The Power of One: Helen of Troy’s culture transformation journey
Organizational Culture

The Power of One: Helen of Troy’s culture transformation journey

In this podcast, Julien Mininberg, CEO of Helen of Troy, discusses how empowering the company’s leadership team and committing to organizational change propelled its culture transformation.
Heidrick & Struggles
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Chad Carr speaks with Julien Mininberg, CEO of Helen of Troy, a global consumer products company. Mininberg talks about Helen of Troy’s culture transformation as key to driving its business strategy and unlocking a whole new future for the company. He also discusses the importance of having a clear vision, building and empowering the leadership team, leading through example, and instilling passion throughout the company to drive organizational change.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:13) Can you tell us about how and why you started this culture transformation?
  • (5:01) How did you ensure that your cultural transformation—the Power of One—was aligned with the strategy for your business and your organization?
  • (16:23) How did you select those to lead the culture work, and how did you make sure that you got the right people in that role?
  • (21:22) For executives who are about to embark on a culture journey or transformation, what advice would you have?

Below is a full transcript of this episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you’ll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Chad Carr: Hello, I’m Chad Carr, partner at Heidrick & Struggles and member of Senn Delaney Heidrick Consulting. I’m here with Julien Mininberg, CEO of Helen of Troy. Julien took over in early 2014, and throughout your five-year strategy, identified an opportunity to drive culture as part of your overall strategy. Thanks so much for spending time with us and helping other senior leaders learn more about how to drive culture transformation in their organizations.

Julien Mininberg: Thanks so much, Chad. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here, and I look forward to talking with you about the culture journey that Helen of Troy took. We’ve come awfully far in the last couple of years; we’re very proud of it, and I’d love to be able to share what we’ve done.

Chad Carr: So it’s been over a year now since you started on your culture transformation with your global leadership team. Can you tell us a little bit more about how and why you started this culture transformation?

Julien Mininberg: It actually starts not a year or so ago; it starts about five years ago. Helen of Troy was a company that was led by a founder for about 45 of its 50 years of history, and during that time, the results were phenomenal and very impressive. But the organization wasn’t ready to go to the next level, and what it took was the formation of a leadership team, to start with. [It was] a company that was built by acquisition, highly dispersed in terms of geography, in many different businesses, and therefore very siloed and not aligned at all on the subject of culture. There was very little collaboration, no incentive to work together financially or even on a common behavior basis, and, as a result, lots of opportunity.

So the first thing we did was form a leadership group. We called it a council, meaning it had representatives from all the different parts—it wasn’t even a leadership team—and that group took us quite far. We made changes in some of the people—some were promoted, some were asked to leave, and we got quite far. We made a strategic plan, and that strategic plan had culture as one of the core elements to sew the organization together, including overhauling many other people systems at the same time. We had created our own version long before we got involved in this exercise with you, and the common set of values, the unity that you can see here, and a whole set of behaviors took us far.

People really rallied around this, and they saw that it was a major improvement from where we were. So this got us to that phase one, or that first phase. And after a couple of years, this became institutionalized, on the one hand, which was good, but on the other hand, we weren’t able to go further. And so we knew that the whole second phase of transformation would require a journey first from where we were, which was good, but now we wanted to try to aspire toward great. And to get toward great, we would need to fit this into a second form of our strategic plan, and that’s when we engaged with Senn Delaney.

Chad Carr: So talk to me a little bit about your role moving from president of a brand in a distributed organization and moving into the CEO role and realizing that you need to create one organization.

Julien Mininberg: Yes, it’s an interesting question. I have to tell you, it required a bit of personal change and very much of a mind-set change.

I was the president and long-time leader, including CEO, of an 85-year-old privately held company that was not that much smaller than Helen of Troy. You’re talking about $500 million in the company I was leading and $750 million or so in Helen of Troy. Together, a $1 billion-plus company, and today we’re about $1.6 billion, and yet I had the mind-set of one of those silos. And I might have been highly resistant, in fact, and maybe even famous, or infamous, inside of Helen of Troy as one of the best resisters of integration and unification of all time. And the reason is because Helen of Troy wasn’t really ready at that time to unify any of its major subsidiaries, nor was the mind-set of the subsidiaries one of a common cause.

