For some, running a marathon is on the “to do before I die” list. For Helen, Commercial Director of the Active Cosmetics Division, long-distance running is a regular in her hectic schedule. Having recently completed the London Marathon (her 43rd Marathon!!!) we sat with Helen to learn more about her burning passion for running and the parallels that can be drawn with a career at L’Oréal. This ‘’Super Mom’’ has hit the ground running, quite literally, returning from maternity leave to her full-time position whilst balancing a rigorous training schedule. Read on to learn more..
You’ve just come back from maternity leave, congratulations on your little boy! How has the transition been getting back into the swing of things at work?
Leaving my little boy for the first few times was really hard as he has become my best buddy but I’m really enjoying getting my brain into action again. I’m so proud of everything the team has delivered whilst I have been gone and I’m really excited by the opportunities and challenges we have coming up in the near future. It’s great that we have a very supportive business that allows flexible working and has initiatives like Project GROW to support working parents.
Tell us what you do at L’Oréal
I am the Commercial Director for the Active Cosmetics Division. I am lucky enough to have a very varied role, working with the team on developing and delivering commercial strategy, merchandising and training on some of the best (!) brands in the business like La Roche-Posay, Vichy and CeraVe. I work with many different retailers ranging from high street (Boots, Superdrug); department stores; and e-retailers; to independent pharmacists.
What excites you about your job?
I am someone who really values my relationships with people and therefore I love the fact that I work in an organisation full of enthusiastic and intelligent people from such a diverse range of backgrounds. We often describe the Active Cosmetic’s culture as akin to being in a big family. We are small enough to allow a very democratic structure where every individual’s input and integrity is critical, no matter what their level. This allows us to have an entrepreneurial approach to our mission and there is a fantastic feeling of being part of a high-achieving team.
I am also passionate about our brands which genuinely make a difference to people’s skin and frequently consumers tell us the products have changed their lives. The product ranges are sometimes complex and difficult to understand if you are new to them, but it is our responsibility to educate people to help them find the right products for their skin and their lifestyle.
How do you manage a rigorous training session & working life?
I am both an ultra-runner (which means I compete on marathon distances or above) and a boxer. Before having a child I was able to train twice a day by getting up early and going to the gym and then going again on my way home.
Now I have had to become an efficiency ninja, learning to plan my training two weeks in advance around my work and family commitments.
I food prep for the week on a Sunday evening and I simply have to prioritise the things that are important to me. I can’t do the volume of training I used to do so I have to make the quality of a session work harder for me, I couple this with running just to get from A to B as much as possible just to squeeze in low heart rate mileage. At the end of the day, managing a schedule like this doesn’t work if you don’t love it. I love my job and I can’t function at work if I don’t have sport in my life. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
It’s also important to acknowledge that flexibility is critical. There are some weeks where I can’t do all the sport I would ideally want to because I have too many things happening at work, but as long as most of the time I make things balance then I am OK with that.
What comparisons can you draw from sports and your challenging position as Commercial Director?
I think sport is a great metaphor for business in many respects! You have to be able to plan and be tenacious in delivering a goal. A modest amount of competitive streak is important in both environments.
One of the few personality traits that is common to both boxers and ultra-runners is a ‘never say die’ approach, and I like to think this has synergies with our L’Oréal mantra ‘nothing is impossible’.
The nature of our business ambition means we’re always chasing higher performance and we need to remain ahead of the curve in how we get there in an ever changing market which is exactly what happens in the ring or on the road (nothing makes you learn to respond to feedback quicker than being punched in the face).
Sometimes our targets seem enormous, so the approach we have to take is a bit like approaching a 100 mile race — you focus on the first check point and just deliver one more bite-size goal at a time.
Finally, a fighting spirit, and an ability to get up when you get knocked down are also critical in a fast-paced, high-energy environment like ours. Sometimes things go wrong but so long as we learn from our mistakes and build a new strategy for having another go we come back stronger.
How do you unwind after a challenging day at the office?
I run my commute which gives me 35 minutes at the beginning and end of each day to process my thoughts and sometimes I also find this is the time when I am most creative with new ideas.
I have a relatively short time with my little boy on my working days, which gives me extra incentive to run faster! Once he is in bed I either go to the gym, go boxing or do a tempo run before finishing off any work outstanding from the day. Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband who ensures I also remember to eat!
You’re an avid long-distance runner & boxer, there’s not much you can’t do! Where does this passion for sports come from?
Ha that’s a good question. I wasn’t always a sporty person but I do love a challenge. I was the odd one out growing up in a family of athletes as frankly I’m not naturally sporty but then someone told me they didn’t think I was capable of running a half marathon and it was like a red rag to a bull. Once I’d done one, I had opened the flood gates and before long the half marathons turned into full marathons (the London Marathon last Sunday was my 43rd), I then got talked into ultras when someone suggested Marathon des Sables (156 miles across the Sahara), of which I have done 11, then someone told me I wasn’t a proper ultra-runner until I’d run 100 miles in one go and so it goes on. The boxing began as a way of strengthening my core after a running related injury, but I soon became addicted to that too as the fitness is second to none and once you get into sparring regularly there isn’t a thrill like it!
I have learnt to never say no to an opportunity just because I’m scared of it as those are usually the occasions that give me the most fulfilment.
What is your proudest achievement to date?
I joke with my friends that I can’t decide what hurt more: childbirth on 2 paracetamol, running 100 miles or being knocked out by a good left hook. In all honesty they are each a different kind of pain and each left me with an enormous sense of achievement, as did playing a big role in establishing the expert skin category in the UK market and growing ACD sales by over 240% in 5 years.
You can’t make me choose between them but the results that count are the ones that leave a legacy — a beautiful little boy and a business that has transitioned the market :)
What does it take to complete ultras like the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara??
250+ kms (156+ miles)
6 stages over 7 days
A long stage of 80+ kms (52+miles)
Self-sufficient (water rations and tent supplied)
Temperatures of 50+ degrees centigrade
Similar to any other event that pushes an individual outside of their comfort zone. Grit, meticulous planning and a supportive network. In this case, each competitor has to be entirely self-sufficient and you want your backpack to be as light as possible so as well as the more obvious physical training (which included carrying dumbbells in my rucksack for several months), planning included calculating my calories per gram of food for a week, trimming the edges off packaging, counting out sheets of toilet roll and figuring out how many days I could get away with the same set of clothing. Over the course of this kind of event it is inevitable you are going to hit some very low points, I think I learnt a lot about myself when I discovered I could survive and was more robust than I thought.
Any advice to share with us on achieving your goals — in sport & in your career?
‘’Dream big and be prepared to work hard to achieve your goals’’
No-one else is going to achieve your aspirations for you. You need to be confident in being clear on what you want but humble in asking for help as there is always something to learn from other peoples’ experiences and knowledge.
Inspired by Helen and her tenacity to perform on the running track, in the boxing ring and as Commercial Director? Looking to join an ambitious, innovative & entrepreneurial team at the №1 Beauty Company in the world? Look no further- check out our careers site for opportunities at L’Oréal UK & Ireland.