Founded 214 years ago, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., commonly referred to as DuPont, waited until 2009 to appoint its first female CEO, Ellen J. Kullman. It was during that time the economy was frantically treading one of the worst global recessions in recent memory. While the world crammed onto life rafts, Kullman maintained a solemn disposition, steadily steering the ship’s wheel of DuPont.
“It was not, ‘Whoa, look! The sky is falling,’ ” Kullman said. “It was, ‘OK. The sky is falling. That’s happening to everybody. What decisions should we make in order to be able to come out of this stronger than our competition.’ ”
Not every situation Kullman confronted carried those high stakes. Some dilemmas were, in Kullman’s words, “pretty unexceptional,” which is a point she’d like to highlight. When Kullman speaks at 10:45 a.m. July 14 in the Amphitheater, she’ll be discussing what moral leadership in a business setting looks like for the past, present and future. Although she stepped down voluntarily as CEO of DuPont last October, she’ll still be employing many of her own firsthand experiences from the ring.
In a scenario such as the Great Recession, companies are more partial to looking inward. Kullman, however, asked for and executed an external approach. In making decisions, DuPont and Kullman would utilize the stakeholder theory of governance, expanding their attention beyond just shareholders to include the customers, suppliers, employees and communities of operation. It was a model that looked to the long game.
“The purpose of business, which I always and firmly believe, is to create long-term shareholder value,” Kullman said.
That doesn’t guarantee each quarter will be noticeably lucrative, Kullman said. But it does mean planning for the future and choosing the right investments.
“Some years I was ahead, some years I was behind, but it built on each other,” Kullman said. “I was benefiting from the decisions my predecessors made on research and development investments. I felt an important part of my job was to make sure that I was investing so that my successors would have that opportunity as well.”
When it comes to operating a conglomerate such as DuPont, Kullman warns companies from becoming too myopic and possibly losing sight of the whole system.
“If you focus just on one thing, you’re not going to be successful,” Kullman said. “You’ve got to make the whole equation work and that means that you have to continue to innovate and invest, continue to be productive. In our case, it very much was around globalizing our products and growing in places like Brazil, India and China.”
As a female executive in a male dominated-profession, Kullman was conscious of the historical stains made by gender prejudices. But she was never under the impression her position could be viewed as inferior.
“I never let anything like that bother me,” Kullman said. “I grew up where my parents instilled in me the belief that you earn your way in this world, no matter who you are. Man, woman, where you’re from, it [didn’t] matter. But in the business world of today, I believe women are not in a position that they should be in.”
Part of what Kullman is doing today as a member of the National Academy of Engineering — while also serving positions on the board of directors for United Technologies and Carbon, as well as being on the board of trustees for Tufts University — is investing time into one of her passions, enriching teachers to help in teaching K-12 students in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. They’re finding gaps across the country where teachers are unable to properly relay their curriculum to their students. This mission will hopefully combat that disparity.
“I can continue to do things where I’m giving back and helping create a stronger world going forward,” Kullman said. “I believe in lifelong learning, and when you stop learning, you shrivel up. This is another way for me to really get after that.”
Before becoming CEO of DuPont, Kullman had 30 years of field experience under her belt. And in that time, she learned some basic, but key, lessons that helped make her the leader she is today.
“People who aspire to lead companies or lead organizations have a passion for it,” Kullman said. “And you have to have that passion. You have to be able to listen. I found that as CEO, I listened a lot more than I spoke. That was really helpful for me. The second thing is to make sure that you have a great team, that it’s the strongest team. There was a lot I learned during the process, and the one thing it came down to at the end of the day is that it is all about the people, and developing people and surrounding yourself with people who not only you can challenge, but who’re willing to challenge you.”