What are they
The global head of strategy for corporate marketing at Estée Lauder Companies isn't afraid to jump into the unknown
What were your early years like?
I grew up in New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, and I thought I was going to become a diplomat. After studying history and political science at the University of Pennsylvania, I went to Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies) in Paris to study the European Union from the French perspective.
So what led you to consulting?
I came to consulting somewhat circuitously. I loved Paris. I loved my master’s program. But I was in my early 20s and I had only worked with think tanks and embassies. I started to wonder if I should explore other work experiences, and I remember talking about what I should do with a friend whose father happened to be a consultant. He said: “You like thinking about open-ended issues, reading a lot, and working with people from different backgrounds. It sounds like consulting’s the way to go.”
I took her father’s advice. I accepted a job with a French consulting firm called Eurogroup, where I stayed for two years, before moving to the Paris office of McKinsey. After a few years there, I returned to the U.S. to get my MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Along the way, I interned in private equity and then with Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas, before joining Strategy& (then Booz Allen Hamilton).
The firm focused on what I liked most about consulting: people development and client-centricity. And it was strong in the industries that interested me most: consumer products, retail, and healthcare. Initially, I thought I’d only stay for a few years because I wanted to become more operational. But new challenges kept stimulating me and I ended up staying for 11 years.
Can you share one of your most memorable projects?
After doing all sorts of growth strategy work in the automotive, financial-services, media, and health sectors, I started working for a leading manufacturer of lawn and garden products: things like weed repellent, fertilizer, and mulch. I was thinking about these unexciting products per se, but ones that are actually quite transformative for people — in terms of adding monetary and emotional value to their homes through greenery and landscaping — and the work felt tangible to me. That project is what inspired me to focus on consumer goods.
What always has interested me about consumer goods is the left-brain/right-brain melding. It’s never simply about product functionality. It’s about how to elevate the value of a product through a combination of storytelling and distinctive experiences.
That must be particularly true in the beauty market, where you’re working now.
Yes, prestige beauty is truly an industry where we place as much emphasis on how we sell, meaning things like the in-store experiences, as what we sell, meaning the product’s intrinsic qualities. It has been ahead of the curve in many areas, from e-commerce to social engagement. My role at Estée Lauder, the leader in the prestige beauty market, is to continue in that spirit, developing new capabilities for the company to remain the preeminent marketers in the field five or 10 years hence.
What are some lasting lessons you learned at Strategy&?
Like many others, I learned how to stay on my toes and not be afraid of jumping into the unknown. If you work hard enough and surround yourself with good people, you can figure most things out. I also learned to be a good listener. Client service teaches you humility: It’s not about you. What people really want to know is, are you taking the time to truly understand their concerns, and can you position them for success? Your clients and colleagues often know a lot more than you do: If you can respect and harness what they tell you, you can be successful.
How do those lessons affect your leadership style?
I try to share my vision of where we’re going and then set clear steps to show how we’re going to get there. I work to empower others to take risks and be successful, while gently helping to guide and course-correct. All along, I strive to maintain the same habits I learned in consulting — ask a lot of questions, listen attentively, and quickly formulate strong hypotheses.
Reflecting on your own career so far, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I made partner. That’s something I’ll always be proud of having achieved.
What words would people use to describe you?
Fun and fun-loving. Caring. Hard-charging. I think those who know me well would say that I’m not wired to sit still. I’m always trying to push myself farther — which can be a bit exhausting, but I think it’s worthwhile!
Jen Swetzoff is the founder and CEO of Closeup Content Studio, a strategic communications firm that focuses on sharing important, influential, and inspiring stories. She formerly worked as the deputy managing editor at strategy business magazine.