5Q: Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont

Ellen Kullman was the guest speaker at November’s Great Dames Powerful Conversation Series, which drew more than 150 attendees. In a moderated discussion with Wilmington University’s Maria Hess, Kullman drew from her years at DuPont’s highest post to discuss gender parity and her leadership style.

On her work ethic and leadership demeanor

Somebody told me I was intimidating when I was CEO, and I was like, “Really? I am?” I was always told I was too aggressive. I was told to turn it down. First and foremost — I think looking back now — I was kind of fighting for the right to be me. It’s when we try and be something we’re not, we get lost.

On her career trajectory

I never had a long-term plan to be CEO of DuPont. I kept having the five-year-chunk plan. My big goal was to be a vice president and general manager of one of the businesses and I was the first woman to ever do that in the company. And it was the best job I ever had. After I had the role for about three years I started to think, ‘Well, what do I do now?’

On leadership

You have to be tremendously self-aware. You have to know your impact on the organization, on your group. And you have to do it with purpose. Maybe there are times when you have to back off and allow things to move. The more self-aware you are, the more you’re able to flex your style and get the best outcome that you’re going to get.

On what she learned in the process

I think that I had to learn that just because I didn’t like what was going on didn’t mean
it was wrong. I had to learn more about it, I had to listen harder than I spoke, and I had to make sure that the position I was advocating for was truly the best position. You’ve got to have the strength … to back off your position in the appropriate way and make sure it comes out in the right place.

On staying confident in the face of overwhelming obstacles

I always found it helpful when you felt overwhelmed by a problem to break it down.
It’s just not one problem; it’s a series of things. The second thing is you have to focus on what you can impact. There are a lot of problems out there that no matter what you do, can’t have an impact, so work on the parts that you can change.

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