Alumna/Executive-in-Residence Explores EILEEN FISHER's Progressive Business Culture

April 29, 2013

 

"We're a company of teams; a company that models teamwork," observed Susan M. Schor,  a 1989 Isenberg Ph.D. graduate  who is Facilitating Leader and Chief Culture Officer with EILEEN FISHER Inc., the high-profile, perennially profitable designer and retailer of women's clothing. In her visit to Isenberg as Executive in Residence from April1-4, Schor gave an open lecture/presentation to the Isenberg community and shared insights in undergraduate, MBA, and Ph.D. classes.

 

Teams, transparency, and collaboration are central to EILEEN FISHER's vision and culture, noted Schor in her open lecture to the Isenberg community. "None of us functions alone, including our leaders," she emphasized while explaining her company's continually evolving Leadership System. The latter comprises three concentric rings of functional and cultural leadership teams and forums, connected and cross-cut by 11 Leadership Partners and a 22-person Leadership Forum. Schor is one of four members of the company's inner core circle-its Facilitating Leadership Team.  (Eileen Fisher herself no longer participates day-to-day but remains a conspicuous, inspirational presence and at times weighs in on key decisions.)

 

"We don't use org charts or words like goals and strategy. The company, she noted, hasn't had a strategic plan in its 29 years. We do, though, have our own vocabulary suited to our adaptive culture," Schor continued. The company, she explained, does have sales goals, but not overall business/company goals. Instead it has "priorities," which it identifies in "Visioning Offsites."

 

EILEEN FISHER's egalitarian culture emphasizes participative, empowered work teams, which consistently generate a wealth of ideas and innovation. "We're constantly in process-always learning from our mistakes. We have frequent snags but we embrace them, learn from them, and adapt," she observed in a subsequent interview.

 

That includes changes in the organization's structure as well, which remains a work in progress. In 2004, three years after Schor joined the company full-time as its Vice President of People and Culture, she helped transform a previously more hierarchical version of the business into a flatter organization, emphasizing interacting domains of business, creativity, and culture. Two years later, to broaden collaboration, the company introduced its Leadership Forum. EILEEN FISHER added its Facilitating Leaders Team in 2008 and its Facilitating Leadership Team Partners in 2011. Clearly, EILEEN FISHER's own cultural and structural experiments are critical to its success.

 

 

Nothing succeeds like success. It's hard to argue with a modus operandi and culture that correlate with consistent profitability and a positive reputation with customers, suppliers, employees, and communities across the U.S. and Canada. Since 2001-Schor's first year with the company-its annual sales have increased from $100 million to $360 million. Its current sales network includes leading retailers like Macy's, Bloomingdales, and Nordstrom; 400+ specialty stores; and 60 EILEEN FISHER retail stores.

 

EILEEN FISHER's 975 employees, (300 in 2001) work for a firm that since 2004 has ranked annually among the 25 Best Medium Companies to Work for in America (5th currently)  by the Great Place to Work Institute, Inc.  In a team-centric organization that places a premium on creativity, equality in benefits, profit sharing (EILEEN FISHER is an ESOP company), and strong boundaries that support a work-life balance, very few employees (80% are women) ever leave, noted Schor.  They also, she added, write their own performance reviews, which become touchstones in subsequent review dialogs.

  

At the same time, the company excels as a corporate citizen, notably in human rights and sustainability. It insists on transparency of working conditions throughout its supply chains. (Most of its manufacturers are in China.) No surprise then that EILEEN FISHER's  annual charitable giving program of 10% pretax profits has a strong human rights focus with a current emphasis on women and girls-their education, working conditions, and elimination of human trafficking. As for sustainability and other green practices, it actively works to remove toxic dyes, especially in its silks, and sources 50% of its cotton as organic. The company is also championing a program that encourages consumers to recycle EILEEN FISHER clothes through its three Green Eileen stores.

  

Stories are powerful.  As a facilitator of culture who values compelling stories about her company and its employees, Schor has a compelling story of her own. She and Eileen met at a cocktail party in 1999, when Schor was still an associate professor of management at Pace University. (She had been on the Pace faculty since 1991). Both clicked interpersonally and over a shared vision of an egalitarian, collaborative organization. "We were on the same wavelength from the moment we met," recalled Schor.  For the next two years, Schor helped Fisher in a part-time consulting role. Increasingly drawn toward the organization's exceptional challenges and opportunities and Eileen's own passionate commitment, Schor joined the company full time as its Vice President of People and Culture in 2001.

 

"It's a great thing for Isenberg's Ph.D. program when a graduate like Susan excels in academe and then applies academic insights for the betterment of the workplace," observes D. Anthony Butterfield, longtime director of Isenberg's Ph.D. program and Susan Schor's former dissertation chair. "We have Ph.D. graduates at over 100 colleges and universities. Susan is that exceptional graduate who has made her mark in both the academic and business worlds. Like few others, she truly walks the talk."