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Mattel Chief Keeps an Open Ear to Employees

June 30, 2006
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
Mattel Corp. CEO Robert Eckert is a strong believer in the old adage that two heads are better than one. Multiply that times the company’s 25,000 employees, and that’s a lot of brainpower.

    That’s why he is personally involved in getting input from employees. To him, unifying the company was the strategic foundation for overhauling the workforce culture and developing Mattel’s new corporate values.

    During his six-year tenure, Eckert has had lunch with thousands of employees at the company’s El Segundo, California, headquarters and around the world. Many of these luncheons have been orchestrated by human resources to ensure that he interacts with a cross section of the workforce. The roundtables are held in the cafeteria, where he is joined by 10 to 15 employees.

    He has also read hundreds of handwritten responses from the workforce surveys that have been instituted at Mattel. And employees can reach Eckert directly via e-mail.

    "Eckert is decisive without being autocratic," says David Lewin, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management who focuses on human resources and has studied Mattel.

    The 52-year-old CEO, whose entire career before Mattel had been spent at Kraft Foods in Northfield, Illinois, strives to balance employee consultations with following his own instincts, Lewin says.

    Aspects of the workforce management strategy were designed in response to a global survey that Eckert commissioned in 2002. It was the first of its kind at Mattel.

    "I wanted to understand what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong, from the perspective of workers," Eckert says.

"He gave (a group of midlevel executives) the room to take
ownership over something as
delicate as redesigning the corporate values. How often does that happen at a large company?"
--Alan Kaye

    The study revealed that workers were significantly concerned about the lack of investment in talent development within the company, he recalls. Those results, along with the information that Eckert picked up by lunching with employees in the cafeteria, led to the creation of a sophisticated workforce training system.

    Mattel has poured significant resources into its development initiatives, with training seminars alone running $700,000 annually.

    Eckert also employed the bottom-up learning approach when it came time to develop a new corporate vision for Mattel. It was a group of midlevel executives at a training session, not an elite C-suite team, that conceived of Mattel’s new corporate values: play with passion, play together, play fair and play to grow.

    "He gave them the room to take ownership over something as delicate as redesigning the corporate values," says Alan Kaye, Mattel’s senior vice president of human resources. "How often does that happen at a large company?"

The new values were revamped to resonate more with the workforce, and are important because they complement the foundation of Mattel’s workforce management strategy: striving for success as a unified group effort.

    Far from being the only one at Mattel to seek input from others, Eckert encourages employees to reach out as well. Many of the talent development seminars serve not only as educational venues but also as platforms for Mattel employees worldwide to exchange ideas and advice.

    "There is no need to reinvent the wheel every time you have a problem," Eckert says. "Sometimes talking to others who have already been through the same experience can facilitate finding a solution."

Workforce Management, June 26, 2006, p. 34 -- Subscribe Now!

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