Career Code: Allure's Editor in Chief on How to Kill It in the Workplace

Michelle Lee on inspiration, reinvention, and the importance of wine

Updated 08/29/19

In honor of Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power’s book, The Career Code: Must-Know Rules for a Strategic, Stylish, and Self-Made Career ($14), we’re kicking off an interview series featuring 17 questions (in honor of the book’s 17 chapters) about the work lives of the most inspirational female leaders in the beauty industry.

Reinventing something beloved is a monolithic endeavor—daunting at best, impossible at worst. Plus, there’s the whole fear thing. What if the new iteration doesn’t work as well as the original? What if it's a complete disaster?  We’ve stopped ourselves from getting snip-happy on a well-worn pair of Levi’s for this thought alone. There’s a reason why things like ice cream, denim, and lipstick have more or less stayed unchanged since their conception (and also why the Cronut craze was so short-lived—some things are better left unchanged).

But there comes a time in every lifespan when change is not only encouraged but necessary. This leads to the million-dollar question: How do you evolve with the times while staying true to your roots? Many brands have attempted this and failed. Many people have attempted this and failed. Michelle Lee, Allure’s editor in chief, is not one of these people. The former editor in chief and CMO at Nylon went to the beauty magazine with over 15 years of experience in the editorial field, including strategy positions in both digital and print (she launched Us Weekly and CosmoGIRL, and held the title of editor in chief at In Touch Weekly).

Lee brings her past experience and fresh eye to Allure, and has been slowly but surely reinventing the iconic 25-years-young glossy. Flip through the recent issues of the magazine and you’ll see features on social media–adept It models like Bella Hadid alongside industry mainstays like Naomi Campbell (all hail the queen!). This is no coincidence, we can assume; the magazine is ushering in its new age while letting readers know it won't forget its storied history. The classic Allure layouts you’ve come to expect (and love) are infused with pops of color and an eye-catching new design aesthetic. Suffice to say, the magazine is in the middle of a renaissance—and Lee is the fearless artist leading the way.

So, back to that million-dollar question: how does one manage such a reinvention while keeping the soul of the brand (and one’s sanity) intact? We caught up with Lee via email and asked this question and all of her secrets to success, as well as how we might apply her advice to our own careers (a sky-high pair of heels is recommended).

"Whenever I describe what it means to be an editor in chief to someone who is unfamiliar with our business, I use the analogy of film: I’m like the director of a movie. I direct all of the various pieces—the ideas, the words, the visuals, the overall image—to create a beautiful, engaging, interesting, and thought-provoking product that audiences will love. Ultimately, I am the final word on all creative and editorial decisions for Allure on all platforms. And I’m pretty hands-on, so I’m approving photos on a daily basis, working closely with our product and design team, helping to concept big branded-content campaigns, looking at racks of clothes with our fashion team, you name it. I’m in charge of the brand’s direction, and I work very closely with our publisher to run the business. In super-simplistic terms, though, I give my opinion about things all day!"

"Ooh, that’s a tough question. I tend to think people know everything now, thanks to Instagram and Snapchat. Yes, there are parts of the job that are intensely fun and glamorous (my beauty product stash is ridiculous), but my average day is spent in a gazillion meetings and at my computer."

"My wardrobe when I was EIC at Nylon was really casual: lots of denim and sneakers. So I knew I needed to dress up a little more. My office at the time was a block away from Intermix in SoHo, so I ran there one afternoon and bought a flowy black, red, and white A.L.C. skirt and wore it with a black sleeveless silk tank I already had and black high-heeled sandals. Still kind of casual and comfortable, but a little more professional for an interview."

@heymichellelee

"At the moment, I would probably say Alessandro Michele. I’ve been so impressed with what he’s done at Gucci. I’m in a similar position of reinventing a brand, so I think we’d have a lot to talk about."

"I’m a big consumer of media throughout the day, mostly what’s being shared on social media. I follow a lot of media brands and editors on Twitter, so I get a lot of news that way. And when it comes to beauty news, our editors are frequently the first to know anything because of our amazing relationships with publicists. So office chitchat is the best way to hear about new things. I’m also a big reader when it comes to business, media, and tech news. TechCrunch is amazing, of course."

"Staying in a job for too long because the money was great. I ultimately left and took a huge pay cut, but I wish I’d left earlier. We spend too much of our days working to not totally love what we do."

"I’ve always had a love of learning new skills. In the past few years, I’ve taught myself how to design responsive web sites, CSS, SEO, Photoshop, photography, PowerPoint, and video editing. And while I have staff who oversee those things here at Allure, I think that knowing how to do those things has made me a better editor. So I like hiring people who have a love of learning, too. It all boils down to attitude: Are you someone who’s cool with maintaining the status quo, or are you someone who wants to grow and will still keep pushing several years from now? Second, there are no divas allowed. I want direct, opinionated people who will speak their minds freely, but collaboration and creativity can be crushed really easily when there’s someone on the team who’s toxic and just wants to cause drama. No thank you. Other qualities I value: being an outside-the-box thinker (it’s okay to be a little weird—I’m into it), having references say that you’re both hardworking and easy to work with, and having the ability and interest in wearing multiple hats and not getting too stressed out."

@heymichellelee

"Oh, it’s all about the power shoe. It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing on top—a super-high heel (usually a chunky heel, since you can power strut better without wobbling) does it for me."