So I switched, and when I became the CEO of Helen of Troy, I realized the problem, now from the other side of the story, and realized that we would never get all of the untapped benefits of Helen of Troy until we changed that mind-set universally. It came together as almost like a power of one team, so much so that it became the name, Power of One, once we went through the whole process and had people buy into it to the point that it was a rallying cry and something that people felt right in their heart, that kind of Yeah! that really engages you. And I myself was the first one who had to make the switch, role-model it, and people had to see that it was so authentic that it was the destiny of the company.

Chad Carr: How did you ensure that the cultural transformation, the Power of One, was aligned with the strategy for your business and your organization?

Julien Mininberg: This really requires understanding the strategy itself for the company. There’s business strategy, and in our case also an organizational strategy. We knew that we had to unify in the ways that I was talking about, we knew we had to empower or engage our people 100%, and we had to bring them together in ways that was not a natural act inside Helen of Troy, and that required a whole organizational strategy. We called it overhauling the organization and the people systems.” So whether it was compensation, organizational structure, the caliber of some of the people that we had, training, and, later, the very way that we were structured, meaning who reported to who, how the organizations fit together, the way they were incentivized.

When we realized that this was so important to the business strategy, which had six other strategic choices, it all started fitting together, to the point where we knew that that global leadership council had to get itself to the next level. So we started with dispersed and no leadership team to the council, and we needed to turn ourselves into a team where that team came first. And that leadership change turned out to be a trigger, and it cast a shadow, as we often say; “a shadow of leaders is now in our vocabulary. And what that demonstrated to everyone else was that we had moved to the next level, and it was possible to cascade that through the whole organization and bring it together with the business strategy and unlock a whole new future for the company.

Chad Carr: So Julien, you mentioned shadow, and shadow the leader is a central concept for the work. We know that shadow starts at the top of the organization, and especially with the CEO role. So as you look at your shadow in this process, what was some fine-tuning you wanted to do with your shadow in terms of what you permit or promote in the organization to help the leadership team and everyone step up and lead the culture?

Julien Mininberg: Yes, the vision was always very clear in the company. From my standpoint, I knew the destiny we were going, and I painted it for people many times, and I think everybody agreed with it intellectually, but emotionally and in their hearts and full engagement, less so, and some less than I thought. And some people, they just weren’t sure whether it was a safe place. And so to help them understand not only where we were going but [that] it was permissible, to your point, to not only come there but to begin to help lead us there, I became more accessible—less about This is where we’re going, and you’re joining and more about Can we get there together by making change? And people really bought into this. And it wasn’t just me; the leadership council themselves, without my stimulus, evolved themselves into a leadership team.

So you might think it’s just one letter, like global leadership council with a C, the global leadership team with a T; you just changed a letter, how much could it matter? And nonetheless, what really happened was, without my knowing it, that day, that magic day, the global leadership team came together and put the company first—not the council or tribe that they may have represented from their area—but instead they put their role on the leadership team above all else and then went back into their organization, and that same shadow and that same permission and that same accessibility was so noticed, like from one day to the next.

There was one member, I won’t say the name, I went back into his own organization, and people were literally saying, “Hey, where is that guy? Because that’s not the one who came back from the sessions that we did.” [There was] such a change, and this happened all over the company. So that council becoming a team, it cascaded from me to them, from them to thousands of people, and the result is the whole organization saw the permission, and frankly my job got a lot easier on that day. And life was better because I saw the power of 1,500 people wanting, as opposed to seeing it’s the future but not feeling it.

Chad Carr: So Julien, we talked a lot about change in the organization, change in your culture, tell me more about how you’ve changed as a leader throughout this process.

Julien Mininberg: Yes, it was an unintended consequence but nonetheless a very positive one, which is this process for me, too; I went through it. I have many good behaviors, also some less good ones, and I found that I could grow, too, and I changed in multiple ways. I just calmed down a little bit because I knew I wasn’t carrying it all anymore, because of the power not only of the leadership team but of all the people throughout the organization with that passion. I knew how well it fit into the strategy, and I could see the energy, I could see the spring in the step, and I knew that we had a breakthrough in the company.

