Own Your Path with Alexandra Trower
"Authenticity is not something we have, or don't have. It's a practice."
- Brene Brown
We’re back with our second installment of Own Your Path, an interview series where we ask inspiring leaders five essential questions about the evolution of their careers and the insights gained along the way.
This month we had the honor of interviewing the esteemed Alexandra (Alex) Trower, Executive Vice President, Global Communications at The Estée Lauder Companies (ELC), a $105 billion global prestige beauty legend. Both of us had the pleasure of working under Alex’s leadership during our time at the company, and experienced firsthand her influence and impact on lives and careers. Ever the consummate professional, Alex emphasized the importance of executive presence and cultivating equanimity to truly deliver excellence. With its welcoming round table and open door, even her office decor communicated her deep-seated values: this is a shared space, where people come first.
Whether in beauty, finance, education or her philanthropic work, a common thread runs through Alexandra Trower's decades of experience: supporting and uplifting the professional development of young women. Helping the people around her to discover, embody, and evolve to be their best remains central to her character and leadership style. After 13 brilliant years with The Estée Lauder Companies, and more than 25 years leading diverse global teams of powerhouse brands through transformational moments, Alex has announced her retirement. We’re thrilled she took the time to meet virtually and share her story.
1. Many of us start our careers in our early 20's without much prep. Going back to your first "professional" work experience, how did you get there and what was going on in your mind during that period of your career/life?
My first professional experience that linked to my career was when I was a senior in college and I did an internship at Working Woman Magazine in New York. This, to me, was a dream come true. Ironically enough I was assistant to the Beauty editor. I always wanted to be in New York, and I thought I would love magazines and going to all these events. And I was sort of crushed, because...I really didn’t love it. And I was actually super, super grateful for that, because knowing what you don't want to do is just as important - if not more so - as knowing what you want to do.
So, when I finally moved to New York it was harder, actually, to get an apartment than it was a job (laughs). I learned there’s something called corporate communications, and I just always believed - probably because my parents had two daughters, and I went to an all-women’s college - I believed I could do anything I set my mind to.
I started as an assistant in a corporate communications department...and I was terrible. I cannot believe they didn’t fire me, I was so bad. I remember having this dual set of feelings. This sense of empowerment, because I had this job in New York City, (making, you know, a total of $18,000 a year). But also feeling super-dispirited, like, “Oh my gosh, this is the rest of my life, and I don’t love this. And I’m not very good at it. And what am I going to do?” I worried maybe I’ll never be professionally happy or satisfied, and maybe I’ll be a failure at everything.
But then I got a job as a Marketing Associate at Citibank with the Asset Management Group, and I actually fell in love with it. First and foremost, I fell in love with the people I worked with. I wasn’t a finance person, or an asset management person. But I really believed in what we were doing. We were managing pensions fund money for a lot of public funds, and there was this sense of actually feeling like I was helping people.
I remember talking to one portfolio manager. He covered the Midwest and was going to see Chicago Fire and Police. I was the one actually standing at the Xerox machine putting these presentations together. I wasn’t very good at that, either (laughs). But I always read everything. And I went to him and said, “You’re going to talk to firemen and policemen, and you’re talking about the Sharpe ratio on page 3. Do you think they’re even going to know what that is? I wonder.” And he got sort of ‘funny-cross’ with me and said, “Well if you can do a better job, go do it.” And so I basically spent the weekend rewriting this presentation. Now, I knew nothing about Sharpe ratio, but I knew that if I were a firefighter, or I was responsible for firefighters and police people, and I had given you my money, I would want to know why I hired you; what you had done with my money; had it gone up or did it go down?; why did it go up or down; and were you meeting the expectations that we had agreed upon? At the end of the day, were we going to be able to fund the retirement for these police families, and these firefighting families? I felt very free to share my views. That was just part of who I was. But because I was in an environment where I loved the people, I could really be myself. And I kept raising my hand for things. There wasn’t anything, really, that I wouldn’t do, so it turned out that I just got more and more responsibility. And realized I was actually good at it.
Later, when I went to JPMorgan, I was in my early 30s, I’d had a baby, and came in as an established Vice President at a young age. My philosophy always was, “I can figure things out. And I can ask people for help. And I love being part of a team.” That has been a big current in my professional life. But, honestly, with a twin of, “Am I doing it well enough? Am I delivering at the level that I need to?”
