DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman motivates her teams to ‘bring all of themselves to the table’
By Matt Golosinski
Being open to unexpected career opportunities helped DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman '83 gain the skills to jump forward — in a big way.
A pivotal moment in Kullman's leadership development arrived a decade into her tenure at the global science company, when then-CEO Chad Holliday asked the 1983 Kellogg graduate to launch a new division — the Safety Resources line — within the firm.
Kullman, already a successful business director and vice president at DuPont, admits that the move seemed unconventional at the time.
“I was running a pretty sizable business — a $2 billion venture in titanium dioxide,” recalls Kullman, who joined DuPont in 1988 after a stint at General Electric. “By every historic measure of success — which was the higher you go, the more people you have, the more assets you run, the more revenue you're accountable for — stepping out of (that role) and starting a business in safety would not have been the typical DuPont career track.
“It's one thing to run an existing business; it's another to start with yourself and a secretary and figure out what you're going to do.”
But Kullman succeeded, and she credits the build-it-from-scratch experience as key in developing her ability to assemble and motivate a team. Leadership, Kullman says, is not really about telling people what to do — a strategy that doesn't always work. “It's about creating an environment where people can speak up, where we can get into debates without becoming confrontational or negative,” Kullman says. “Leadership is about getting people to bring all of themselves to the table.”
With a leadership style that's collaborative and transparent, but direct — “No one would tell you I'm indirect,” she says — Kullman is looking to build on the successes of the 207-year-old company. Opportunities for growth, she says, include leveraging DuPont's scientific innovation to solve crucial problems facing humanity in the coming decades. Challenges related to population growth, such as food production and energy, are just some of the areas where DuPont's expertise in materials science, biotechnology and chemical engineering, among other disciplines, can help “a world that's growing a lot more crowded.”
Kullman became DuPont's CEO in January. Over the past year, she says, the company has undergone a “tremendous amount of change” to meet the challenges posed by the global liquidity crisis. Declines in the construction and automotive markets had a significant impact on the firm's business, she says. As a result, Kullman and her team had to quickly assess the health of each of DuPont's 13 businesses in more than 70 countries.
“We ended up doing two restructurings — idling assets, moving people around. We did a whole reorganization of the company to get more streamlined and closer to the customer,” she says. “The changes helped ensure that we are appropriate stewards of our cash and resources so that as the economy improves we are in a position to invest in the areas that we believe will have great opportunity.”
Kullman's efforts have earned wide attention. She's been named to several prestigious lists of corporate executives, including one published in August by Forbes, which ranked her No. 7 among its “Top 100 Most Powerful Women.” While Kullman says she's honored by such recognition, she doesn't dwell on it. Her focus, rather, is squarely on “the creation of more opportunities for the DuPont company.”
Plus, she adds, “I've got three teenagers at home who keep me very humble most of the time.”
Posted January 2010