I also knew that we could link it to other parts of our strategy, which I know we’re going to talk about in a few minutes, and that plus this led to a one plus one equals about seven situation, and that made me just take down the intensity a notch. I began meditating personally about 20 minutes a day. I still do it, not quite every day but most days, and I find it just clears my mind, it calms me, and it probably makes me a little more effective because that boundless energy that’s in me comes out in a little more directed fashion. And it just makes everything a little [more] even and cleaner and just makes the day a little better.

Chad Carr: So Julien, I’m curious, what do you think about Peter Drucker’s famous quote of culture eating strategy for breakfast?

Julien Mininberg: Yes, I’ve heard the quote before, and everyone always smiles because it’s got that daily thing of eating for breakfast in it. I always believed that that was true. The degree to which it’s true is now for me eye-opening, and I think for others, not only in our organization but people that see us in a before and an after situation. I am a strategic thinker. I’m known for it, I’m proud of it, and our strategy, with no arrogance of any kind, has been working; we’ve made a major transformation in our company. But that strategy included a cultural element, and I can tell you from personal experience that, even where we started, which was my own work on the topic, this got us pretty far, but the strategies, which were effective, could have been even more effective if we were not chewed by the jaws of culture. And that chewing was reduced, or defanged, to the point that, under the work that we did with Senn Delaney, the outcome led us to a strategy that’s enabled by the power of culture, or sort of unshackled may be the simple way to put it, and people not only got a spring in their step but the opposite of that Peter Drucker quote, which is that strategy plus culture is unstoppable. I just made that up; that’s not really a thing, and he didn’t say it. I’m simply saying that that unstoppability has been the very nature of Helen of Troy over the last year or two now, thanks to this work.

It also fit, in a very big way, into a broader lens that we were working on. We had multiple horses on the track. One was, after the first five years, a whole second phase of transformation for Helen of Troy at the strategic level, another set of choices, which included the next wave of strategic improvement. I could show you a little about it. It also included celebrating the 50th year of the company’s existence. We’re very, very proud of that, and we believe that the best is yet to come for our company. So I’d say five years ago, a third of the company wouldn’t have really cared about the 50th year because, for them, they were from some other company that was acquired or in some silo in a different part of the company where it just didn’t mean much. And we literally had parties in like 22 sites, and I can tell you, you could hear the thunder, no matter where you were, about people celebrating what we were doing for 50 years.

We also rebranded the company, kind of a third horse that we put on the track. First, the second phase of strategy, second, the celebration of our 50th year, and third, a rebranding of the very name of the company. So you might ask, “So what? It’s a logo. You can see it on my coat,” and yes, everyone has a logo, and that said, the magic is on the back. And the challenge was to fit just onto a postcard the idea of who we are and get this idea of elevating lives and soaring together. It’s just four words—it probably sounds like corporate speak—but if you read the other hundred or so words on here, you start to get the idea that these are boldly bringing brands into a family, powered by exceptional people—elevating lives, soaring together—we are Helen of Troy.

It became a mantra within the company, and it led to a whole resimplification of that culture, down to just five simple ideas, and they are 1) being in touch both internally and externally; 2) mutual respect—such a basic value, you learn this at grade school, but it’s very powerful in adults, especially when practiced every single day; 3) ingenuity, whether it’s in creativity and innovation and reinventing work processes; 4) shared successes, celebrating; and 5) exceptional people, so fine that they rise above. And, frankly, winners tend to win, but you’ve got to recognize the people for exceptional. And you’ll see something like this on every wall in our company, in every site, and then soon enough you’ll be seeing a double-click on all the behaviors that go with it. And that has gotten people, in combination with this, to this idea of that “Yeah!” And that “Yeah!” didn’t even come from me; it came from the people themselves. So you’ve got the strategy, you’ve got the celebration, you’ve got this.

