At Work with Estee Lauder President Thia Breen

The power player shares the most important lessons learned from 30 years in the beauty business.

thia breen
(Image credit: Ryan Pfluger)

What was your first job?

When I was in high school, I was the buyer for Bonne Bell Cosmetics in my father's drugstore in Benson, Minnesota. I'd come racing down to the drugstore after school to write out my order with the salesman. I was always so excited if I sold more than the month before. I was a natural. It was a small town of 3,500 people, and not many were thinking about skincare. So I learned never to judge the customer. Anybody who walked in the door was a potential sale.

Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder — and Estée's son — once told you he worried that "you could just turn on your heels and leave" the company. What did he mean by that?

I think he sensed in me that I've never really been afraid of losing a job. After I graduated college, I was selling coats at a department store when I got a call from a friend who said she'd heard that I was about to be let go. I thought, What am I going to do if I lose this job? And then I thought, I'll get another one. [Breen was transferred to another division.] After that, I've never been afraid of being let go. I don't ever want to lose a job — I've never been glib about it; I take my work very seriously — but I'm not terrified of it, either. Somehow, Leonard sensed that.

You've been with Estée Lauder for nearly 30 years, during which time hiring and retaining talent has been a hallmark of your career. In fact, two of your top execs have been with you for more than 20 years. What makes them stay around?

For starters, I'm fearless about setting goals. When you've got talented people, it's amazing what can happen. But it's also about mutual respect. People stay because of me. I'm loyal to them — and they know it works both ways. I don't think you can just require loyalty. It's something you have to earn.

Did you have any mentors along the way?

Not really. There were people who gave me breaks, but nobody really took me under their wing. I don't consider it a key force in someone's career, and I don't think it happens all that much. Consider yourself lucky if you have a mentor and thrive under that tutelage. In most cases, you're not going to have it. You're going to have to manage your career for yourself.

What about networking — did that help you get ahead? It's become such a buzzword.

I didn't do much networking. Looking back, I could have been much better at it, but I was busy doing my job. Right now I'm on the board of the Cosmetic Executive Women [for women in the beauty industry], but that's fairly recent for me.

Twenty years ago, you pioneered a job-sharing arrangement for two key employees who were prepared to quit. It was unheard of at the time. Why were you so flexible?

I'm not a mother, so I have never had this situation in my life. However, I realize that when it comes to children and aging parents, the responsibility generally falls on women. For most of the women I work with today, if their child gets sick at school, they will be the one who gets called, not the husband. There have to be times when you have some flexibility. It doesn't require huge gives on the part of the company.

Why do you think more companies don't adopt flextime?

I have colleagues who say, "I don't even want to ask what flexibility my people want because I'm afraid that it's going to be monumental and I won't be able to live up to it." But I've found that by asking, "What's on your mind? I don't want to lose you," the asks have been very minimal. You get it back in spades. If someone has to leave early on Thursday, believe me, you get it back on Friday.

Nearly 80 percent of Estée Lauder's workforce consists of women. Why aren't women better at asking for what they want — like raises?

I think women are hardwired not to ask. They assume their actions are going to be noticed eventually or that it will be understood when they are ready for the next role. In my experience, men have no problem asking for what they want. In general, women could be better at letting people know, "This is the path that I want to be on — tell me as I'm moving forward if I'm doing the right things." I talk to women about that all the time.

You're a stickler for punctuality. Why is that important to you?

I don't want to waste my time, and I don't want to waste my colleagues' time. We had an executive team meeting yesterday from 2 to 4 p.m. I think we ended one minute after 4 p.m. People appreciate that. But that also means you may not cover each and every topic. There was something that we were going to talk about yesterday that we didn't get to, and I said, "We'll make sure we start with that the next time." So it's not perfect, but we do start and end on time. [looks at her watch] Two more minutes, Lea.

Your partner, Laurie Dowley, is a senior vice president at Elizabeth Arden. Slate once described your relationship as the equivalent of top execs from Coke and Pepsi living together. Is there any rivalry?

Let's just say we use a lot of cosmetics in the house.


Breen's top five get-ahead rules

1. Never judge the customer. Everybody is a potential sale.

2. Be fearless about setting goals.

3. Ask for what you want or need. Men do it all the time.

4. Assume you won't have a mentor along the way.

5. Do not underestimate the power of punctuality.