The Harbinger Group

Can You Hear Me? Podcast: An Interview with Ulta Beauty CEO Dave Kimbell

Can You Hear Me? Podcast: An Interview with Ulta Beauty CEO Dave Kimbell

Five Things You Will Learn from This Episode:

  1. Why LinkedIn is the social media platform of choice for this CEO and why you should spend more time there
  2. Why committing to celebrating your team members successes (especially in a visible way on LinkedIn) will foster more growth
  3. How trying to be something you’re not is a giant waste of time for you and those you lead – just be yourself
  4. Everything good starts with prioritizing caring for others and being a good human
  5. We can ALWAYS do better and should make it a priority to try 

We have high expectations for CEOs, who set the tone for an organization by providing counsel, setting policies and righting the ship when things get rocky. As we’ve seen in the past 18 months, through social disruptions and COVID-related challenges, the CEO is more critical than ever in helping to steer employees through uncharted waters.

If you’re a CEO leading your company, especially during these uncertain times, having an effective CEO brand is not optional, now it is necessary. It impacts everything from investor confidence to recruitment and retention as well as overall customer trust. As communicators, we counsel our clients that the social presence of a CEO is increasingly important as well. We’ve seen lots of research just this year that shows, following the pandemic, consumers and job seekers expect a CEO to be very active on social platforms. However, 61% of CEOs still lack a personal brand, according to Domo and

Rob Johnson: On Episode 8 of Can You Hear Me? we’re joined by the new CEO of Ulta Beauty, an $8 billion-dollar, publicly traded retailer. Dave Kimbell discusses his own experience and success at Ulta and his approach to communicating with and on behalf of 40,000 Ulta beauty associates. We explore his fresh and unique posts on social media, his commitment to leading with Ulta’s core values at the center of every decision, and his emphasis on always elevating the associates of Ulta.  Dave CEO’s brand style is one we can all learn from.

Eileen Rochford: Rob and I frequently reference the important role C-Suite level executives play in building corporate brands and the unique impact a CEO’s brand has on overall corporate reputation. Today, CEO brands have ascended to a level of influence never before seen. We can’t talk about communications and marketing without including CEO brands.

Kimbell, a DePauw University graduate, received his MBA from Purdue and started a career in marketing working at places such as Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats and U.S. Cellular before joining Ulta as Chief Marketing Officer, where he ascended to President and as of June, 2021, to CEO. Kimbell recently appeared on CNBC Mad Money and in cover story of WWD in which Executive Editor Jenny B. Fine, says he is “looking to combine his innate power of positivity and operational expertise to write the next chapter of growth for America’s largest beauty retailer.”

Eileen: Let’s talk about the values and mission of Ulta Beauty. As an outside observer, it’s clear to me that your culture is highly values-centered just based on the communications that you share and the media that I’ve read. How has that culture evolved and what role do values play within the Ulta brand and overall communications strategy?

Dave Kimbell: I’m most proud of the culture and team that we have at Ulta Beauty, and that our values-led organization guides our decisions and our thinking across all aspects of our business. There are 40,000 people on Team Ulta beauty across the country and we all work together to try to find new ways to both take care of our guests first and foremost, but also take care of each other. Having that core sense of value and connection, community and family within Ulta Beauty has been really the main reason. The secret to our success has been that we work hard at it.

While I know the company well, I’ve been with the company for about 7 ½ years, I also know we’re by no means perfect and there’s so many things that we can do to get better and to make our team’s lives easier and ultimately allow them to serve our guest even better. We spend a lot of our time, and I spend a lot of my time personally, making sure that we are focused on continuing to protect and advance and improve and evolve our culture.

Everything good starts with prioritizing caring for others and being a good human

We do it first and foremost because we care for each other, and we care for the environment, not just for brand purposes or because we think it’ll show up well to our guests. We are ultimately working to create an environment where all of us are happy to come to work every day. One thing I’ve learned is if you start with meeting with care and compassion and care for each other, then a lot of other great things come. It all really starts in an authentic place where we just simply care for each other as humans.

Rob: Dave, there are so many exciting things happening at Ulta. You have the partnership with Target. You have the initiative to bring in more brands founded by people of color, and working with Modern Salon to style the first transgender cover model. Tell us more about what’s new and how you’re communicating these developments to your many stakeholders.

Dave:  We’re really excited about what we’re delivering into the marketplace in so many ways. And we’re fortunate that, as we’ve worked through the challenges of the last 18 months, we’re in some ways even stronger than we were coming into the pandemic and into 2020. We’ve got a great relationship with Target and 75 stores are open now with up to 100 opening in the next few weeks in Target stores across the country. It’s a cool new way to expand our business.

We are using our platform as Ulta Beauty and the scale we have to help drive cultural change. And we take that role seriously. We’re glad to be able to lend our voice in driving positive change in the world around us. We are doubling the number of black-owned brands we have this year. We’ve had such success with brands from Black, Latinx founders and Asian founders, and that drives our business. By leaning into it more, it also creates more economic opportunity, like a snowball effect. These brands get successful. They are part of the Ulta Beauty platform that then helps them drive growth and pays off within the community.

