IT at the Speed of Change | Straighttalk

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By Rhonda Vetere, CTO, Estée Lauder Companies

The world around us is changing more rapidly than ever before, and keeping up with that change is a constant challenge for companies. That’s why it’s important to remember that, in the digital era, IT determines business velocity.

When I joined Estée Lauder Companies more than three years ago, its leaders were committed to rethinking the company’s IT infrastructure in order to increase the speed and agility not just of the technology function, but of the entire enterprise.

Estée Lauder is a $11.3 billion company with an expansive—and expanding—portfolio of more than 25 cosmetics and fragrance brands. As CTO, I oversee an organization that not only “keeps the lights on” for our businesses around the globe – making sure our systems are available, resilient, and secure – but also creates a foundation for a company that is growing by acquisition and embracing digital innovation.

It wasn’t entirely clear before I was hired what form that infrastructure transformation would take. But I'm all about change and making a difference. So I was excited to take on the role.

People often describe the challenges of technology transformation using the analogy of changing the tires while the car is driving down the highway at 70 miles an hour or repairing the engines on a jumbo jet mid-flight. In today’s hypercompetitive and rapidly changing marketplace, it’s really more like trying to renovate the propulsion system on a rocket ship while it’s taking off for Mars. Which is to say, our initiative hasn’t been your normal IT project.

But when digital transformation and growth are top priorities, a high-performing IT infrastructure is critical. And the benefits of getting an IT infrastructure transformation right are huge. It opens up a wealth of opportunities not just for savings and process improvements, which are important, but also to create competitive advantage by having the robust and flexible technology environment required to keep pace in these fast changing times.

An Inflection Point

I like risks, particularly those with the potential for great rewards. (Those who know me know I love cliff diving in my free time.) That desire to leap head first into a challenge carries over into my professional life. I tend to join organizations that are at a critical juncture. In my IT leadership roles, I’ve moved enterprise technology organizations through big changes. I started out in telecom and financial services. I was at AIG when the company paid back the U.S. government. I’ve worked on the other side of outsourcing, heading up global enterprise services for HP.

Estée Lauder was at an inflection point when I arrived, wanting to transform the technology environment to enable digital transformation around the globe. I’ve led numerous infrastructure transformations and, when done right, the benefits are numerous: increased transparency, reduced costs, improved service levels, bolstered security, greater flexibility, faster time to market, increased innovation. It was clear we needed to elevate our approach, both back and front office, to support the growth demands of the business. That included not only modernizing our infrastructure but reprogramming our applications.

One of the challenges in a project like this is getting the full support of the board of directors. To do this, you need to clearly communicate why the transformation is important to business strategy, how it connects to what you are trying to achieve as a company. A lot of my peers, unable to get board approval for their infrastructure remodels, ask me how I did it. It’s simple. But it’s not easy. The key is not to be afraid. If you think what you’re doing is right, fight for it. That’s what being a leader is all about.

We also needed to deliver that message to all stakeholders across the company. Change is hard. Everyone leads from every chair, no matter the level. So getting everyone on board is vital. One of my roles as a change agent is to make it clear why we are doing this and what the business outcomes will be. You cannot over-deliver that kind of information. Communicating the rationale and benefits over and over around the world is important. You have to put a lot of energy into that.

It can’t be about forcing change on the organization. And it’s important that you are clear with people that the transformation may be difficult. But if you listen—really listen—to people’s concerns and follow up on them, that goes a long way to getting their support. Take their concerns to heart. Follow up on them, taking needed action and measure yourself. Don't think it's going to be an easy journey.

Building the Transformation Team

Having truly strategic partners has been critical to our transformation. I define a strategic partner as a company that shares our goals and our approaches and is on the journey together with us. We need partners who check their badges and their egos at the door and are working shoulder to shoulder with us. We need collaboration, but we also want service providers who challenge us and push back if they think we’re headed in the wrong direction. Of course, price and value is an important part of the equation, but at the end of the day it’s about building an ecosystem of providers who can operate as one team.

