When Sue Kyung Lee first addressed her team as the newly appointed CEO of Procter & Gamble (P&G) Korea in a pink jumpsuit, she was inadvertently demonstrating a choice she made in the early days of her career, which was to truly represent who she was.
“I shared the news to my mom and expected huge congratulations from her,” she recalls. “She congratulated me as she asked one provoking question: ‘Are you going to throw away all your clothes?’”
Not only had Lee landed her dream role, but she decided to do so without changing her wardrobe, personality and values. Today, in her role as the Global CEO of P&G’s premium skincare brand SK-II she stands by these very same values.
Having spent more than two decades building some of the world’s most powerful consumer brands, from Olay and Safeguard to Pantene and Whisper, Lee became adept at growing brands and revenues across different markets and product categories. In fact, it was under her leadership that Safeguard reached its one billion dollar milestone and Olay underwent rapid growth for the first time in several years. Lee was additionally the first female General Manager in P&G Korea.
However, the individual driving these achievements is a woman who thought carefully about the type of leader she wanted to become in the future rather than molding herself into a stereotype that didn’t reflect who she truly is.
“Quiet leaders can listen, give everyone a chance to contribute, can display confidence without being over-confident and can keep cool in times of crisis.”
“I do not naturally enjoy talking much or being at the center of attention,” she admits. “I questioned myself, ‘If I didn’t talk disproportionately at important meetings and did not network, could I really succeed, especially as a female leader?’”
In her endeavor to be effective and genuine at the same time, Lee learned that she could achieve breakthrough results while showing up as herself in the workplace and advocating for women along the way.
“I learned the power of quiet,” she says. “Quiet leaders can listen, give everyone a chance to contribute, can display confidence without being over-confident and can keep cool in times of crisis.”
A 2010 study that was featured in the Harvard Business Review revealed that softly spoken leaders reap the most benefits when paired with proactive employees, who are more receptive to this leadership style. Also noted in the study was the challenge these leaders face when overcoming a pervasive and deeply ingrained cultural bias – that of the stereotypical leader who is typically outspoken, extroverted and talkative.
“A big motivator for me was being able to signal to the young female managers in Korea that, ‘if someone like Sue Kyung can be a CEO of P&G Korea and succeed, I can be, too’ and provide inspiration that you don’t have to fit a certain stereotype to succeed.”
Authenticity: A force to fuel positive change
Beyond her wardrobe, Lee tells The CEO Magazine that authenticity is strongly woven into the DNA of SK-II and those who operate in the background to propel the company forward.
“Each and every one in the team should be empowered to perform at their highest level, because they have been equipped by their environment and colleagues to become the best versions of themselves,” Lee affirms.
For a company that prides itself on encouraging women to embrace their bare skin, authenticity is also the driving force behind the brand’s unique approach to disrupting the industry.
“Risk plays a part in our ‘constructive disruption’ approach,” Lee says. “We take positive action and introduce changes in our industry in a meaningful way, in order to create a point of value and difference.”
Remaining at the forefront of skincare innovation means that there is still a lot to uncover through research initiatives and skin diagnostic tools, such as the Mini Magic Scan.
“I believe my focus on driving outstanding business and organization results is underpinned in deep consumer knowledge, a game-changing approach to brand building and extensive omni-channel industry expertise.”
Lee explains that with the company’s latest, most advanced contactless skin analysis tool, you can unlock your skin age, its strengths and potential in just three minutes.
“We’ve continued to partner with the world’s top scientists and dermatologists on extensive research studies to continually uncover new first-in-the-world discoveries in skin science and skin health – from our groundbreaking 10-year Akita study to our latest 24/7 Skin Fluctuation Study, which we unveiled at the first-ever SK-II World PITERA™ Day last year.”
The company has led with its revolutionary signature skincare ingredient PITERA™ for more than 40 years. With its origins in sake breweries, the natural by-product of yeast fermentation is SK-II’s exclusive cosmetic ingredient and is remarkably popular within Asian markets.
A bottle of the bestselling PITERA™ Essence or ‘miracle water’ is sold every three seconds, according to the company, and is renowned for its ability to bring about a clear complexion, thanks to its inclusion of 90 percent PITERA™.
However, unlike some of the over-inflated claims made by skincare brands today, SK-II was developed by Japanese scientists in the 1970s in the search for more natural ingredients. This is a distinct point of difference that highlights the brand as a pioneer in the field of skin science and health.
A game-changing approach to brand building
“I believe my focus on driving outstanding business and organization results is underpinned in deep consumer knowledge, a game-changing approach to brand building and extensive omni-channel industry expertise,” she explains.
Engaging and understanding the Zillennial consumer – born between 1993 and 1998 – is a top priority for the brand at this time, given that they are the next generation of skincare consumers who are also avid social media users with a social conscience.
“The Zillennial seeks their information through various online and social media channels, wants to see immediate or short-term results for their skin, and is drawn towards skincare brands that demonstrate authenticity,” says Lee. “We engage them on social channels that they are on 24/7, be it Instagram, Little Red Book or TikTok.”
But at the end of the day, it is the team Lee leads that plays a vital role in the SK-II’s long-term success.
“I look up to my SK-II family,” she says. “2022 – the year I started at SK-II – was a tough year of uncertainty. And yet, in the face of challenges, everyone in the team chose to pave the way for our brand and business with passion, grit and relentless focus on our strategic choices. I admire them for their courage and it inspires me to do the same – to lead courageously, no matter the circumstances.”