We added on top of that a kind of reward and recognition idea, and the reward and recognition idea was: if you’re in a company in transformation and you feel great about what you’re doing, why not make everybody an owner of the company? So we issued transformation shares to every single employee in the company, right down to the person that pushes a broom up to the person that runs some big part of the company, people of one day’s tenure and people of 40 years of tenure. It didn’t matter what location, what division, what job responsibility, nothing—50 shares all around. Those transformation shares were game changers. It cost us a lot of money, and frankly it was money extremely well spent, and it brought that sense of ownership behavior, that ownership mind-set, to a whole new level. And people literally don’t just act like owners; they are owners, and they have this feeling that goes with the words I just heard.

Now sew it all together. You’ve got five horses on the track. You’ve got the strategy, you’ve got celebration of who we are, you’ve rebranded yourself, you add the whole Power of One, which is what we’re talking about today, this incredible cultural transformation that went on inside the company, and soon enough, more external messaging. We’re going to be going public on this in a week or so, and the result is that the company has a very powerful set of engines to drive the whole second phase of transformation.

Chad Carr: One thing I’d love to hear from you is something we talked about with selecting the folks who were going to lead this for you. So you could seek people who have availability, or you can find your best and brightest who are very busy, and those folks with the most potential and highly regarded in the organization. And so maybe you could say a word or two about how you selected those to lead the culture work, whether it’s your culture leadership team, your facilitators, your champions, making sure that you get sort of the right people in that role.

Julien Mininberg: Yes, it kind of happened organically, to be honest, and it’s another good sign that people wanted to be a part of all of this. So it started with human resources, which is a natural place, and they were coordinators, and they demonstrated enormous leadership, ownership, and making things happen, but very quickly there were people in the organization who started raising their hand. These are the ones with very busy day jobs, heavy travel schedules, and they said, “I want to be a part of this, either for my site or because I want my site to join the mainland and be a part of the whole unified structure of the company,” or they themselves just felt it in their heart. So these are people who took a day job on top of a day job, organically, and said, “I want this.” We formed a thing called a culture leadership team. The culture leadership team was this group; HR orchestrated it. They worked with Senn Delaney, and the result was a group that started leading my thinking and that of our leadership team, so much so that the culture document that I demonstrated before, that was created by that group.

And, frankly, they had an interesting challenge: they had to take something like this that came straight from my heart—I wrote this—and to tell me, We can do better than the thing you wrote. So it took a certain humility to say, “This can get better.” I got there, and not only do I now sign on to what we’ve done as the next generation, but I’m very proud of them for the way that they were able to get me there and unlock the whole next chapter for the company.

So it happened organically, as opposed to appointing people or jamming it down somebody’s throat. That’s the only way, in the end, and that engagement, that energy, other people saw. It happened on the training side as well, and, as I said before, our trainers are revered inside the company, and they just demonstrated a good will and a capability that I don’t even know if they thought they had it in them. And I think they’re proud of themselves. We’re sure proud of them.

Chad Carr: When did you really feel like you were at a tipping point with this culture work?

Julien Mininberg: There were two, it turns out: one with our global leadership team, and a second one with the next level down, which we would call director and up. So think of directors, vice presidents, senior vice presidents, general managers. In the global leadership team, there was a magic moment. It happened in our headquarters for the United States, in El Paso, Texas, where we were working with your team, and that moment when I stepped back into the room after a lunch break, I went off to something else, the team was there doing their work, and they said, “We’ve thought of a name.” And they said, “This thing needs to be the Power of One. And we, the global leadership team, are coming together; we’re going to put this team first. We’re no longer a council.”

And the name was perfect. Not only perfect, but it didn’t come from me. And that’s when I knew that we were at a tipping point with the leadership team, because they had that ownership mind-set, and with that ownership mind-set and all the skills that were in that room and the unfreezing of their capabilities and putting it all toward the Power of One, talk about unstoppable. That’s [quite] a group.

