DuPont’s Ellen Kullman on Her Risky Path to the CEO Job

The DuPont CEO on leaving her dream job at the chemical company—against all advice—for “nothing,”and how it prepared her for the top spot

I was in my early forties, running the $2 billion titanium dioxide business and managing about 6,000 employees. It was my dream job, and I was the first woman to lead a business at the vice-president level at DuPont. I was just back from vacation one Monday in late August 1998, when [then-Chief Executive Officer] Chad Holliday called me to his office with an idea about starting a consulting business around the company’s safety practices.

To leave an important position to go to nothing wasn’t something you did at DuPont. This is a company that historically defined importance and power with the size of the organization you led. Being asked to take on a special project was a way to move somebody out, not to develop them. Chad, in his Tennessee drawl, pushed those concerns aside. He made it very clear that it was O.K. to say no. Nobody would have ever known.

My mentor at DuPont and my husband both advised me not to do it; this wasn’t how you made a name for yourself. This was a company that sold products, not services. And I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. With my engineering background, I was very good at taking businesses and figuring out the next steps. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt this would test me. It was a chance to figure out if I was as good at strategy and building teams as I thought I was.

I wanted to make sure we crafted the right announcement. Calling it a special project would be the kiss of death. There was still internal chatter. Half my peers felt I had done something wrong and was being moved out; the other half thought I was crazy. That was difficult, to tell you the truth. I made a point of being out there, looking confident with a smile on my face and my head held high. I found a few people to work with me, telling them I would help them get another job in the company if it didn’t work out. Some of our early ideas failed, but we ultimately built this into a $6 million business.

I don’t know if I would have become CEO if I hadn’t done this. When you’re an engineer, you learn to go with your head. When you’re starting something new, you have to go with your gut, too. We’re a 209-year-old company. We won’t make it to 300 if we only ask, is my polymer better? Now when I go through strategy reviews, I say: “That’s what it is. What could it be?” — As told to Diane Brady          

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