We’re spending over $20 million to help bring that to life. We are doing some cool things to highlight across the entire landscape, including the first transgender cover model with Modern Salon. Beauty is so diverse.

We believe everybody is beautiful – this is a key tenet of what we stand for. We’re not here to set one perfect way to be beautiful. Everybody’s beautiful. We often talk about this idea that you don’t come to Ulta Beauty to get beautiful, you come because you already are. And that means you can come in and discover beauty on your own terms, whoever you are, however you want to express yourself to the world. That’s what we’re here to help you do.

It’s the natural part of the category and bigger than just the category. Beauty is so emotionally connected to who everybody is and how they choose to show up and be part of the world around them. It’s fun that we get to play at least a small part in helping our guests bring that to life.

Eileen: You’ve been described by others with some of the following words that I found particularly compelling, enthusiastic, optimistic, creative, empathetic, inquisitive, affable, forward-looking, humble. And you’re widely known for getting into the DNA of a brand, for demonstrating a deep understanding of consumers needs and aspirations. And through your social posts, it’s evident that you personally just relish being out in your stores. How would you describe your own CEO brand and how perhaps it’s helping to differentiate Ulta in this category?

Dave: What I really think about is leading through my authentic self and trying to be myself when I’m trying to lead our company. If you aren’t authentically excited about the role that you have, authentically committed to caring for others and recognizing the importance of their work and how they influence the total success of the company, then I don’t think I could be successful. I’m not sure I could do this job if I didn’t really love it and feel a personal connection and enthusiasm, excitement about what we’re collectively trying to accomplish. As I think about my leadership it starts with, “leading with heart”. And that’s just the simple idea of being caring, compassionate, inclusive and transparent in what we’re trying to do, recognizing that I’m not perfect.

My experience is, great things happen if you just kind of treat each other with respect and care for each other as humans, even before you start diving into all the things that you can do better. I’m not the first one to talk about this, but together we’re stronger.

I also try to influence through leadership that is bold, breakthrough and disruptive. Leading with our hearts, acting as a team and then thinking boldly and creatively, this is kind of how I frame up my brand, how I try to lead and bring my leadership to life.

Why LinkedIn is the social media platform of choice for this CEO and why you should spend more time there

Rob: We often see you on LinkedIn, where you’re always shining a light on your colleagues and giving all the associates at Ulta credit for their hard work. And Eileen and I have termed it “We” brand. You’ve talked about your guiding principles in life and how they drive you as well as a focus on your team and the people that are doing great work. Is your brand a combination of the both?

Dave: Yeah, maybe it’s a combination. I really recognize that there are a lot of things that I can’t do or that I’m not an expert at or, I don’t have all the answers by any stretch. For me, it’s a recognition that it’s all of us together, whatever your role is in the company. I have a lot of respect and care for everyone because I know it takes all of us. We have 1,300 stores, so there’s 1,300 store managers across the country, in addition to their teams that are doing amazing things every day to deliver for our guests. I can’t do that or our executive team can’t do that. It is about we. it’s about all of us coming together. We’ll be successful if everybody in the company feels like they’ve got great opportunity to thrive and to be part of something bigger.

Why committing to celebrating your team members successes (especially in a visible way on LinkedIn) will foster more growth

I know I don’t have all the answers and the best way to get the ideas is to learn from everybody else. Most of what I share on LinkedIn and Instagram is meant for Ulta Beauty, for our folks.

I just love to be able to highlight great people whenever I have the chance to.

Eileen: In my work counseling CEO’s I often hear them express their reluctance to be active out there on social media. And largely it’s because they have this perception that it’s requiring a lot of time and a large amount of effort. Can you give us a little color on how you do it so that others might learn from you?

Dave: Most of it I’m doing myself because, I wouldn’t learn if I wasn’t doing it myself and spending time seeing what people are talking about, celebrating the great things that are happening across the company. I find moments that I can spend even 5 -10 minutes to congratulate somebody. I try to highlight all those things so more people can see it and recognize and celebrate those things together, celebrate individuals that are doing cool things and in different aspects. I don’t know if I’ve got this perfect methodology. I just work it into my cadence. And I don’t do it every single day. But I try to get on and do that as frequently as I can.

My posts also offer our team members a chance to get to know me a little bit better and see what is happening outside of the work I’m doing within Ulta Beauty. It’s important, too, that we get to know each other a little bit.

Rob: You ascended to the top job as CEO of Ulta through the marketing ranks and the prior CEO of Ulta was a marketer as well. This is really fascinating to Eileen and me, because it just doesn’t happen that often. So how did this happen for you? I outlined your marketing career early on in this discussion, and it is you’ve worked at some unbelievable places. How does that translate from being the marketer to, you know, heading up a huge company, a billion-dollar company like Ulta?

Dave:  I was fortunate to have an opportunity at Procter & Gamble, and I learned so much as it’s a great training ground and a great company. It added so much to my life and really set me on the path that I’m on today. I actually started there in beauty, not by choice, but it was great because beauty is a great category to learn how to connect with consumers because of the emotional connection that it has.

