C-Suite Conversations: Diane Gulyas, The Early Career of a Future President of DuPont Performance Po
This is the first C-Suite Conversation, a quarterly interview with a current or former senior executive female engineer. Over the next three weeks, I'll share my interview with Diane Gulyas, former President of DuPont Performance Polymers. For a quick reference of Diane's career, see the post from January 16.
What attracted you to engineering?
I am trying to take myself back 40 years! Like most girls of that era, I was good at math and science, I went to an engineering camp at the University of Illinois as a junior in high school and had my eyes opened to all of the possibilities. I thought it sounded promising, so I applied to U of I, Purdue, MIT, and ND, and I got into all of them! I really wanted to go to MIT because I thought, “Why not go to the best?” I had two reasons for not going. First, my family was worried about money and paying for my tuition. I was the oldest of four children, and my mom was a stay at home mom. Second, I thought I was too “nerdy” already. In 1974, Notre Dame called me and recruited me into the second class of freshmen women at the university. Notre Dame offered me a scholarship that paid for my entire education, which was a big weight off my mind.
What was one of your toughest challenges when you were in school?
During the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I worked at a refinery in Joliet on shift work. This was the 1970’s and the environment in the plant was quite challenging and not very supportive. I went back to school and said, “I’m switching to business!” My professors encouraged me to keep pursuing my degree and recognize there were other opportunities. After junior year, I worked at Proctor & Gamble in their research labs on a toilet bowl cleaner. I walked away with great experience, including being in a lab and designing product, but I knew didn’t want to work on toilet bowl cleaners or potato chips. I interviewed with a lot of companies and had many offers, but chose Dupont because it seemed big, broad, they loved engineers, and had a philosophy that engineers could do anything.
I didn’t graduate knowing exactly what I wanted to do. You have to really work at it and explore what you want. There are so many opportunities in so many different places, industries, and types of work.
What was your first role out of college and how did your early career unfold?
I started in the labs at DuPont researching new products for customers and really enjoyed it. When it came time to take the new products out to customers, I got to go with our sales team and interact with customers. I realized I really liked this aspect of my job, so I decided I wanted to get into sales. After two and a half years, I transitioned from the technical part of selling to the sales part. This role blended the different sides of both jobs that I loved, the technical and people sides. I was in this role for 5 years. I was based in Chicago, but my territory covered Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and parts of Minnesota and I was out in the field a lot. Also, I had 5 different bosses in 5 years, so I felt like I had to prove myself over and over again.
I landed a great boss that recognized my talent and skillset. He put me in a headquarters role in Delaware. This boss was my first professional mentor. He got me in front of the management team, got me a promotion to come to Delaware and run a design engineering group that was part of our plastics group. At 26 years old, I was in my first supervisory role and had 25 design engineers all around the world reporting to me. Our group worked with customers to help them design new plastic-based products. Some of the customers we worked with included Whirlpool, GM, and Boeing, primarily converting metal parts into plastics. We used software like CAD to design to the proper stress and strain, then went into lab to create a mold to test.
Tell us about a difficult situation you were faced with early in your career and how you addressed it.
I’ll give you two, one related to managing people and the other related to managing my career. First, I was in my first supervisory role over the design engineering group. I had 24 men and 1 woman reporting to me, and of those 25 people, only one was close to my age with the rest much older. We were in the process of our annual performance review, and I had a 63-year-old gentleman that wasn’t pulling his weight. He would give his work to younger people on the team, work inefficiently, and work on what he wanted to instead of what was a priority. When I gave him this criticism during his performance review, he responded, “This is ridiculous!” and proceeded to sweep all of the items off my desk and storm out of room shouting, “I am calling the vice president! I’m getting you fired!” He did call the vice president, who responded, “SHE is the boss. You have to work with her.”
Second, after the design group supervisor role, I was offered her a job to head up an IT group that was going to provide advanced tools for salespeople to be more effective in the field. They wanted me to lead a group to create the tools, and I don’t know anything about software development! My mentor told me I didn’t need to; instead, I needed to know what good salespeople do, and that was something I already had a good foundation in. I didn’t have the technical expertise, but was I was a good integrator, meaning I could bring disparate groups together and help them communicate with each other in a way that allows them to integrate and accomplish goals. This is a very powerful leadership skill, and is in short-supply in most companies. What does it take to be a great integrator? Be a great listener and know how to ask the right questions. Draw people out by asking insightful questions. Be curious about learning new things. At first, IT was scary, but then I became intrigued. Another attribute that made me successful as a professional was being thoughtful, taking time to unplug and soak in all of the stuff I was taking in. I realized I do my best thinking when walking the dogs, so that is my time to soak everything in and glue it all together.
Stay tuned for two more phases to our feature blog with Diane!
We’ll talk about her international assignments in Switzerland and Belgium, what it was like being a plant manager, her path to a senior executive role at DuPont, her perspective on having a career and a life, and what it’s like to serve on a corporate board of directors!