Diane Gulyas Part 2: Living Abroad & Life in the C-Suite
I'm picking up my interview with Diane Gulyas, former President of DuPont Performance Polymers. Check out the first part of the interview in last week's blog post!
You lived abroad in Switzerland and Belgium. What was that like? What surprised you the most?
I had been working for Dupont for 10 years, and I was always interested in international business. I never traveled abroad or outside the country growing up, but I got passport when 23 because I was curious about new places. I’ve always been a very curious person, and I enjoyed learning about different cultures.
For 10 years, every year, I had asked for an international assignment. When I was in a personnel meeting, a VP said that there were two openings in Switzerland and he was asking the group who should fill these roles. Many names were brought up by the group, but a decision wasn’t made by the time we took a break. At the break, I went up to the VP to tell him I had a candidate for job, me! I think initially he thought I was joking before responding, “But your husband built you a big house!” I told him I didn’t see how that matters. He tried to deter me again, saying that my husband wouldn’t be allowed to work in Switzerland due to the employment law for ex-pats. I told him that was my problem, not his.
I went home that night and told my husband, “You’ll never believe what I did today! I nominated myself for a job in Switzerland! And by the way, you can’t work there!” He was happy and excited about it, but the company actually wanted to talk to my husband first before committing to sending me to Switzerland. Two weeks later, it was official that we were moving to Geneva.
The first few months were really difficult; I was working a lot and my husband wasn’t. It was tough meeting other couples and making friends, but relocating to Switzerland was the best thing we ever did. We both grew tremendously in our marriage and our love for each other; we really were each other’s sole support until we made friends. We were forewarned by other friends who had international experience that you have to have a really strong marriage, or this experience would likely end in divorce.
My role in Geneva was a product line manager, and when they first told me that was my title, I had no idea what it meant! I had never taken a business class, but I knew when and how to ask for help, which is another great leadership skill. I needed to ask for help to get the job done in a foreign country.We were in Geneva about two years when my boss told me he wanted to bring me home because he was concerned that my husband was not working and getting restless. I was shocked, and I responded to him that I wanted to be treated like a guy. I wanted to stay.
Rather than bring me back to the U.S., DuPont transferred me to Belgium to take a Plant Manager position. This was by far the scariest role I had. I hadn’t been in a factory since I was a sophomore in college, and suddenly, I was in charge of 350 people, half of whom didn’t speak English, and a plant that ran 24/7.
When I came back to the United States, my career trajectory took off because of the international experience and assignments I had. When I was in Belgium, I met DuPont’s CEO and he asked me to come back to the U.S. to be his assistant. I was considerably further ahead of others in my peer group. The international experience helped my career explode, and I was included in a book called “Getting Ahead by Going Abroad” that featured advice and case studies from women who took international assignments to propel their careers. Today, if I were looking at an international assignment, I would pick China. Shanghai is the now place to go. Europe is so 1980s!
From there, I ran a $1B, $3B, and $4B business, each in succession, each more complex and global.
What were some of your biggest challenges as a plant manager? What was your favorite part about that role?
The plant manager role was the most challenging but most rewarding role I had. It taught me new leadership skills. I knew our customer and the product base, but I didn’t know much about how we made the product; this role changed that. At first, I thought, “I’m never going to be smarter than these people at making plastics.” But then I thought about my role as a plant manager and what the value proposition of this role was. I saw myself as the conductor of a very big orchestra. I didn’t need to know how to run an extruder; I needed to know how to bring together all of the business’s functions, figure out what is working, what’s not working, and make it better. It was a great career building role and gave me exposure to leading a large organization, change management, and a different set of tools. One of our biggest accomplishments was shortening a changeover process that used to take 24 hours to only 4. It was fun to help people break out of the ruts they are in by leading effectively.
There were many time I thought, “I can’t do this,” and was paralyzed with fear. I had to just take a deep breath and seek help. DuPont had factories all around Europe. I called plant managers at our Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Germany plants and asked them to be on my board of advisors. I would talk to them together and separately to get advice and counsel.
Ultimately, it goes back to being compassionate, and understanding that people play a big role in the business’s success. Safety was my biggest fear. Our plant had gone 20 years without a lost time injury, but every day, I knew we needed to maintain a high level of focus and safety to keep the streak alive.
You were a senior executive with DuPont for 12 years. Is that where you thought your career would lead you?
No, not at all! When I joined DuPont, my original plan was to quit in 5 years and get an MBA. Every few years, I thought about quitting. DuPont kept trying to talk me out of it because they knew if left and got my MBA, I would not come back. After I started my role as an assistant to the CEO, he told me I could go to any advanced manager program I wanted, so I completed a six week program at Wharton.
Every year or two, I used to go through a reflection and evaluation exercise for my role at DuPont. I would fold a piece of paper in half, and put a + on one side, and – on other. I would then list pros and cons of my role and experience with DuPont. If the cons outweighed the pros, I would ask for something new. Had I not gotten new opportunities, I would have quit, but DuPont kept my curiosity alive and personal development engine revving.
What are some of the non-glamorous aspects of being a senior executive? What surprised you the most?
There are three big non-glamorous aspects of being a senior executive that immediately come to mind.
Long hours- When I retired, I was exhausted. The Internet made this worse because of the constant connectivity and the expectation of being available 24/7/365. There is no way to disconnect today. Vacations were essentially me working from a better location. When you’re running a global business, there are meetings at all hours of the day for different locations. I was making multiple trips abroad every year, resulting in horrible jet lag and a lot of time away from home.
Weighty Responsibility- When I retired, I still had 5,000 people reporting to me. That’s 5,000 families depending on me to keep our business healthy so they can bring home a paycheck. It was a large weight to carry on my shoulders.
Incredibly political- Impossible not to get involved in office politics.
You spent all of your career with the same company, which is rare these days. What benefits do you think that brought you?
If I were you today, I’m not sure I would stay with the same company. Every time I thought about quitting, they offered me a better job. You need to be constantly growing, and DuPont offered me that. I had 26 different jobs in 36 years. I did everything. When I retired from DuPont, there was no job left that I wanted to have. If DuPont hadn’t kept investing in me, I wouldn’t have stayed. The world is a different place. I had a track record of being someone who got things done, being a leader people wanted to follow. One of the benefits to staying with the same company is that you don’t have to prove yourself again. Once you have a track record, it creates more possibilities for you. People will operate under assumptions, so when you start at a new company, division, or department, you need to prove yourself and minimize their risk on their investment, you.
The secret to my success is that there were at least 3 points in my career where I took a job that I had a 50% chance of failure. I put myself in a high risk career situation, but I was successful and grew as a leader.
Don't miss out on the final phase of my interview with Diane Gulyas!
Diane will share what it's like to be on both a corporate and non-profit board of directors, what work-life balance means to her, and the best piece of advice she has ever gotten!