At P&G, I was surrounded by amazing people at all levels, certainly all the way through with leadership. That set a great role model for me that marketing is critical because it’s how you connect with consumers and understand consumer behavior. For consumer-oriented businesses like Ulta or P&G or Pepsi, your success is dependent on your ability to understand how consumers behave, what’s important to them, and how you tailor your experience to meet their needs in the moment.

I’m grateful for both Mary, my predecessor, and for the board in recognizing that the consumer mindset, understanding consumer behavior and the experiences that I had, gave me a platform to then expand into more general management and understand how all the parts fit together. It’s not just what our TV ad is going to be or what social post we’re going to do. Those are critical. I don’t want to undersell the importance of that. But beyond that, to see how all the parts fit together in a true general management way, with supply chain, finance, HR, IT, and legal and legal – how all the aspects of our business come together.

Eileen: Well, to hear you explain it, it makes perfect sense, maybe more marketers need to ascend to the CEO post!

Dave: Sometimes you get boxed into your role or function and people don’t see the ability to connect dots across the organization. it’s important to find ways to make sure you’re connected to the operational side of the business and lean into, in our case, store operations. It takes work to prove and demonstrate that there’s more to a marketer than just the marketing. It’s the total business that matters.

Eileen: What guidance can you share with CEOs out there who are struggling with communicating authentically, particularly on social media?

Dave: I’m spending time trying to learn from so many others across different industries to understand how they are managing the complex world that we’re in and help me grow as a leader and the unique dynamics that come with it.

What I share with my team and other leaders, is the importance of authentic leadership. At Pepsi I got introduced to the theory and concept of authentic leadership and the idea that it’s important to make sure you understand what’s most important to you, what your values are, what makes you excited and what you’re really good at, but also what you’re not so great at or you’ve got opportunity to improve.

The people that I’ve worked for that have most inspired me are those that lead authentically, aren’t trying to be something, that they’re not or hiding deficiencies or making up commitment or passion or enthusiasm for any aspect of what they’re doing. It’s hard to do, maybe can do it for a little while, but it’s hard to really sustain that over career. The advice I give to any leader at any level is just really take the time to focus, understand where your core values are, what gets you excited, where you can be authentically, legitimately passionate and enthusiastic.

We can ALWAYS do better and should make it a priority to try 

Rob: What are you doing on the DEI front at Ulta? The issue is front and center for many companies today, trying to not only speak thoughtfully about it, but making sure that people from all backgrounds have a seat at the table where the big decisions are being made.

Dave: It’s something we’ve been focused on for a long time, but have worked hard in this moment to ensure that we’re doing everything we can, that we’re fully leveraging the platform that we have. I see multiple aspects of externally creating an experience for our guests that is truly welcoming and inviting and encouraging for everyone. We firmly believe that everybody is beautiful and that starts in our stores.

If somebody were to walk into one of our stores and they didn’t feel welcome or they felt like they were being judged somehow, that’s not acceptable to me or the rest of the leadership team. And again, we’re not perfect.  It’s an absolute firm focus for us to be aware of any unconscious bias, any unintended actions that would create something that would make people feel uncomfortable or not fully welcomed and encouraged to actively take part in everything that Ulta Beauty.

My ultimate goal and, we’re not there, and is probably going to take us continuing to work on it, is every single guest interaction has the guest walking out feeling great about that experience, whoever they are, whatever their background is, whatever their experiences are.

The level of diversity is really important. Externally we focus on how we tell the stories, what we bring to life in our marketing and other aspects of the brands we carry, are fully reflective of the world around us and include awesome, diverse voices that influence the beauty category and shape what we’re doing.

Internally we spend a lot of time making sure, and we pushed even harder on this, that we’re creating an environment where everyone has an opportunity to grow their careers, whoever they are, whatever their background.

I am committed to making sure that we’re making that an opportunity for absolutely everybody and that if there are any barriers in the way that would suggest the opportunity isn’t there for certain groups, we’re breaking those down. We’re fortunate that we do have good representation across the board where we’re 93% of our company is women and we have a predominantly female employee base, which is great. We’ve got broad diversity of people of color across all aspects and all parts of our business. But it’s a big focus for us to make sure that we keep driving opportunities for everyone to grow their careers every day.

It’s a mandate, both from my perspective and our team expects it. If we’re going to continue to attract great people, we have to be a great place. It’s the right thing to do for the world around us, but it’s also the right thing to business

Can You Hear Me? is a bi-weekly podcast for leaders who want to get serious about using effective communications to advance their organizations. Communications pros Rob Johnson, veteran broadcast news anchor and current President of Rob Johnson Communications, and Eileen Rochford, CEO of the strategic communications firm The Harbinger Group, discuss issues of the day and the communications implications they present for businesses and organizations. Download the podcast on Audible, Apple Podcast or follow our blog.

The Harbinger Group, a thought-leadership based consultancy, in partnership with Rob Johnson Communications, which offers strategic public relations counsel, work to help companies tell their best stories. The Can You Hear Me? podcast tackles communications issues with a different thought leader each episode, exposing great thinking and actionable advice. Our experienced counselors are veterans in the industry and are available to help solve your communication challenges.