Former DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman has plenty on her plate. After all, she serves on the boards of three big-time companies, Goldman Sachs, Dell Technologies and United Technologies.
But a top priority for Kullman these days is Paradigm for Parity. The organization that Kullman co-chairs has the ambitious goal of getting more women into top leadership positions.
Kullman talked about Paradigm and touched on her career before a packed house at the final Powerful Conversations fall 2017 series of Great Dames. The event was held at Harry’s Savoy Grill banquet room in north Wilmington carried the tagline “Women Crushing Obstacles.”
According to Kullman, Paradigm is off to a fast start with 60 companies pledging to reach a short-term goal of having women comprise 30 percent of top management. Member companies include Walmart, Accenture, and Coca-Cola.
Corporate America knows it has a problem. Only 6 and a half percent of companies have female CEOs, even though diverse companies tend to be more successful.
Kullman said one of the goals of Paradigm, which she describes as a movement, is to eliminate unconscious bias. That bias often comes with the first promotion, which often a key to getting to the C-Suite. While attitudes have changed, there has been a bias regarding women and their personal lives.
While attitudes have changed, there has and still can be a bias regarding women and their personal lives. In the past, a woman could be passed up for a promotion simply by getting married. Too often, decision makers would assume that she would start a family, Kullman said.
Another barrier can be structural bias, Kullman said. It can occur when promotions and pay raises come more often for males than females. Over a period of 15 years or so, the disparities can be dramatic.
Kullman says companies now have ways to detect those gaps through online-based human resources systems like Workday.
In looking back at her career at DuPont, Kullman said her most satisfying job came in serving as a vice president and general manager with overall responsibilities for operations and finances.
As CEO, some of her most satisfying moments came in “getting out of Dodge” (Wilmington) and meeting with DuPonters. Many come with powerful stories, one example being a business leader in Cambodia who survived the brutal regime of Pol Pot, Kullman said.
Asked how she “kept her sanity” during a long career, Kullman pointed to her family keeping her grounded. Children, in particular, did not want to hear about work. That changed somewhat with the proxy battle in her final time as CEO that had activist shareholder Nelson Peltz engaging an effort to gain board seats. They did “want to know why all these bad things were being said about me were in the paper.”
She did offer one interesting tidbit on DuPont.
After the downsizing and planned merger with Dow that followed her departure, she reported that the company is now more diverse. That tends to happen in such situations, she added.
She is not a critic of the merger and its scheduled spin-off into three companies, telling a TV reporter that one positive sign came with the decisions to move of some of Dow’s units to the Specialty Products company, which will be based in Delaware. The other two businesses to be spun off are in agriculture and materials technology. The materials unit will carry the Dow name.
It will be a busy week, for Kullman, Today, she will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Delaware’s 27th Annual Entrepreneurial and Business Women’s Expo.
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