Kathleen Shelton, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for FMC Corporation
Dr. Kathleen Shelton joined FMC in November 2017 with the FMC-DuPont transaction. As the global leader of the Company’s robust discovery and development pipelines, Dr. Shelton leads an organization of nearly 800 scientists located around the world, with laboratories in India, Brazil, France, Denmark and the United States. The largest site, located in Newark, Delaware, United States, has over 350 employees working in chemistry, biology, regulatory sciences, engineering and analytical science. Under her leadership, the FMC Crop Protection Research and Development organization won the prestigious 2018 Agrow Award for the “Most Innovative Pipeline” in the agricultural industry.
Prior to her current role, Dr. Shelton was the Director of DuPont Crop Protection Research and Development. She held several leadership roles in businesses across DuPont, both in Wilmington, Delaware, United States as well as Geneva, Switzerland. Dr. Shelton earned a doctorate in microbiology and immunology at Drexel University, and continued her research in a postdoctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania.
With nearly 400 scientists working every day at FMC locations around the world, what have you learned about leading large, distributed teams?
To be successful with large, geographically diverse teams, you need to articulate a clear strategy and how the teams contribute to that strategy. It’s so important for every team member to understand how they fit into the bigger picture and the individual impact they have on the business. Regular, consistent communication helps to build this understanding and alignment.
What non-technical skills should an FMC chemist possess in order to achieve success? Do your chemists tend to arrive at FMC with these requisite non-technical skills, or does your company supplement them through internal or external training?
Two critical skills that every new employee needs to be successful are the ability to effectively communicate to non-technical audiences and strong business acumen. These skills are new to our scientists and integral to advocating for new ideas, getting the resources they need, and building business relationships. As an ag sciences company, the partnership between R&D and the business is vital to achieving company objectives.
We try to help our scientists understand the business environment through special projects that get them out of the lab and working with colleagues in the business as well as some traditional, classroom-based learning.
Before joining FMC, you served as DuPont’s Crop Protection Global Science and Technology Director. What went through your mind when you first heard about the company’s plans to acquire market-leading products from DuPont's crop protection portfolio?
FMC’s announcement of the transaction with DuPont was one of the most exciting moments in my career because I knew we could bring our innovation and creativity to a company that values our work and our products.
How did your parents influence your leadership style?
I am one of the oldest of six children. Growing up, our house was always noisy and full of people talking over each other, so I am comfortable in a crowd and know how to make myself heard! We ate dinner together as a family every night, which taught me how to share and connect with people.
As a leader, I work hard to create an environment where my team members feel comfortable as equals at the table. I try to be open and communicate as much as possible, and build that same kind of comradery among my team. I want team members who work well together, but also like my brothers and sisters, enjoy competing and want to win!
What challenges do women chemists encounter in the workplace that men largely don’t experience? What can the chemical industry do to make the workplace more welcoming and rewarding for women?
A challenge I often hear women share is about making choices in their career. They’re asking questions like: “How do I know when to try something new versus sticking to my area of expertise?” “What roles are out there that I might want to try?” I think many women have these questions and we should be talking to them about what they want and what they hope to achieve earlier in their careers. We need to engage them around every aspect of their lives, not just the next career progression, and helping them make choices that lead to a fulfilling life both in and outside of the workplace.
Why aren’t more women occupying senior leadership positions in the chemical industry (such as the one you hold)?
I am fortunate to have had strong supporters at work as well as a family that encouraged and gave me the freedom to build the career I have today. A few times, it was my manager who made the difference in supporting my progression and giving me the confidence that I could succeed at the next level. I am very grateful to those managers and without them I would not have achieved my current role.
My hope is that more women will see that they are capable of senior leadership roles and garner the support from all parts of their lives to pursue their ambitions.
According to a Barron’s article earlier this year, FMC has six new active ingredients in development and 16 new active ingredients in the discovery pipeline. For those of us not in your business, can you give us some sense of the technology challenges associated with developing a new, commercially successful active ingredient?
Discovering and commercializing a new product takes a tremendous amount of expertise and investment. A new active ingredient discovered today will require over $200 million and 10-12 years of effort to bring to market. At FMC, we are very proud of our discovery teams who are passionate about finding sustainable solutions with new modes of action that help farmers control pests resistant to current products. To achieve this, we will make and test over 60,000 compounds each year, both in the field as well as in the laboratory. In addition to all of the tests needed for registration, we also define the manufacturing process to make the commercial product.
What is your confidence level that FMC can equip farmers with the tools they require to feed billions of people well into the future?
As CTO of the fifth largest agricultural sciences company, FMC R&D is driven to bring innovation to farmers around the world. I also see innovation coming from new companies. The last 10 years have seen remarkable growth in agtech, with $ 6.7 billion invested in the last 5 years. This investment, along with cost reductions across life sciences, imagery, computation and automation technologies, have led to the developent of new toolsets to be applied to agricultural problems. FMC is working closely with small companies who have unique technologies and we expect signficant innovation to be available to farmers from a brand new set of companies and technologies.
What do you think about a culture that makes heroes of actors, recording artists, and athletes but is largely clueless about scientists who develop medicines to keep us healthy, innovative solutions to keep us fed, new energy sources to move us, and advanced materials to keep us comfortable?
If I could change how the public perceives scientists, I would show how their creativity and passion drive new discoveries and inventions that no one ever thought possible. Scientists see what many others don’t and they create solutions to solve real problems We are passionate and driven, and our work is tremendously rewarding – I wish more people were aware of how exciting science and innovation is.
Because you’re a tennis fan, ACS is going to give you (not really) box seats to your choice of the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Which tournament would you want to see, and why? And which woman, and which man, would you root for to take home the singles championships?
I have always wanted to see a match at Wimbledon because of the history and uniqueness of the tournament. I am a fan and admirer of both Roger Federer and Sloan Stevens because they are both champions as well as a role models who are gracious and articulate, both in victory and defeat.
Boss Talk with Kathy Shelton has been edited for length and clarity.