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Estée Lauder at 75: Advancing Innovation Through Reverse Mentorship

By pairing rising executives with seasoned leaders, Lauder is driving relevance across all areas of the organization—and giving voice to a generation eager to share their point of view.

Leadership and talent development are two threads that have run throughout the Estée Lauder Cos. since its inception.

As Leonard A. Lauder says, when you join the company, you’re treated like a family member.

Fabrizio Freda has taken that ethos and expanded on it—continuing the programs started by his successors, such as the Estée Lauder Cos. at Vassar created by Leonard Lauder in 1987 (which later became Estée Lauder Cos. at Bryn Mawr College Program) and the Global Presidential Programs incepted by William P. Lauder in 2003—and put his own stamp on development, too, with The CEO Global Reverse Mentor Program, created in 2015.

The initiative pairs young employees who have been with the company for more than a year with senior executives. The mission is to ensure that seasoned leaders are in touch with the mindset and ethos of today’s younger consumers, and the method of reverse mentorship also gives fledgling execs access to leaders they might not otherwise have.

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“Young people, those who have their life in front of them, represent the future more than anything else,” said Freda. “I personally believe, and the company believes, in diversity and inclusion at every level. This is generational diversity.”

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Freda founded the program almost by accident. In 2015, sensing significant changes in consumer behavior, particularly among younger consumers, he asked Phebe Farrow Port, senior vice president, global management strategies, to find someone who could school him on the rapidly emerging changes.

Port tapped a young employee to take Freda through everything from social media platforms to the cool brick-and-mortar stores where Millennials were shopping.

Freda was hooked—first setting up a retail safari for his direct reports, then creating a permanent reverse mentorship program in just one month.

Today, more than 600 senior leaders across all regions and areas of the business have reverse mentors. The program has become an important temperature check for trends in the business, as well as a bridge for navigating generation gaps in terms of internal culture as well.

“Young people want things in their careers that Baby Boomers like me would not have thought to ask for when I started,” said Port. “They are going to tell you what’s important to them. Authenticity, being able to contribute, having their voices heard—they are smart enough to know that they are not going to be able to be the decision-makers of a multimillion-dollar launch, but they want to be able to influence it, and they expect that.”

The way that Gen Zers and Millennials think about their jobs is also very different. “They don’t want to give their life to a job, but they want their job to have meaning in life,” said Port. “They want their work to be a reflection of their values and they want to work for bosses who respect their voice and their opinions.”

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Fabrizio Freda with a recent class of reverse mentors.

It’s also about maintaining relevance. Reverse mentors help senior execs stay abreast of key cultural touchpoints, across all aspects of the business—be it a product, trend or larger sociocultural shift.

Port, for example, recently did a deep dive on TikTok with her reverse mentor. Her key takeaways: “Perfection is old school, trends are discovered, not adopted, and we have creators not influencers,” she said.

Kenya Bryant, a 30-year-old whose role as a philanthropic partner in the Global Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability department involves grant-making across the Estée Lauder Cos. Charitable Foundation, serves as a reverse mentor for Deirdre Stanley, executive vice president and general counsel of the company.

The two meet every month or so, and talk about everything from their shared life experiences to the synergies between their two teams.

“This is an invaluable component of the company for me,” said Bryant. “I think about the company’s perspective on social justice. Her hearing my perspective, coming from a different generation, isn’t just refreshing—but it allows her to take it to her own work and the conversations she might be having with other senior leaders. We have a pulse on the industry that should definitely be taken into consideration and this program allows us to do that organically.”

Camila Dauhajre, an assistant manager for social listening and analytics, serves as a reverse mentor for Michelle Freyre, global president of Clinique. From Day One, Freyre told Dauhajre to feel free to email her with insights, questions, comments. And Dauhajre has.

“I tend to email her a lot — if I see something happening on TikTok or a new YouTube trend, I send it over. But we also Zoom a lot,” said Dauhajre.

Here, the conversations around trends are deeper, which often leads to bigger projects for Dauhajre and her team. “We’ll do a deep dive on larger topics that we’re analyzing — how Gen Z consumers are talking about acne for example and what brands are doing in the space or the skinification of makeup.”

For Dauhajre, who’s been at Lauder for just over a year, having access to a leader like Freyre has proven to be invaluable. “It’s much more than a reverse mentor relationship where I’m feeding Michelle insights,” she said. “It is building a special relationship with a senior leader, teaching us as much as they can so that one day we will become the leaders. Having a program that revolves around the feedback of young people in the company urges me to stay here and continue growing.”

And that’s just the point, said Port, who noted that one of the first questions Freda asked her when he joined the company in 2009 was how Lauder defined leadership.

“He said, ‘leadership to me means leadership from every chair. I want young people to know they have the two I’s: influence, which creates impact for the organization,’” Port recalled.

“He said, ‘connecting young people’s new view of the world with the expertise of our senior leaders is adding incredible value for the company. This unique combination is creating magic.’ And that is truly what happened.”