"Easy and sane… I hope? My assistant, Kristen, is incredible. She handles my entire crazy schedule and helps me with so much. When I came back from Paris Fashion Week, I had one day that was shockingly light on meetings. We both just looked at each other like, What is going on?! Of course the next day was back to normal again and packed."

"I'm the type of person who is affected very easily by other people's energy. Someone who is a downer will bring me way down. So if I'm feeling unmotivated, I'll try to spend time with people who I know I can vibe off of creatively or who have amazing energy."

"I’m a strong believer in not burning bridges, and in doing things with integrity. Even if you’re totally disgruntled and your boss is a big A-hole, it gets you nowhere by going out in a blaze of glory. You may feel some small triumph that day, but it’s really not worth it. It only makes you look bad, and then your entire tenure there gets painted with the “She was a raging b****h” brush. Plus, it’s true what that poster says: Be happy. It drives people crazy."

"The Conde Nast cafeteria has these killer quinoa bowls, but they don’t serve them every week. So if anyone is reading this who can make these quinoa bowls a regular item, let’s get on it. There’s a Mediterranean one that has chicken, tomatoes, olives, and this delicious sauce—it’s heavenly and the perfect healthy-ish comfort food."

@heymichellelee

"It’s the same for both: being invisible. Somewhere along the way, people were given the message that if you keep your head down and work hard, you’ll make it far. That may work in some cases, but honestly so much about business these days is building relationships and building your own personal brand. I don’t mean becoming a social media superstar (although that’s not a bad thing)—I mean making sure that people within your organization understand how valuable you are and what you bring to the table. On the flip side, no one wants an employee who’s constantly tooting her own horn or being so up-in-everyone’s-business that it’s disruptive. So you do need to learn that balance. If you’re entry-level, don’t be shy about having conversations with more senior members of staff. Just be mindful of their time. In the past, I’ve had interns who’ve tried to corner me for an hour to bombard me with career questions—and that rubs me the wrong way. Another biggie: I had an all-hands “ask me anything” meeting when I first started here at Allure, and someone asked a similar question. My answer? Don’t come to me with problems; come to me with solutions. You don’t necessarily need to know the final solution, but I appreciate that you’ve thought about how to possibly solve an issue. I think people get stuck in a complainer’s mind-set. Earlier in my career, I felt like I needed to listen to everyone’s problems and solve them. By doing that, you waste a lot of time playing office therapist. If you make it clear to people from the get-go that you’re empowering them to help solve their own problems, it’s amazing how much easier it gets… for everyone."

"Have you seen @jessronagrooming? It’s the one where they do slow-mo blow-drying on dogs set to music. It just makes me happy—that one is for pure fun. I also think that everything @eggcanvas posts is beautiful. She has such a well-curated, gorgeous feed. As far as brands, I think @glossier and @frank_bod do such a great job of presenting the lifestyle of beauty while still promoting their products. And I adore @margaret_zhang—she’s not only super stylish and has an incredible eye, but she also happens to be one of the sweetest, coolest people ever."

"I'm up at 6 a.m. to get myself ready, make coffee, and help get my two kids off to school, which runs incredibly smoothly some days but is like organized chaos on others. In the morning at home, I’ll check my emails and try to fire off some replies. And I always check my schedule for the day to mentally prep for anything. I’m also very driven by hunger, so I like to know when I’ll have lunch. It sounds ridiculous, but my productivity dips when I’m hungry (I can’t think of anything else besides being starving!). So I’m aware of it, and I plan for it. I drive to the office, so my car time—45 minutes to an hour—is my time to get my head screwed on straight for the day. I used to listen to the radio and found it so unproductive. Now I listen to podcasts: My favorite currently is the Tim Ferriss one, which I love since I feel like I’m learning about all sorts of things like productivity, success, self-improvement, wellness, etc. I also brushed up on my French and Italian before fashion week while in the car. But on days when my brain is on overdrive and I can’t focus, I’ll listen to music. I have a playlist with super-empowering female artists like Lorde, Marina & the Diamonds, Banks, Alessia Cara, and others who put me in the right mood. At night, it’s husband and kid time. Little-kid snuggles melt stress instantly. I also like a glass of red wine at night with dinner or right after. After feeling like everything is go-go-go all day, it’s absolutely necessary for your future productivity to unwind for a while."

@heymichellelee

"Back in the day, I was an intern at Glamour, which was part of this amazing program run by the American Society of Magazine Editors. One of the people who ran it told us, 'Don’t tell your boss that you can’t do something.' It’s something that’s stuck with me for many years. What she meant was that there are people who will try to find an answer and give up quickly when it’s not easy; be resourceful, and empower yourself to find the solution."

"I'm so excited about refreshing Allure in print. We’re creating some all-new sections and working on some surprising new cover stars. We’re also revamping our fashion coverage to be fresher and still elevated but more approachable. You’ll start to see more features of interesting women and how they interpret beauty. There are also massively exciting things happening very soon with Allure.com. We’re in the midst of a complete redesign and reinvention of our digital and video experience. It’s a great time for us to take a step back and think about what beauty fanatics really want and need today: For example, what would make the perfect beauty tutorial? What smart, reported features will resonate with our digital audience? What would be a game-changer when it comes to product reviews? Allure is the beauty authority, and we’re in a prime position to be the world’s greatest innovators in this space. I really see our new site as the perfect merger between inspiration and utility. We’re also building our own Allure social influencers network and talent incubator, which is incredibly exciting. And we’re cooking up some cool print-to-mobile executions. Can’t wait to show everyone!"

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