“Dream big and be passionate”: lessons in leadership from Wella’s CEO

Annie Young-Scrivner shares advice on harnessing innovation and intuition in the beauty industry

annie young scrivner,ceo of wella
Marie Gala de Tena

When Annie Young-Scrivner came to the UK from China at the age of seven, she didn’t know a single word of English. “My clothes were different, I didn’t have cool shoes, and I went into the second grade still learning my ABCs,” she recalls. “I think when you can't communicate through language, you become really observant, looking at skills, looking at emotions. And I’ve always been someone who likes to learn.”

That impulse to educate herself, combined with a propensity for hard graft, has served Annie well over the decades. She started work young, taking various jobs in retail (“I put myself through my undergraduate course by working in a department store”), and her first role after university was on the leadership-training programme at PepsiCo. “You start at the bottom and work your way up,” she explains. “In the early days, I had to load an 18-foot truck with products and drive it to different stores. To finish my route, I had to carry six boxes at a time – I remember feeling like I was going to be some sort of muscle builder! But it really made me appreciate the value of hard work and the importance of attention to detail.”

You start at the bottom and work your way up

The experience also gave her the courage to hold her own in a room full of men much older than her (she was 22, while most of her team were in their forties), who were initially sceptical of her authority. “The first thing they said to me was, you’re younger than my daughter – what are you going to teach me? I learnt early on that respect is earned, and I did that by galvanising colleagues to work not as individuals but as a team with a collective goal,” she reflects.

Annie went on to spend two decades at PepsiCo, before moving to Starbucks to work closely with its founder Howard Schultz and then becoming the CEO of Godiva; alongside this, she has held roles on the boards of Macy’s, Tiffany & Co and others. But in December 2020, she took on the challenge of a lifetime: to oversee Wella’s transition to an independent company. The timing was daunting – we were, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic – but the growth strategy was bold. “In our first year, we hired 1,100 new people, 61 per cent of whom are women,” says Annie proudly. What excited her about the role was Wella’s impressive portfolio of brands, combined with its dual influence in the consumer and professional markets. “Small businesses are the fabric of every healthy economy, and we touch over 500,000 of them. When you multiply that by 10 or 20, it equates to millions of hairdressers,” she adds. Just this week, the company has announced the acquisition of the natural-haircare company Briogeo (which itself has a female CEO), demonstrating its commitment to sustainable growth.

Balancing the company’s long heritage with a relentless focus on innovation and a firm belief in the importance of people development now sit at the heart of Annie’s business plan. Here, she shares the key leadership lessons that underpin her approach at Wella…

The three most important qualities for a good leader are…

"First, the ability to dream big. Second, a willingness to take calculated risks – failure is a given, but it’s how you come up against it and learn from it, and how you teach others so that they can improve too, that matters. And finally, I believe in always giving something back – in my case, I mentor younger women and lecture at my old university."

The biggest priority for my business right now is…

"Sustainable innovation – at the moment we’re working to use less water within our products, as well as reducing the amount consumers need to use to rinse them off."

I keep my team motivated by…

"Communicating with them regularly. When I first joined, I interviewed a bunch of our founders, and I asked each of them what, if they had a magic wand, they would change about the company to make it better, and what they would preserve. From that, we built a roadmap that we’re using for our five-year strategy plan."

The worst mistake I’ve ever made as a leader

"When I was at Starbucks, we had a plan to revamp the tea market, and I felt that maybe there was some acquisition that would have been really interesting, but I didn’t quite have the courage of my conviction to go out and do it. Now I go past some of these tea shops that have queues around the block and I think I could have done so much better – I should have pitched the idea and not felt insecure about not being an expert yet."

An effective leader will always…

"Value people who are different from them, because we can all learn from one another. Everyone has strengths and flaws, but when you create a team, that’s how you can achieve the perfect blend."

My role model for leadership is…

"Indra Nooyi, the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. Her story is amazing: she came to the US from India to get her second MBA and went on to become the head of one of the largest companies in the world. I’d also say Rose Marie Bravo, previously the CEO of Burberry – I was on the board with her at Tiffany & Co and I found her a true visionary."

The one piece of advice I’d give to a new leader is…

"Be prepared to overcome obstacles and try different routes to your goal. If the first path gets you to a road stop, figure out a different path. There are many roads, and no one’s path is ever the same, but the important thing is to do something you really love."

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