Passion, Obsession Drive The 'Eileen Fisher Way'

By Ann Pomeroy Jul 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, July 2007#7 Medium Company on the 2007 Best Small & Medium Companies To Work for in America List

Passion for the business is integrated into the culture and the creative process at Eileen Fisher Inc., a women’s clothing designer and manufacturer ranked No. 7 among the 2007 Best Medium Companies to Work for in America.

An obsession with the “Eileen Fisher Way” radiates from the founder (“passion” and “obsession” are this entrepreneur’s favorite words) and permeates the organization.

Eileen Fisher herself is a selfdescribed “quantum leap girl” who started the company in 1984 with four designs, $350 and complete confidence that “I know how to do this.” She brought it off, creating a successful company that “encourages people to discover their passions and who they are, and helps them create their own place here.”

The firm’s collaborative leadership style is the opposite of top-down management. “For us, [leadership] comes from the center,” says Susan Schor, the “chief culture officer” who co-leads the company while Fisher concentrates on creating new designs.

Fisher, who met Schor at a party, says she “came in and created her own place,” helping to develop a “fluid structure” that defies translation into traditional corporate terms.

Schor guides the “People and Culture” areas: leadership, learning and development, social consciousness, human resources, and internal communications.

Working in partnership, she and two colleagues are charged with “holding the whole,” a responsibility akin to that of a chief operating officer.

Everyone works in teams, says Schor, and “no one reports to anyone. Instead, we ‘connect into’ someone else.” Leadership teams are run by facilitators, who are “not necessarily the ones who make the decisions,” she adds.

HR director Shari Simberkoff says that hiring, too, is a collaborative process that includes multiple team interviews. HR’s job begins with “hiring the right people for this organization,” keeping in mind that the company is not right for everyone. Once a good match has been made, “We try to give people reasons to stay by providing terrific benefits and services, and by helping them develop personally.”

The company’s hiring and retention efforts seem to be working. Simberkoff says it averaged about 15 percent turnover companywide last year, compared with a national turnover rate of 25 percent to 40 percent in the retail industry. She has been with the company for nine years, and many others have been there longer, she says.

Although the eccentric and highly original culture is “not an easy environment to succeed in,” says Schor, it offers excitement and opportunity to those who “get it.”

For example, the company supports “eco-conscious” practices as well as responsible business activities that demonstrate a strong regard for human rights.

Catherine Fordham is a grants coordinator who came up with a great idea -- she is quick to say that it was not hers alone, but a group effort by the social consciousness team. “I knew that Eileen wants women to feel good about their bodies,” she says. Deciding that nonprofit organizations that work to raise the female self-image were good candidates for their grants program, she described the idea to Fisher and was given the go-ahead.

Fordham describes the thrill of following an idea from conception to fruition and the satisfaction of seeing the positive response. “We got 97 grant proposals in just a month,” she says. After narrowing the proposals down to 14, Fordham conducted interviews and helped select eight organizations to receive grants this year. That’s heady stuff for a young woman early in her career.

A successful “citizen of Eileen Fisher” is a person who is open and flexible and does not “hold on too tightly to what has been,” says Vice President of Communications Hilary Old. “Eileen is good at galvanizing people, and that helps you take off the ego coat when you come in the door.”

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