I was a much better mother being a working mother than I would have been if I hadn’t been. But with a child, you have the whole other part of the equation of "Am I doing enough there?" I would love for other women, young women, not to have that self-doubt. Because the answer is, YES, you’re doing enough. You’re doing it well. And if you’re not, guess what? People will tell you (laughs). If you are truly wretched, you’re going to find out pretty soon.
2. What have you learned about what NOT to do as a boss/leader?
One of the most important things that I learned from my first real boss, Penny Zuckerwise (who is still a dear friend and mentor 30 years later), is the importance of “Never Assume.” I think people get their exercise jumping to conclusions about why something isn’t a certain way. When I take the time to really understand, and ask in an appropriate, gentle way, where people are coming from, I always find that I learn the most, and that my team has the best dynamic. What motivates them, what they care about, what they like, what they don’t like, what makes them crazy are important questions? Not assuming you know is I think really, really important.
We all work so hard and closely together that the relationship has to come first. When you have the relationship, you build trust and people come to work being more of their authentic selves. That gives us the opportunity to know each other with a fullness that I certainly didn’t let myself be known 30 years ago, in what I was presenting to the world. The beauty of age, experience, and the times that we’re living in, is that what is most valuable about me, and you, and any of us is our AUTHENTICITY. I know that’s so hackneyed right now, but being authentic, being real is really important.
People don’t want to follow a nameless, faceless, emotionless person. That’s not what we’re in the workforce for. We’re there to get joy and satisfaction, and to support ourselves and our families. It’s much more multidimensional than just “here’s a job, and here’s my business card, and here’s my performance review.”
3.What are three key takeaways or advice that you have for those early in their career? What do you know now that you didn't know when you first entered the workforce?
The first thing is - it ALL works out (laughs). It really is going to be OK, and you are doing a great job. That doesn’t mean you have to do a great job a hundred percent of the time.
I also wish that I had realized that feelings weren’t facts, and that things don’t last forever. A big disappointment that you learn so much from helps you become resilient. For me, when I was younger, I had a tendency to globalize and be somewhat dramatic. And I didn’t have the perspective of knowing that those tough moments weren’t going to last forever.
One of the smartest things that I ever learned - and it took me a long time to learn it - whatever level you are at, say to the person you’re working for, “What do you need from me?” And, “What does it look like? How do you want to be communicated with? What keeps you up at night? What’s something that I should know about that you wouldn’t think to tell me?” Keeping that in mind is so helpful, because your job description and performance reviews can only inform so much. And I think when you can really have that conversation, you get to a level in your relationship where you can accelerate that. That’s where you build trust.
We think that the soft stuff isn’t the important stuff, and, actually, the soft stuff is the most important stuff. And, honestly, at the end of the day, it is all about judgement. It’s about discernment, listening, evaluating, and presenting options. Understanding what that other person needs from you, and what that looks like, I think is a really important key to success.
4. What do you believe is the most important responsibility you have as a leader? What do you think is the most important quality or characteristic to have as a leader?
For me, the most important thing is my team, and the welfare and the responsibility I feel to help people grow, develop, and flourish. I love being around them. I love solving problems together. I always believed in a very flat organization and wasn’t really super interested in titles. It’s really about what we can do together to advance and protect the company, the family, and the brands.
And also I think it’s important to remember people change, right? You think you want to do one thing, and then you may want another career, or different responsibilities. Again, it’s that checking in, and making sure.
I just can’t emphasize enough the importance of the human relationships in the work setting. For so many decades you “kept your personal life out of your work life.” I never understood how you would ever do that, because what makes you a great professional is who you are, what you care about, what motivates you.
5. What do you love about what you do?
I love working with people. I love working with my team and helping them define their strengths, and to get them out of their comfort zones every now and then. The path to growth is a painful one sometimes. And part of growing is not doing something well, or making a mistake. Being able to be there when those things happen, to support them, and to help them learn from those kinds of things, but not to fall apart.
My ideal situation is where everybody on the team feels that they are supported, understood, cared for, and they’re pushed when appropriate. Trying new things, and doing new things, and doing it while being themselves. That is what makes me so happy. It’s a privilege and a joy. And it’s something that I feel very lucky to have been part of in my career, bringing up other young women and helping them thrive.
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