Reflecting at 90, beauty magnate focuses on helping patients at Mayo Clinic
Before Leonard A. Lauder was CEO of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., before he was an author, before he became a world-renowned art collector, and before he was credited as an extraordinarily generous philanthropist, a then-young man went into his country’s service.
Specifically, the U.S. Navy.
The attention to detail instilled during his service stayed with Mr. Lauder — whose friends call him Leonard. It was something Leonard noticed keenly during his first visit to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. While there many years ago with his late wife, Evelyn, Mayo Clinic staff asked her to confirm a series of minor personal details.
Leonard hadn’t seen other health care organizations use this series of questions. This patient safety measure is now standard practice for health care organizations around the world.
“That simple, seemingly little thing gave me the feeling that Mayo Clinic was the future of health care in this nation,” he says.
And this straightforward yet effective process reminded Leonard of his time as a lieutenant on active duty in what was then known as the United States Atlantic Fleet. One of his jobs, as a check site observer, was to make sure gun turrets were pointed the right direction.
“How simple that task was,” Leonard recalls. “But how important it was to save lives. That’s similar to what I observed during my initial visit to Mayo Clinic.”
Serving in the U.S. Navy was a formative experience for Leonard. Later, as a proud veteran, he realized he had an opportunity to fund cutting-edge Mayo Clinic research that could benefit his fellow veterans who were suffering from back pain and spinal cord injuries.
That’s how Leonard came to Mayo Clinic to see Mohamad Bydon, M.D., a neurosurgeon and specialist in complex spinal surgery. Dr. Bydon is also principal investigator of the Mayo Clinic Neuro-Informatics Laboratory. The Neuro-Informatics Laboratory is leading advances in spinal cord injury and disk regeneration, surgical outcomes, spinal biomechanics, and novel spinal devices.
Leonard was drawn to Dr. Bydon and his team’s work benefiting patients, specifically those with spinal cord injuries who were able to walk again due to the treatment they received at Mayo Clinic.
“When I first met Dr. Bydon, I became very excited about the potential to partner and help achieve the objectives he shared,” Leonard says. “Dr. Bydon’s work is individualized — it’s an opportunity to help veterans who need it today. I feel connected to these patients and invested in improving people’s lives through these advancements.”
For his generous support, Mayo Clinic recognizes Leonard A. Lauder as a Philanthropic Partner.
“Leonard Lauder’s generosity has accelerated pioneering research on spinal cord regeneration, getting us one step closer to solving the most serious spinal injuries,” Dr. Bydon says. “It’s inspiring to collaborate with Mr. Lauder and learn more about his dedication to helping others, especially the veteran community.
“The advances we’re making in the treatment of spinal cord injury would not be possible without his support.”
The possibilities and benefits of cutting-edge research aren’t new territory for Leonard. When he joined his family’s company in 1958, he focused on building the company’s first research and development laboratory. Leonard also helped grow The Estée Lauder Companies from a brand with eight products in one country to one of the world’s leading manufacturers, marketers and sellers of quality skin care, makeup, fragrance and hair care products, with more than 25 brands sold in approximately 150 countries and territories.
One of the most important lessons Leonard learned while in the Navy and now offers as a personal adage?
“Managers do things right, but leaders do the right thing. There's a big difference.”
Red, white and blue notes
A foundation of Leonard’s personal leadership style is recognizing the contributions of others.
This focus on recognition began during one of Leonard’s first jobs at The Estée Lauder Companies — when he paid monthly commissions to the sales staff who worked behind the company’s cosmetic counters in various department stores. While writing the commission checks, he decided to slip personal thank you notes in every envelope to show how much he appreciated each sales team member.
There’s a similar practice still in place today. On each of his desks, Leonard keeps personalized blue stationery so he can continue to write messages to employees. He’s written thousands of “blue notes” that are famous throughout his organization. The messages are sometimes humorous, oftentimes congratulatory, or perhaps offer a much-needed word of encouragement.
“Recognizing the work that someone does and congratulating them, or inspiring them to do better, is one of the best ways I can lead,” he says, while remaining humbled that many of his colleagues have saved his handwritten notes over the years.
Today, his blue notes have expanded. Veterans who work at The Estée Lauder Companies inspired Red, White & Blue Notes, a companywide initiative that encourages U.S. employees and their families to send thank you letters to military members actively deployed overseas during the holiday season. Leonard sponsors the program, which is now in its fifth year of honoring and recognizing the contributions of veterans as well as the sacrifices their families have made.
And after more than six decades of iconic leadership, Leonard, now 90, serves as chairman emeritus of the company that bears his mother’s name. He remains enthusiastic about working every day.
“There’s no place that I don't have reminders of the great things that life has to offer,” Leonard shares. “I can't wait to get to work every day. I really can't.”
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