Karen Owen is Vice President, Asia Marketing Development for COTY. In this role, Karen leads the Asia Marketing Development organisation in product development for color cosmetics, retail hair and bodycare, and all areas of the marketing mix from communication, in-store to go-to-market strategy.
Looking back on your career to date, can you pinpoint when you first noticed an emphasis on diversity and inclusion around you?
Yes, if I go back to when I was a National Sales Manager in healthcare and we had nearly 200 people across the UK and Ireland, I was working with a regional management team to influence those people when we recognised that differences in approaches made a difference. We realised that if we all looked at it the same way, we wouldn’t get anywhere and that was when it clicked for me that diversity plays a huge role in the positive development of an organisation.
Tell us about your move from Europe to Asia, especially around the merger with COTY and the changes you have taken on board.
I had previously been leading the MaxFactor business globally. I wanted a fresh challenge and the one region I had not work in was Asia, which was leading the way across all categories in beauty. If you want to be successful in beauty, you really have to embed yourself in the Asian culture and understand the Asian consumer. To make the move work, my priority was my family and making sure my two girls found a great school, and after that, everything fell into place.
In terms of work/life balance, how has it been since the merger?
It’s been a huge change, but I wanted the challenge. The pace of change has been amazing and I love the values of the new company and I’m excited about what we’re creating. Asia is much faster than other parts of the world and I love being in an environment where everything is celebrated. I believe at COTY, focusing on diversity and inclusion, is a really positive and smart way to move forwards that brings out the best in everybody.
In terms of your role, was diversity at the forefront of the leadership strategy or was it more business orientated?
It goes hand in hand. Mine was a completely new role, leading innovation and marketing for Asia, something COTY had never done before, which was part of the attraction of the role. So we have crafted a team of men, women, different nationalities, as well as different levels of experience because I’m a great believer in bringing fresh talent alongside experience. The COTY values have been my guiding tool, so if people embrace those, then we all learn together.
Do you think that your gender has ever hindered you or blocked any personal progression?
Not at all. I think I’ve been fortunate that both Procter & Gamble and COTY are very meritocratic, so I’ve never felt that being female has held me back. I’ve always worked really hard and felt that my hard work has been rewarded.
Have you ever gravitated towards either female or male hires?
No, I’ve always strived for a mix. I’ve had a mix of male and female managers and leaders in my career, and what I’ve gravitated to is great leaders. People that I really see making an impact on the business is always because of one thing – this is a mantra that one of my mentors gave me: “Always surround yourself with people better than you.” The role of a great leader is coaching people to get the best out of them. That’s something I’ve always kept with me. The alarm bell goes off when I go into an organisation and a lot of people are the same – I really want to encourage a meritocracy where everybody has a role, regardless of gender.
Apart from your mentor, have there been any inspirational leaders, male or female? And were their approaches different?
All of the mentors and leaders I’ve had have had different approaches, but I can’t say that the men tended to do this and the women that. Maybe it’s because both P&G and COTY have a legacy of valuing people first. What that has given me is a great belief that if I do a good job, I’ll get rewarded for that, and I’ve never felt a glass ceiling with those employers. The only sideways moves I’ve made have been deliberate choices I’ve made, such as when I had children.
Not a lot of companies allow you to make decisions like this. Do you think it’s important?
Yes – I could have progressed faster maybe, but I deliberately chose to keep the same role after becoming a mother for the first time, because I had no idea what it would be like as a working mother then! I’ve got many friends from different industries who tell me horror stories about their situation.
What one factor has helped you the most throughout your career?
The mantra I mentioned earlier – surround yourself with people better than you are. As a manager and a leader, your duty is to bring out the best of your team. Also, moving from Europe to Asia, and recognising the different culture and that I had a lot to learn here has also held me in good stead.
How do you balance long hours with family life and being successful?
I have some non-negotiables that I will not compromise on that have been really important throughout. For example, I am always there for the first day of school each year, wherever I am travelling. I have a number of those occasions that I stick to. I am also fortunate that I do a lot of work with Europe and the US, so I can schedule calls in the evening when my girls are in bed. I have a supportive boss, so I manage my day around when I need to connect with the rest of the world, giving me the right amount of time with my girls. I do travel and my children don’t like it, but we have little rules in place to make that better – if I’m ever away for more than three days, I write them a letter they can open for each day so that they know I am thinking about them. I’m proud to be a working mother and I want to be a role model for them so that they too are motivated to work hard.
Tell us more about COTY’s Women In Leadership.
COTY has a predominantly female workforce at 56% and in terms of managers it’s 46%, which speaks a lot to the values of the company. We have a couple of initiatives that are designed to bring out the best in everybody and then celebrate that, beyond just women in leadership. One is a full diversity and inclusion programme that reaches out and listens to employees’ concerns with a variety of programmes. Secondly, we partnered with Global Citizen on a social action programme to tackle prejudice and discrimination around the world. Any COTY employee can add their voice in a simple way via the app on a forum about the global issues that they care about. Gender equality is one of the topics which we focus on.
How does the programme help bring people out of their shells and make an impact?
The programme now has a fantastic sense of community. And what I love about it is that it’s not about doing it in your spare time, we embed it in the business. For example, in terms of our in-house make-up knowledge and skills, how can we help women from disadvantaged backgrounds? We do makeovers and teach them how to build their confidence and skill sets. We also challenge the beauty norms more now to make the stereotypical imagery in the sector more inclusive and authentic.
What is your advice to leaders around creating a diverse culture?
It really starts with you and the immediate team you create, which is a representation of you. If that team is diverse and celebrates the values of the organisation, then that is the culture you’re creating. You’ve got to convey those values, not somebody else.
What else is COTY doing to create a diverse culture?
The other part for COTY, which is only two years old, is that it starts with the values. As a challenger in beauty we have to be curious and challenge the norms; we want to push boundaries and be entrepreneurial. And living by these values is really starting to embed the culture in our organisation, especially with us leaders showcasing and celebrating that.
What differences in diversity have you noticed between European and Asian work cultures?
Not a lot. In terms of working cultures, the timings are different because of where we are in relation to other parts of the world. The pace of business is quicker in Asia because the consumer environment here is changing so rapidly. But in terms of the approach and the team I have, it’s very similar to Europe, with very passionate, motivated individuals. I didn’t have any preconceptions before coming to Asia, but it’s been a very smooth transition. The consumer environment in the beauty sector has been the eye-opening and more fascinating element!