· Features

Interview with Isabelle Minneci, HR director at L’Oréal UK

Isabelle Minneci, the French-born HRD at cosmetics giant L’Oréal UK, will have heard it in her homeland as, ‘C’est le ton qui fait la musique’ (‘it’s the tone that sets the music’) – the more mellifluous origin of the UK’s clumsier translation, ‘it’s not what you say, but the way that you say it’.

But few phrases are as elegant and efficient as this in describing her own HR style and that of a company whose very motto is predicated on saying more with less (or what is not said) - You're worth it - (whatever 'it' is).

"I am not sure we have a 'French' culture; we have L'Oréal culture," she says enigmatically, when asked to describe the L'Oréal way. This is a way that recently included, for example, training staff on 'email etiquette', a very French-sounding policy indeed. "It is not paternalistic either," she says, refuting the assertion French companies tend to be overly authoritarian in structure. "We want to take care of staff, but ours is also a culture of performance. We like to think that if people have an idea, they can go ahead and do it."

If these are the lyrics by which Minneci is setting the tone of L'Oréal culture, they are certainly working. Head office staff (comprising 700 of its 3,000 headcount) will typically stay for 10 to 12 years, and she says it is thanks to a strategy that tries to ensure 80% of promotions are internal, performance- (not longevity) based - and by HR working hard to ensure everything it does strips bureaucracy and improves working lives of L'Oréal staff. Specific interventions - such as email training (Minneci prefers to call elements such as these 'charters', because the 'email charter' has recently been joined by a 'meetings charter') - are only done if specifically requested by staff, through its Pulse employee survey, or if they can be linked to improving performance.

"Staff needed help," she says of the email charter, "after it was found they were checking their emails 29 times a day, receiving an average of 56 emails a day, 36% of which were irrelevant." After providing online training, using specially created characters called 'Mailiens', staff gained an average extra 44 minutes a day. "We are still looking at work efficiency," she adds. "We will soon be rolling out our 'good technology charter', allowing staff to connect to us with their own smartphones or other PDA devices, by unlocking our own web pages to make them useable by any device. It is all about breaking down and improving simple stuff that prevents people being able to perform."

Lightness of touch while focusing on the individual is a shrewd, but apt tone for this HRD, who confesses her main HR task is how to "inspire and motivate" the talent in her people. To Minneci, it is the small things that work - such as L'Oréal's 'FIT' (Follow-up and Integration Track) induction scheme for new joiners, to the point where today 90% of people now say they have a better understanding of their role. She says everything she does is about creating the right tone, through carefully worded employee communications - from the 'L'Oréal and Me' umbrella name under which the employee proposition is explained, through to 'Open Talk' surveys for non-head office staff, to the 'My Future' pensions plan. "On the latter, we have produced loads more materials," says Minneci. "We have been very simple about making pensions more relevant to people's lives, writing it in a better way. It is this personal touch, the way we say things, that we find makes the biggest difference. We only have 30% pension take-up overall, and it is only 15% for the 2,000 counter staff in department stores. That is something I am very keen to improve on."

With no formal background in HR (Minneci went to business school and came close to being a marketer before deciding to join L'Oréal as an HR graduate in 1996), it is clear the concept of having to 'market' HR initiatives to staff still runs strongly in her veins.

Again though, it is entirely apt, not least because she has a receptive audience. L'Oréal is unabashedly a marketing-heavy business - it ploughs 30.5% of its total sales back into marketing - something commentators argue has enabled it to grow during the recession, while other cosmetics companies have not. L'Oréal achieved like-for-like growth of 5.1% for 2011, with luxury sales growth up 8.2% compared to 2010. A staggering four L'Oréal products are sold in Britain every second, with 67% of women using at least one of them.

"We are a science and innovation business," argues Minneci - in 2010, L'Oréal filed more than 600 patents. "Our external messaging is about bringing beauty to people, to help people gain self-confidence through people, and internally, the message of self-confidence at work, to create new ideas, is very much mirrored."

