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  • Shelly Elliott and Diane Gulyas

Diane Gulyas Part 3: From Retirement to the Board Room, Final Pieces of Advice


Below is the last part of my first C-Suite Conservation feature with Diane Gulyas, former President of DuPont's Performance Polymers business. Don't miss the value-packed first two phases where we talked about what attracted Diane to engineering, her early career, her experience working and living in Switzerland and Belgium, and what it's like to be a corporate executive.

You serve on 4 different boards of directors. What has that experience been like? What are some things you considered before agreeing to serve?

When I finished working at DuPont, I knew I couldn’t go from working 80 hours a week to nothing, playing golf 5 days a week. I looked at public speaking, writing a book, consulting, and in the end, I concluded board service was the right role for me. When I retired, I was running a $4B business at DuPont with 5,000 employees in multiple countries around the world, and I thought that experience is worth something to someone.

Early on, I was on three non-profit boards, including the United Way of Delaware, the Ministry of Caring and Delaware Nature Society. Now, I am on three corporate boards, Mallinckrodt, W.R. Grace, and Expediters These companies compensate me to give them advice on governance, operations, marketing, etc, I wanted three very different companies so I could keep growing in my retirement. My fourth board is a nonprofit, the LPGA ,which combines business and my passion for golf and empowering women.Together, these are almost a full time job as each board meets 4-5 times per year and requires a great deal of prep work and reading several hundred pages of material before each meeting.

Today, there are not enough women on boards; we are still grossly under-represented. Because a lot of boards of directors want only CEOs and COOs where women are also under-represented, it is incredibly difficult to land a board assignment. A great way to start is with a non-profit board. This will give you exposure to the type of topics that a board of directors provides insight on and what the board atmosphere is like. Another alternative is to serve on the board of a private company. A lot of start-ups are always looking for people to be on their boards and provide perspective.

What does work life balance mean to you? How did you balance the two as a working professional woman?

I get asked this question a lot. There really is no such thing as balance, just choices. There was a woman who worked for us, named Jane, who was actually named “Working Mother of the Year” in 1995. She was a middle manager at DuPont, had a high-powered job, and was on a non-profit board. She was interviewed on the Today Show, and asked how she was able to do it all. Her response, “You just need to know what is important right now.” If she took time out of her work day to attend her child’s play, then she made up the time she lost at night. She also said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘My kids eat macaroni and cheese, and my house is a wreck most of the time, but that is not important to me.’

For part of the time I was at DuPont, we had a female CEO and she frequently left in the afternoon to go to her kid’s soccer game. She would also use all of her vacation time and would also leave for weeks at a time. She would always leave an emergency contact number, but she was firm that she did not expect any phone calls and instead, expected her to team to step-up and fill in when she left. She set the example that she expected her employees to follow to keep a healthy life.

At some point in your life, you’re going to have a crisis in your personal life. There will be a time when your family is way more important than your work and you need to pay attention to that.A good employer and a good boss will respect that; a bad employer or a bad boss is using you if they do not.

Personally, I always turned myself off on the weekend beginning Friday at 6 p.m. until Sunday at noon. I was also good at turning my e-mail off after 6 or 7 p.m. at night because if you’re emailing people, you’re sending the signal that you expect a response, which is disrespecting their family time.

Instead of balance, you need to have priorities and a plan. I always made time for exercise, time with my husband, and social time with my girlfriends.

It’s crucial that you do something to re-charge your batteries.

What resources, tools, and strategies do you use for professional development?

It varies. I used to take advantage of everything that was inside of the company like training, special assignments, and mentor programs. One of the best ways to get noticed and develop is to be on a special task force because you will learn and meet people outside of your normal sphere of influence. I always made sure I was doing things outside of the company as well like networking with industry groups and women’s networks. Now, there is National Association of Corporate Board Directors that I am a part of and attend their local and national meetings. I still try to go to things that help me meet people that are not inside my network. Find things that will stretch your knowledge, skills, and also your network.

What is the best piece of advice you have received or what piece of advice would you give to other women in the engineering field?

First, the half-life of your skills and knowledge right now is about 5 years, meaning half of what you are relying on today is going to be obsolete in 5 years. If you are not a continuous learner, constantly re-skilling and learning new things, you will be career roadkill. You will get run over. You absolutely must be obsessed with re-skilling and learning. When we started down six-sigma, I was one of the first to say “I want to be a black belt.” I was always volunteering for whatever new thing was coming down the pike because I wanted to be ready. I still do this, even in retirement, as I’m now studying cyber-security.

Second, if you want to get to the top of your game, you cannot think of your career in incremental steps. You have to be willing to take a job where you have a 50% chance of failure. That’s what it takes to get to the top. There were about four times in my career I raised my hand for a job I wasn’t qualified for. In three of those four jobs, I was wildly successful. In one, I stumbled, but I regrouped and strategized what I needed to do to be successful. It took me a year or two to get out of the hole I was in, but I got back on the fast track. Put yourself out into unchartered territory.

Who is the woman you most admire and why?

I can’t honestly say I could pick one other than my mother. The reason I would pick my mother is mother instilled in all of us the belief that we could be or do anything with enough hard work and dedication. Mom graduated from high school and didn’t go back to work until I was 18 years old. I’m the oldest of 4 girls, and even though we all chose very different paths, we all succeeded because of Mom’s guidance. I can’t imagine where my mom got it from because no one ever encouraged her. She was way ahead of her time with women’s empowerment. She sent us to an all-girls school to foster that strong sense of women’s power, and mom let us feel empowered, fearless, and self-confident. I didn’t have a lot of women leaders ahead of me, but I had my mom behind me.

That's a wrap for our first C-Suite Conversation feature!

Like what you read? Feel free to leave a comment below or contact me directly at shelly@shellyelliott.com.

Stay tuned for our next blog post Wednesday, February 7!

#CEO #CSuiteConversation #chemical #worklifebalance

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