Almost two decades into her career in human resources, Susan Bridges Gilder reached a turning point. “I took a step back and started considering what type of HR role I wanted and what type of organization would be the best culture fit for me,” she says.
Bridges Gilder found what she was looking for in Beiersdorf, a global skincare company with values mirroring her own. Today, as the company’s director of HR operations and people experience (leading five team members), Bridges Gilder keeps those values front and center in her efforts to support a national and international workforce. Whether she is spearheading diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives or determining the future of work in a post-COVID world, she makes sure to prioritize Beiersdorf employees and to remain a transparent and empathetic company leader.
Bridges Gilder first came to the field of HR by chance, after the designated HR person at one of her early employers left the company. “I began tackling some HR-type administration and benefits projects,” she explains. “That made me realize that this was a career to explore.”
After obtaining a master’s degree in HR and organizational development from Manhattanville College, Bridges Gilder augmented her expertise through a series of HR progressive roles spanning industries from law and international insurance brokerage to fiber optics. However, that “culture fit” was missing—until she connected with Beiersdorf in 2011.
Right away, the fact that the company’s core values permeated all of its operations resonated with her. “Beiersdorf’s purpose is Care Beyond Skin. It’s about bringing meaning and comfort to people who use our skincare,” she elaborates. “To wake up to that mission every day is really powerful.”
Although she initially focused solely on recruiting, compliance, and employee engagement, Bridges Gilder was soon an HR business partner for Beiersdorf affiliates not only within the United States but also in Canada. She learned to navigate the Canadian cultural and legal landscape, just as she had learned to navigate the immigration process to run the company’s immigration program. “It’s the ultimate test,” she says of the program. “You’re onboarding someone into a new country and a new culture as well as into your affiliate.”
Since becoming a director in 2017, Bridges-Gilder has seen Beiersdorf through the acquisition of sunscreen brand Coppertone in 2019, the restructuring of the HR function into an operations-based model the same year, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She helped launch the company on its DEI journey in 2020 as well. “To be a truly great organization and to represent our consumers, we want our workforce to look like those consumers,” she says.
To kick off her three-year DEI strategy, Bridges Gilder and her VP of HR and mentor Louisa Stead cofounded a designated, cross-functional council—on which Bridges Gilder serves—to set specific goals for Beiersdorf as a company. In addition to broadening the recruiting pool to reach a higher number of qualified diverse candidates, the council draws attention to the company’s seven employee resource groups and commemorates significant diverse holidays and other occasions throughout the year.
As a leader on the council and within the company at large, Bridges Gilder practices transparent communication and self-awareness. “It helps me as a leader if I think about how other people want to be treated,” she notes.
Her leadership convictions have only strengthened since she became a mother to four stepchildren through her 2015 marriage. “Motherhood has been a gamechanger for me in terms of being a good listener and having empathy,” she says. “Every employee has different needs, just like every child has different needs.”
Meeting employees’ needs was more challenging than ever in 2020. As Beiersdorf’s point person for COVID, Bridges Gilder had to quickly develop a perspective on everything from mental well-being during remote work to safety protocols for office reopening. “It was huge, learning how to create something from nothing,” she admits. “But throughout this experiment of working remotely, we remained productive and kept people engaged.”
Bridges Gilder plans to apply lessons from COVID to continue driving employee engagement moving forward. She is currently facilitating the design of a new collaboration-centric company headquarters, which she hopes will become a “destination” workspace for Beiersdorf employees. In the meantime, she will be paying close attention to the results of upcoming engagement surveys, including one about the company’s ongoing DEI efforts.
Furthermore, Bridges Gilder will continue to enhance the employee experience surrounding onboarding, employee-manager relationships, career development, and more. “Moving into this new work world has escalated the need for everyone to know what our business ambitions are and to focus on getting there together,” she says.
As employees unite to achieve Beiersdorf’s goals, Bridges Gilder will be right by their sides. And, as always, she will be living her values through her work. “Those values are in everything that I do,” she confirms. “In that sense, my purpose at the company doesn’t feel like a job. It feels more like a calling.”
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