I’ve been on both sides of outsourcing engagements, having spent two years at HP and working in India in the early days of the offshore outsourcing model. The market has shifted. And the “your mess for less” mentality is outmoded. We certainly value the efficiency our partners can provide. We appreciate that they meet their service level agreements. But what we value above all—particularly in the rapidly evolving digital era—are their ideas, their flexibility, and their desire to continuously improve network quality of service.

Clearly, your own internal team is an equally important player in the transformation. Although in the digital age, IT leaders have an incredible opportunity to serve as drivers of growth in the enterprise, I’m only as good as my team. Having the right talent and nurturing our next set of leaders is critical to keeping up with the pace of change, whether it relates to infrastructure or digital or security or social. I’m not seeking only technical skills. I look for individuals who are receptive and adaptive, who communicate well and are accountable.  We have to remain relevant, and having the best talent is the only way to ensure that.

A Foundation for Growth

Nearly three years in, we have achieved our infrastructure transformation. The foundation is in place. But our work is just beginning.

We are working with all areas of the business in different regions around the globe to help them integrate new solutions into this foundation. That means I take off the CTO hat and put on the business hat. It’s not about ones and zeros; it’s about what business problems they are trying to solve. And it’s not a technology-driven process with me suggesting some new system or tool they should adopt. It’s about what we might do digitally to drive business results and reap the rewards that will enable us to keep growing.

As the CTO, I also have to make sure we are investing in innovation, whether it’s keeping abreast of developments in artificial intelligence or understanding the state of the art in marketing automation. We want to stay a step ahead of the market and make the right bets on emerging technologies. These days, that’s what keeps me up at night. I don’t want to spend a bunch of money on technology that’s going to become obsolete. But at the same time, we cannot afford to be technology laggards.

We want to innovate for the benefit of our internal users. We are exploring the way people like to work, which is evolving quickly. People have grown accustomed to the technology they use outside of work and want a similar experience when they walk in the door. That’s why we implemented an internal app store for employees, for example. It’s been incredibly enlightening to talk to our millennial workforce around the globe as we envision what the future of work might look like.

We also want to innovate in order to exceed the expectations of our end customers. We are focused on delivering what we call the seamless customer journey. The way we shop is changing as much as the way we work. We need to understand customers’ needs and expectations, which vary around the world. Do they want to pay with their device? Use facial recognition software? Want a makeup adviser app? Our focus on the customer experience is naturally leading us to be more data-driven. We are very focused on analytics and what we can learn from the data we collect.

We have adopted a design-thinking approach, one that integrates empathy and understanding of the customer into the development process so we can deliver the kinds of experiences they will embrace. Our Estée Lauder Academy helps ensure we’re working from a digital perspective, bringing new ideas and innovative design thinking.

As a company, we continue to grow and outperform expectations. And our modernized IT infrastructure has proven to be a good foundation for the future. But we will have to continually innovate atop that platform to succeed. The journey never ends. 

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Perform and Deliver

I never thought much about the fact that I am a woman in an IT leadership position. It never enters my mind when I walk into a board room or interview for a new role. For me, it’s always been about performance.

I’ve worked in this male dominated field my whole life. If anything, it’s been a bigger shift for me coming to Estée Lauder, which is a female-dominated company.

But as I’ve grown in my career, I now get the question a lot: What’s it like to be a woman in IT? I think the more relevant question is: How did I get to where I am? And that answer is actually pretty simple: hard work.

It’s also important to be mobile and open to different assignments, different roles, different companies, and different parts of the world. That helps you gather the experience necessary to be an IT leader in this global economy.

Speak your mind and deal with conflict. Always ask the question, because if you don’t ask, you won’t know. But at the end of the day, they key to success is performing and delivering results, no matter what your gender or background.

The Takeaways 
In a rapidly evolving era, being bold in the face of change is crucial.
In transformation initiatives, look for the right talent both within and outside of the organization to ensure success.
Innovation involves much more than acquiring the latest technologies. A design-thinking approach helps people embrace new ideas and thinking across the value chain.