In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Aligned Automation team is taking time to garner insight from women we admire in business and technology. From exploring their personal stories, challenges and successes to hearing about how they #choosetochallenge, this series aims to offer perspectives that can help us all nurture a more inclusive – and successful -workplace.
Kathy VanLandingham, the chief information officer for leading petrochemical company LyondellBasell, didn’t always picture herself in the business technology world. Trained as a chemical engineer, she started her journey on a very different path. With an open mind and drive to succeed, she pivoted through career iterations in chemical engineering, supply chain, procurement and IT. In 2013, VanLandingham joined the LyondellBasell global procurement department. In April 2020, just weeks into the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, she officially accepted the role of CIO.
Our team hosted a virtual meeting with VanLandingham to hear more about what she’s learned along the way. Read the highlights from our conversation below.
We’d love to know more about your background: what did you think you’d be and how did it change along the way?
I am a chemical engineer by trade. I went to the University of Virginia, graduated engineering school and went to work as a production engineer. I did that for about five years and then decided it really wasn’t for me. I’m not an engineer at heart. I moved into the more commercial side of the business through supply chain, operations and global planning – I even had the opportunity to work overseas for a few years during an assignment in Belgium. When I moved to Houston I continued working in supply chain at LyondellBasell. Overall I spent about 20 years in that field.
I was then presented the opportunity to try something new with procurement. The leadership at the time was looking for support in transforming the organization. I had led similar initiatives in large organizations but never in procurement and learning something new while utilizing my skillset was exciting. I started working with the CIO at the time and learned a great deal about IT, translating business problems to technical teams and vice versa. It was through that partnership that I found my way into this organization working on the business side of IT. It is because of this journey I had the opportunity last year to become the CIO, leading a pretty large organization of about 400 employees and, if you include suppliers and partners, is more like 1,200. It’s been a fantastic journey for me.
What would you say have been some of your bigger struggles as you’ve navigated your career as a woman in this space?
I had enough women around me throughout college and my career that I didn’t feel like I stuck out as a woman. But, as I reflect, I do remember being told often that I was too direct. There were times when I would try to change that, but it’s just not me. I am direct. Of course, with experience you gain some confidence, too.
Rather than trying to change who I am, I have made an effort to be more empathetic and listen better while still being direct. It’s something I struggled with and I do wonder if I was only asked to change because I’m a woman, but you can never really know.
You became CIO at the beginning of a pandemic that would drastically change our world both at home and at work. What challenges are most on your mind as a leader now?
One thing that I’ve been learning about, and it has become especially pertinent in the last year, is inclusion. For example, we’ve seen the troubling reports about the impact COVID-19 has had on women specifically. Leaders should be thinking about both retention and recruiting those women who left the workforce. How do we include them? I don’t want to just say flexibility – there’s more to it than that.
I believe we have to focus on getting the best out of our employees – not the most. If you’re focused on getting the most out of people, you risk exhausting them. It’s not sustainable for anyone to work 20-hour days. When we aim to get the best out of 1,200 people, it naturally follows that they will have flexibility and lead with empathy. We don’t exhaust them, and we encourage them to be more balanced. With that approach, we’ll be more successful and make space for a more diverse and inclusive organization.
Why is diversity and inclusion so important to organizations?
We value diversity in all forms – race, gender, ethnicity, background, opinion, etc. When teams are homogenous, you’re missing something. For me, it’s come with experience to really understand what inclusion means. If I can make an organization this large inclusive, there is nothing we can’t do. It’s a challenge, but an exciting one.