I also knew it with the next level, and it happened a few months later. For the very first time in the 50-year history of the company, to my knowledge—maybe it happened before and I didn’t know it, we brought together everyone at the director and up, a pretty big investment for us, probably two hundred people from around the world were flown in to one location. They had all heard about various bits of this work, and they were kind of eager to see what it means and what is there. It turned out that there was a power just to bringing them together, because they put names with faces. They started assuming a noble intent, or a positive intent, from other people, where they might have said, “Ah, but that person might not understand” or “They don’t see it my way,” or something like this, and all of a sudden, they found that they’re just real people.

And then you put a common language, the beginnings of culture change, and some passion that came from me, that energy from the leadership team, the shadow kind of feeling, and it came right from the heart for me, and you could see their hearts lift. And that group just became absolutely unshackled that day. They went through some part of the training. They came together a second time that night in sort of a celebration, and our leadership team floated among them and asked basic questions like, “How did it go?” or “How do you feel?” ”What did you think?” And people were just bursting with positivity. You could almost not interrupt the conversations at the table, from people who didn’t know each other well, to have conversations about stuff they didn’t even know they wanted to talk about. It was hard to break in, in a group like that; it just felt great. I walked out that night knowing. I said, “We’ve got this, this is working, and this is now viral in the organization.” And their shadows went back in, and within six months, we had completely uplifted on that journey from good to great.

Chad Carr: So Julien, for executives who are just about to embark on a culture journey or a transformation, what advice would you have for them?

Julien Mininberg: The biggest one is to put their own shoulder behind it, to lead through example, make sure their own shadow comes out right, and to really show the change that you yourself are making, that you’re expecting from the organization, and to be up front and be highly visible. Another is to make sure that you select people who themselves want to be engaged. So as hands go up, you can attract people to the culture leadership team that we formed. But further, you can make sure you pick some of the very finest people in the organization and ensure that excellence, and the diversity of excellence, whether it’s coming from some of the business units, some of our shared services organizations, coming from some of our very top talent in the organization, and people who you just know are going to have this in their heart, in their mind, and be able to bring others along with them.

You end up with a power group, and that power group is self-engaged because they raised their hand. They’re a bit hand selected because you know that they’re some of the finest in the organization. And they have an energy inside them that becomes just unmissable when other people see it and unstoppable once they start coming together, so much so that they can help me change in the areas that I needed to, like the culture itself, and also others to see that this is organic, and it happens in every single part of the company. I think those are the two biggest ones: put your own shoulder [behind it], and pick and make sure that the other people are able to do this, at the highest and finest caliber of people in your organization.

Chad Carr: That’s great. What you had is everything held together, and you had those connected.

Julien Mininberg: Yes, yes.

Chad Carr: So, employee value proposition, recruiting and selection, the values work, the rebranding of the company, the strategy where we’re headed, how we’re organized and structured, ownership, and the way you pulled all that together made all the difference.

Julien Mininberg: It’s funny you say it, Chad. I remember the day that I realized how important that was going to be for us, and I must say it started off with a little bit of guilt, and the guilt was that we had started several projects independently, like the work with your organization. The rebranding work was with a separate outside organization after a failed attempt to do it internally—it didn’t come out as good as we thought we should be, so we went with an extra-professional group. And then there were other efforts being cooked up around the company, but there was no integration of them.

And when I realized that there was a single word, I think I called you, and I said, “We need to converge,” and this idea of convergence I thought was going to throw a wrench in your work and the rebranding work that we talked about before, and even some of these other aspects. And I called them as well, and I said, “I know you have a Gantt chart on the wall, I know you have a timeline, I know you have a budget. I know all of this stuff, but the problem I’ve got with it is this stuff doesn’t converge, so I want to talk about convergence.” And I probably made everybody miserable for a couple of weeks, but once they converged, the power multiplied, and that was a leadership moment. And that leadership moment got the idea of all the horses could run around the track in a way that none could alone, and we took off because of that. Maybe we just got lucky, but the moment the convergence thought clicked, we were off to the races.

Chad Carr: Julien, thank you so much for spending time with us and sharing some of the lessons you’ve learned in leading culture in your organization, and thank you for being a strategic client for Heidrick & Struggles.

Julien Mininberg: Thank you very much. It was an absolute pleasure, and I enjoyed all our conversation today. Thanks.

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