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“Business As A Movement”: Eileen Fisher

Inside the clothing legend’s grand experiment in simplicity.

“Business As A Movement”: Eileen Fisher
Eileen Fisher, 64 CCO, Eileen Fisher Inc. [Photo: João Canziani, Prop styling: Edward Scott]

What does happiness mean to success? This is a question that fashion icon Eileen Fisher has been asking of herself and her company over the past year and a half. “We’re successful financially,” Fisher says, citing record earnings the last two years, “but we’re pretty stressed out, we’re not sure all our workers are happy. Should we be measuring something beyond financial results?”

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Fisher, 64, has long talked about “business as a movement.” In the quest to make a positive difference in the world, she says, she realized that the most potent vehicle she had available was the company itself. “How does your purpose connect to your company’s purpose,” asks Fisher. “When people find their purpose, it’s an organizing principle.”

Fisher brought in a Brazilian executive named Marcelo Cardoso to run a series of workshops on purpose for Eileen Fisher executives, including one that Fisher hosted at her home. For one exercise, he asked Fisher to sit on a stool and imagine that she was the embodiment of her own purpose. “I don’t even recall what I said,” Fisher says, “but I remember feeling like I could be more fully myself, I could bring those values to all these decisions that I make. Am I doing what’s really important?”

Fisher has taken to returning to that specific stool whenever she has major challenges to contemplate, what she now calls her “purpose chair.” “It helps me be clearer about myself and what matters most.”

Fisher doesn’t have an articulated definition of her mission. “I don’t think I can put it into words. It’s a feeling, a sense of rightness, that I’m doing the right things.”

This may all sound a big new-agey, a bit squishy and soft, but to Fisher it is absolutely core to the business of her enterprise. “We have begun asking, Why are we doing this, more often and more clearly. It’s disruptive a little, but we’re going deeper. We want to be a great company more than we want to be a big company. We’ve made significant profits, records the last two years, but is this enough? Are people happy at the company? No. Is this ok? No. So how do we relook at the company? If selling more means creating more stress for ourselves, should we do it?”

“One of the core values of the company is simplicity. Yet as our world has gotten more complicated, our process has gotten more complicated and our clothes have gotten more complicated. These are not good things. Can we still be profitable and feel good about what we do? Our sales department, they say, what does that mean? Do we have to sell less? We’re looking at things like reducing the number of styles and fabrics and yarns. What if we cut back 20% on what we’re producing and focus on what we do best? Maybe we’ll sell more and have less work.”

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Fisher acknowledges that this is all in a process of becoming, that the outcomes are unclear. But she’s committed to evolving the culture of her business. “We have purpose programs for our leaders, and we’re looking at getting participation from all of our employees, we’re setting up a learning lab. I really believe that business is going to have to think this way.” Fisher is particularly focused on sustainability, in all of its forms. “There are limited resources,” she says, referring both to environmental factors and her human workforce. “There are good things about blurring the lines between work and how we live, but it is also good for us to have some pause time, to be with your kids and ride a bike or something.” To restore more balance to her firm, Fisher has implemented a no-email rule on weekends. “We have no meetings on Monday before 10am or Friday after 1pm,” she says. “It’s a possible new model. If we can still make a good profit–we might make a little less, we don’t know yet–but I believe it can work.”

Work, she says, isn’t just for making money. If we work during personal hours, then why can’t we deepen our personal side while at work? “Work can be a place for personal growth and learning. If we can create environments where people can help each other grow, work itself can be a little more fun.”

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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