer and raise money in support of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation through a social media campaign, #TechDayInPink. It is a great opportunity to involve teams in various team-building activities, including events, social media call to actions, fundraisers and more.

In 2020, Michael joined forces with other technology executives and founded TechPACT an organization aiming to minimize the “digital divide” and reduce the harmful underrepresentation of African Americans, Latinx and women in technology – especially within the C-Suite. TechPACT has a clear vision, to support and advocate for those with a passion for technology providing equal opportunity for success and a path forward. The organization’s efforts are focused on addressing the digital divide at its’ core and as early in the pipeline as possible – which, as Michael states –  reaches them at the earliest years through afterschool programs.

To conclude the interview, Michael touched on the philosophy of leadership acknowledging the enormous impact that his late father had on his leadership style. He was an example of leading with integrity and love - a thoughtful leader makes decisions with a clear conscience and operates with empathy, creating a source for innovation and a driving force to answering consumer’s needs. Empathy also affords a leader respected relationships and loyalty – it is necessary to be surrounded by people who have your back when realizing a grand vision becomes challenging. Thanks to relationships that are built on empathy, fearless leadership, and making bold moves are no longer only a notion but can easily become a reality.

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