In recent years, creating internal self-confidence has been focused around a UK-specific project called 'Beauty Shakers' - a competition marketed by HR that seeks to unearth bright ideas from staff that will continue L'Oréal's innovative heritage. "It is deliberately bi-annual, so we can focus on actually implementing some of the fantastic innovation it produces," says Minneci, who is demonstrably proud of the initiative when explaining it. At last year's lavish awards ceremony, an employee of 25 years' service was recognised. "I witness the real, empowering impact it has," she says [while playing a DVD of last year's event]. "We had 400 projects entered from 3,000 staff - that's real employee buy-in. There's a £10,000 prize that goes to the winner."

But while cynics might argue virtually all large firms run their own versions of these, or similar policies/events, Minneci argues L'Oréal is different. Beside her HR team dealing with concerns that are genuinely challenging - such as training its 2,000 geographically dispersed counter staff at its onsite beauty salons (which need to run with military efficiency) - she claims there is also something else that is rather unusual - L'Oréal's HR set-up in the first place.

Rather than work with all staff across the board, L'Oréal has specific HR teams charged with looking after just one vertical function (salespeople, finance or marketing staff etc), and they do so for staff in that profession not just nationally but globally too. "I used to be head of worldwide communications," says Minneci, "looking after all the career, training and development issues of just our communications people worldwide." She adds: "We have separate, sub-HRDs for each function - even HR has its own HR director, looking after just the global HR function." It is all very egalitarian, but as Minneci asks rhetorically: "Why not? Otherwise, we would spend all our time looking after everyone else - but who would look after our own HR professionals' interests?"

It is an interesting point, but rather than this odd HR set-up creating countless, clashing, function-specific policies, Minneci says all of the sub-HRDs work well together. "The HR communities at L'Oréal all share a lot, and we really value the networking it brings. Every two years, we hold a specific HR conference for all of these vertical HR function heads to share best practice."

It is clear from this that Minneci and L'Oréal value her own, and the careers of her 38-strong UK HR team, just as much as the broader talent pool. But perhaps equality - based on pragmatism but also sharing ideas and best practice (Beauty Shakers separately rewards both of these cultural traits) - is what the culture at L'Oréal is about, she says, starting to get more specific. Minneci says everyone can, and should, aspire to get to the best they can be. "When we talk about careers here, we mean international careers," she says. "It is very formalised - it is called 'Transition To' - and if we think someone has got potential, we make things happen. My view is, if I am to continue to do my job well, I should really know who is ready to move into roles," she says candidly.

Perhaps this is view is influenced not just by the strong culture she wraps herself in, but by her own journey within L'Oréal. "Let me see," pauses Minneci, calculating her own time with the brand. "I have had nine roles in 16 years," she says, doing the arithmetic, and surprising herself with the answer.

"Some of my roles have involved going back to the business, into marketing again, then into recruitment," she says. Minneci was product manager at Garnier from 1998-99, for example, before moving to be a recruitment manager at the professional products division in France for the next two years.

"In my very first role, though, I was L'Oréal's social mobility project manager (France). I was 23, still impressionable, and I know it was the experience doing this job - rewarding subsidiaries that do amazing community work - that has stayed with me most during my HR career," Minneci recollects.

"The trophy I used to give to teams is what I take everywhere I go. It reminds me that we are here to help people, develop people in all our walks of life, and that we all deserve developing."

She adds: "The world is changing all the time. Today, the business is all about understanding digital, training people up to make sure we as a company, and they as individuals, are prepared for what we need to do. But tomorrow it could be something else. That is the HR challenge - personally and professionally. I don't know if I'm doing it all right - you are your own barometer to some extent - but I also think you don't know you have done something wrong unless you give it a try. I am a trier, and I have a gut feeling things work. But I'd be out of a job if everything was done."