Even though the beauty industry caters almost exclusively to women, the number of women CEOs at big beauty companies is alarmingly small. In fact, there is only one female CEO of a top-10 beauty company: Procter and Gamble’s Alex Keith.
Keith’s rise to the top wasn’t linear. She graduated from college with a chemical engineering degree and started her career with P&G at a manufacturing plant in Philadelphia.
Flash forward to today and she is now CEO of the company’s beauty business, leading a $13.4 billion portfolio of brands including Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Olay, SK-II, Secret, Old Spice and more. Keith, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, leads a team of over 10,000 employees, guiding them daily on brand strategy, innovation and go-to-market efforts.
She recently chatted with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski about her non-conventional career path, leading during a pandemic, how companies can retain diverse talent and more.
Below is their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Mika Brzezinski: You’re the only female CEO of a top-10 beauty company. It shows that women face barriers every step of the way to get to the very, very top. How much self-advocating did you do in your beginning years at P&G? You were able to move up, be retained and move up to such a high level. How did it happen?
Alex Keith: … I did start in a manufacturing plant, so I have a chemical engineering degree, so I was far from where I’ve ended up. I graduated with a chemical engineering degree and was hired by Proctor & Gamble’s [product supply organization]. But I was still inside a manufacturing facility.
And I think early on in my career, I was fortunate [to have] great mentorship. I always focused on, of course, doing whatever my defined job was with excellence, but also showing interest … outside my scope of responsibility that I think ultimately caught people’s attention. And they saw me as someone who was curious, who was ambitious to learn more, who wanted to contribute more than what my role might have been defined as.
I can [also] say that I had an amazing mentor who was a man. So, I don’t think this has to come down only to women mentoring… although I do think that there’s a big role for that. [He] helped me when I told him I was considering leaving Procter & Gamble to go to business school. He said, “why do you want to do that?” And I said, “I’d like to work in marketing.” And he said, “at Procter & Gamble?” And I said, “of course.” And he said, “well, let’s get you transferred to marketing.”
He really navigated the system for me and introduced me to the right people to get me … transferred cross-functionally into marketing. So I never left and went to business school. And then I applied … in marketing and then general management…[I went] beyond these boundaries and started to make connections outside the scope of my role… showing curiosity and contributing more. And I think that always allowed me to kind of catch senior leadership attention through my career.
… I’ve had both men and women advocate for me and help me in my career. But certainly the women who have been part of that have been very instrumental.
Brzezinski: Yes. I think we’re finding that we women enjoy each other and there is strength in our numbers.
I read that you were surprised when you were approached to lead the company’s North America Fabric Care Business because it was the crown jewel of the company. I’m curious — why were you surprised?
Keith: That’s a great question. I was surprised because I had never worked in that business and because it is the crown jewel of P&G. It’s a very special business and it has its own business model …So for someone who had never kind of “grown up” in that organization and understood a lot of those things, it was very different than what the history of the company had been in terms of putting leaders in place in that organization.
But probably the biggest reason I was surprised was I think probably only three weeks before that meeting, I had told our CEO that I loved beauty. I was perfectly happy in beauty and I would spend my career in beauty and he said, “OK, thank you for telling me.”
And three weeks later … they said to me, “We want you to leave for North America fabric care.” It just came out of nowhere. And I think it shocked me … But I think he looked at it as an opportunity to really grow me as a leader and to make me a better leader for beauty long term, which is ultimately of course, back where I ended up and what did happen. So it was really, I’m assuming, very thoughtful leadership development …
Brzezinski. Like you, I’m over 50. I’m 54. And I asked every woman on my 50 Over 50 list in partnership with Know Your Value and Forbes this question. When you were younger, in your 20s and 30s, did you ever envision your career after 50?
Keith: I don’t think so. I think I’ve really thought about my career kind of in five to seven year chunks.
Brzezinski: How does your career after 50 feel compared to what you might’ve feared about it after 50?
Keith: It’s interesting. I [recently had] a moment about this.
