A CEO’s Career: Interview with Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont

Ellen Kullman, chairman and chief executive officer of DuPont Co., poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview on day two of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the five day event runs from Jan. 23-27. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Matt Simpson (HBS '17)
Matt Simpson (HBS ’17)

Many HBS students dream of breaking into the C-Suite, but how does one get there? Careers in general management are highly sought-after as they offer broad management training and preparation for senior roles. To learn more about this path, I sat down with Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont and board member of General Motors. Mrs. Kullman shared her perspective on the role of a CEO, how she got there, careers in manufacturing and much more.

Many type-A, ambitious MBAs try to plan out every step of their professional lives. Kullman, however, took a different approach. “My goal was never to be CEO. I thought it could be a really interesting and fun role, but I always took my career in five year increments”. Although it may feel counter-intuitive to put aside the 30-year life plan, Kullman’s advice is instead to consider jobs as they come up and to focus on the present by getting meaningful development out of each and every role. By doing this, everything else should fall into place.

When deciding on a new job, Kullman warns against chasing the title that will sound best on a resume and instead suggests aiming for roles that will truly help build new skillsets. “I always thought hard about how the business was going to help me be a stronger leader”. Trained as an engineer, Kullman proceeded to get her MBA from Kellogg before working in line management. “Product line management is an integrator of different aspects of business and is therefore a great way to enter and learn about general management”.

She also cautions against the automatic instinct to shy away from struggling businesses. “Very often people only want to work in businesses where the sun is shining. You learn so much more, though, when a business is in the middle of a storm than when the sun is out.” The instinct to go for easier projects can also be limiting: “I wasn’t successful in every assignment I was given but I learned much more from the tough ones”.

Alongside selecting roles with intention, Kullman notes that those who progress fastest don’t just check boxes by building up nominal experience but instead focus on execution. Noticing that many young professionals today want to rotate rapidly through multiple projects and roles, Kullman emphasizes the importance of delivery and truly mastering an area. “I think that some people confuse participation with really creating value. Just because you are participating, it doesn’t mean that you are actually producing and accomplishing results. What are you really bringing to the party?”.

The difficulty for many is that, as managers move up the chain of command, they generally have less hands-on control. “I like to tell people that everything that made you successful as an individual contributor or as the leader of a small team works against you as you get into broader general management. The people that stay in a directive, command and control mode are less and less successful the higher they get.” 

With less direct control, senior managers become more dependent on their deputies. This dependence then raises the stakes when managers have to assess employees and place them in appropriate roles in order to maximize benefit for both the firm and the individual. “If I don’t have a person in my organization that can deliver, the only person I can blame is myself.”

For those interested in large Fortune 100 firms, global experience is critical. Whether that means working on projects abroad or living overseas, a strong understanding of other cultures is vital. “In DuPont we used to say that ‘science is global’ but its application and acceptance is necessarily local which means that we have to have very strong teams on the ground.”  MBAs need to go beyond short trips abroad, like FIELD 2, in order to truly learn how to execute in a local culture.

Talking about companies like DuPont or GM may seem to run counter to the current interests of many MBAs. The focus on tech start-ups is a recurring trend across top business schools as new MBAs flock to nascent, fast-growing technology firms. The future of manufacturing nevertheless remains bright given that we still live in a physical world: one that requires the manufacturing of real products and the ability to have face-to-face interactions, something much more fundamental to human life than GroupMe messages and Facebook likes.

For those interested in innovation, we shouldn’t be so fast to rule out the historical business elite. “One piece of misinformation about established companies is that they work on established issues rather than new issues and new markets. The advances in technology that established companies like DuPont, GM and GE are working on are just tremendous”.

Fortune 100 firms are not only well-positioned to drive innovation but also, thanks to their scale, to deliver it to a global audience. For MBAs seeking challenging, rewarding opportunities, Kullman’s response was “help us figure out how to solve the problems of the future, of tomorrow’s world”.

In addition, the impact of manufacturing on the economy is clear. “I think it’s critical for the economy of the United States, for any country, to have a strong manufacturing component because it establishes a base and an infrastructure. For every job DuPont places in an area, five other jobs are created, thereby developing thriving clusters that bring in great people”.

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As final preparation for those with top management aspirations, Kullman strongly recommends gaining experience as a board member. “You get to see the company from a different perspective so when you’re working with your own board, you’ll understand what it feels like to be on the other side”. She believes that her experience on the board of General Motors was key in preparing her for the role of CEO at DuPont. “Board membership is a really important component of leadership development. I learned so much in my four years on the GM board. It really helped me see that it’s not only about running the company; it’s about engaging the board and the shareholders, and aligning them around the plan for the future”. And for those wondering how to secure the opportunity, one don’t necessarily have to think big. “You don’t have to start sitting on a Fortune 50 board, you could start with a regional company or something more local. [Interacting with boards] is a critical component of leadership and one that’s becoming even more important in today’s day and age given the issues and opportunities that come with modern governance.”

As for MBAs thinking about their future, Kullman emphasizes the importance of taking advantage of the unique opportunities available in the present. “Be a sponge and absorb as much as you can because you’re never going to be in this environment again. The younger you are, the better positioned you are to try out different paths, so if there’s something you’ve always wanted to test out, take the opportunity now while you’re getting your MBA.”

 

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Matt Simpson (HBS ’17) is one of the Joint Chiefs of the Manbassadors at HBS. In addition to discussions of gender equality, you can often find him engaged in deep conversation around the automotive industry and his hometown of Detroit. Previously he was a consultant with Accenture.

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