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DuPont’s CEO took helm in a storm

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership,Workplace Communication

Talk about timing. Ellen Kullman, long on the short list of possible chiefs at DuPont, finally became president on Oct. 1, 2008, and CEO on Jan. 1, 2009.

As the economy tanked and the chemical company’s sales fell, Kullman had to decide what should and shouldn’t change.

“There is no playbook,” she says.

Organizing the company to respond to these trends, Kullman decided on four principles:

1. Focus on what you can control. After more than 200 years of tracking earnings and letting the cash take care of itself, DuPont decided to pay attention to cash. It maximized sales—especially of new products, and of existing products in new markets—and reduced capital expenditures.

2. Rethink your business model. Kullman herself led the way more than a decade ago in developing new customer service products at DuPont. Since its founding in 1802 as a maker of black powder, the firm has emphasized safety, and now sells its expertise to plants that have serious safety problems, as well as existing customers who want to create a safer work environment.

3. Get your employees’ attention. Workers hunker down in a crisis. Kullman insisted that company leaders “get out in front of the troops.” She went to Ohio and Germany, where there were layoffs, to answer employees’ “tough questions about the deal they thought they had with DuPont.”

If leaders don’t communicate on the hardest issues, she says, then their credibility on all decisions is shot.

4. Maintain your pride of mission. Weekly meetings with employees revealed their fear that DuPont would abandon sustainable growth. Kullman underscored the mission by touting “green” inventions that save lives, such as hurricane-resistant building materials.

— Adapted from “DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman’s Four Principles for Moving Ahead during Turbulent Times,” Knowledge@Wharton, knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu. Flickr Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons,  Kullman at World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Davos, 2009

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