…When I was an assistant brand manager, which was an entry level position in marketing that I was transferred to, I worked on a project. I was transferred on to the Olay skincare brand. And I was given a project to work on a line of products for women, 50 plus. And I was 27 years old.
I remember going to the focus groups at the time and meeting women who were over 50 and talking to them about their skincare and feeling like they were fundamentally different than I was at 27 … But I’m now of course the woman that I would have been designing for. I remember thinking, “well, hey, I think I still am that 27 year old, mentally.”
I mean, I’m more confident and comfortable in my own skin for sure. I don’t wake up every morning saying I’m 53 years old … Generally, I don’t think about my age on any regular basis.
Brzezinski: I feel more confident in what I’m doing over 50.
So, let me move to trying to get companies to retain strong, diverse talent. Why has it been so difficult for companies to have strong, diverse female and minority talent all the way to the top. What is the challenge and what are potentially some of the solutions?
Keith: It’s certainly not an easy thing to solve. I don’t want to leave with any impression that we’ve totally solved that, but for us at P&G Beauty, it starts with making sure that our workforce represents the consumer we’ve served. And as the years have gone on, the consumer we serve has become more and more diverse … Ultimately, we have been deliberate … about looking at that consumer base and making sure the voice of that consumer is part of our team.
Then I think that there’s a leadership commitment that has to come to understand who that diverse talent is, whether it’s gender diversity or ethnic diversity or LGBTQ. Who are the diverse talent and are we making sure that they have good relationships with their managers? Do they have clear work plans? Are they being given timely and constructive feedback? … And are we thinking very deliberately about what is their next opportunity?
… The people on my leadership team know that my expectation is that leaders are creating an environment where equality and inclusion are a core part, because you can do all the mechanistic things …But if we don’t have a culture that has a fundamental equality and inclusion underpinning to it, even if you’re doing all those other things, people will choose to leave because they won’t feel included or they won’t feel that they’re getting an equal opportunity to succeed…
Brzezinski: That’s meeting people where they are, instead of having them fit slots that were created years ago for one type of person. Switching gears, I’m curious to find out what you learned while leading during the pandemic. Were there skills, qualities about yourself that you discovered or changes you realized you needed to make?
Keith: I think we all learned about the importance of understanding that everybody deals with this kind of thing differently … Some people had tremendous amounts of stress, either because of their family situations, or because of the way they deal with fear and the unknown of a pandemic. So I think ultimately, probably the biggest broad leadership lesson is really paying attention to people’s individual needs and health.
… For me, personally, as a leader, I’ve [learned] two lessons that I think I will carry forward. And I wish I learned them sooner in my career. One was, I did this thing and I’m sitting in Geneva, Switzerland. I run a huge global organization. Most of those people, I don’t see every day. And so most of those people would only see or hear from me when I did a webcast or when I visited the region. But when we all got locked down, I started doing a video every other week on my iPhone. Not fancily produced or anything like that. I just sent it out to people to tell them what was on my mind and what was happening.
[In one video], I shared that I decided to redo my kitchen. And it was all ripped out. And then the lockdown happened … I was working on like a plugin burner. I had plywood as kitchen counters. And I showed that to people in the video and the response to the humanness of it was just incredible. And I realized that while I think of myself as that same 27-year-old assistant brand manager … to many people, I’m not that person. I’m a role. I’m Alex Keith and I’m the CEO of P&G Beauty.
And so, when I sent out the videos, the response I got from people in the organization — like, “wow, thank you for showing us your nightmare.” I think that just put a human face on me that I hope I can keep up as we go back to hopefully a little bit more of a normal operating environment.
And then the other [lesson I learned has to do with me liking to have] productive, efficient meetings. And so I always had a rule in my meetings that you cannot do your email in my meeting. You can leave the meeting and go do your email if you want. But if you’re at the table in the meeting, I expect you to pay attention and be part of a conversation. And it used to really drive me crazy when people would kind of ignore that. And what I’ve learned over this whole lockdown pandemic period is I don’t know what people are doing on the other side of the video. So I’ve managed to lead through it … I think I’m more relaxed.