Build a workplace that enables respect and success for all employees: Promote a culture of inclusion where employees feel empowered to both bring their genuine selves to work, and their ideas to the table — no matter their role. Our CEO refers to all employees as family members and we carry through on that approach whenever possible. For example, when someone is ill or there is a death in the family, we try to support that person with engagement that goes beyond the factory door.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrianne Tipton.
Adrianne Tipton joined Novolex in 2014 as the Vice President of Innovation and Market Development and was promoted to Senior Vice President in August of 2019. In her role, Tipton focuses on integrating all of the innovation teams at Novolex to ensure the company continues to grow as a worldwide leader in packaging and food service industries. She also drives innovation in new product development, product management and product marketing.
Before joining Novolex, Tipton served as Managing Director of Compass New Product Consulting. Before then, she was Vice President of Business Research for ORC International as well as Vice President of New Product Development and Marketing for Cenveo (formerly National Envelope). Previous to that, Tipton spent six years at Clorox where she served a variety of critical roles in research and development.
Tipton earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Northern Arizona University and later a PhD in bio-organic chemistry from the University of Nevada, Reno. She then served as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota / Center for Metals in Biocatalysis.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
It definitely wasn’t linear. I am a PhD chemist by education. It all started in my teen years and early 20s — my mom was in and out of the hospital with a degenerative lung disease — and it seemed that sometimes the drug side effects were worse than the cure. This led to my goal of entering the pharmaceutical industry to develop life-changing drugs.
It was during my post-doc when I realized there was a lot more to experience in the world than just pharmaceuticals. I got a call to join a high-tech company as a process engineer where I would be developing technologies intended for 10–20 years into the future. It was out of my element, but it was a great learning experience. Over time, I learned more about different types of companies and jobs from people in the industry, which led me to later move into the world of Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) product development. I found working in the CPG space to be very exciting and fulfilling, and loved watching the product I was developing appear on shelves within six to 12 months. My experience in CPG led me to work for a research consulting company where I collaborated with several CPG companies to develop new innovation platforms and identify new markets and opportunities. That opportunity led me to a local opportunity in private equity, where I was responsible for building out a new innovation team and pipeline for a paper converting company — a completely new area for me in terms of manufacturing.
The most illuminating period while serving in this role was when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I was one of the last people standing and had to work with our suppliers while supporting the layoffs and office closures. It was one of the most stressful times of my career, but I learned more in my 18 months in that role about business practices and operations than I had at any of my prior jobs. That last opportunity is also what led me to Novolex, where I have spent six years and have had such an amazing experience with a growing company that combines all my previous learnings in product development, team building and business integration.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
From an innovation standpoint, I would say the most interesting story has been the pivot we just made — and which is still evolving — from manufacturing our typical product line of food packaging to manufacturing PPE as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This new process has highlighted so many strong attributes of Novolex, ranging from the breadth of our manufacturing capabilities to the talent of our innovation team and engineers. For me personally, it has been an aggressive learning curve in the regulatory environment for PPE and medical devices — a true example of building a plane while we are flying.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my CPG career, I managed a team that developed all the product claims and product performance data for competing products. One day in a town hall, the CEO of a nearly $6B company mentioned he would be interested in understanding more about our product performance. My data-driven mind said “I have that data”, so I emailed him and said I would be happy to send some product overview information (keep in mind, I had just come from a $1.5B company where I was in meetings with the CEO on a regular basis). I got an email back that said, “please set up a meeting.” It was at that point that I had a bit of an ‘Oh Sh*t’ moment, realizing that the chain of command was very different and that may have not been the best approach. We eventually had the meeting, but it took multiple deck iterations and multiple meetings with multiple parties to get there.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of my first managers when I worked in high-tech really grounded me with his words of wisdom around working in corporate environments. I still use his counsel today when coaching my team and practicing self-reflection. They may seem basic, but it is surprising how you can lose sight of them:
- Trust your coworkers. They may not do it how you do it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right.
- Think about what you could have done differently to improve an outcome. In any situation, always focus on your role in the process, regardless of who was responsible for a mistake that may have been made.
- Provide solutions for problem statements.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
For me it is two things:
- I have to do high intensity workouts in the morning, such as running, CrossFit, or peloton — basically anything with a target and end goal. It clears my head, provides a goal to complete in the morning, and gives me 60 minutes out of the day to focus on something other than work.
- In the moment, I focus on taking a breath and pausing before responding, especially when things may be heated.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons on why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s all about perspective. Diversity, no matter in what form, provides more data points to make better informed decisions for the company as a whole. There have been many times in leadership team meetings where a point of view arises that could only come from an individual’s specific experience because of their particular background. Those points of view and these experiences have made it clear that diversity makes our teams stronger and our leaders better.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Build a workplace that enables respect and success for all employees: Promote a culture of inclusion where employees feel empowered to both bring their genuine selves to work, and their ideas to the table — no matter their role. Our CEO refers to all employees as family members and we carry through on that approach whenever possible. For example, when someone is ill or there is a death in the family, we try to support that person with engagement that goes beyond the factory door.
- Build a culture where people come first: Our Chief Commercial Officer at Novolex — Paul Frantz — often says that the strength of a brand — and the key to its success — is not in its scale, but in its people. When Covid-19 hit, Novolex realized we might be able to make PPE with our plastics production equipment to help address the shortage; however, we’d never produced any medical supplies. We pulled together a diverse team of product developers and engineers and — all by video conferencing twice a day — designed, tested, and launched both face shields and medical isolation gowns in weeks, rather than eight to twelve months (which is the more typical product development timeframe). Both men and women, people with different heritages and all with great expertise came together to bring this idea to fruition.
- Strengthen equity within the communities surrounding your organization: I find the best sense of community in a corporate culture is when the leadership supports activities around diversity or community support. I have been at companies with diversity groups who sponsored events that all employees could participate in: 5K’s, local soup kitchen volunteering, meals, and other outreach and it really drove a sense of community and awareness of the company’s diverse culture.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Executives need to represent the company both internally and externally and should understand all facets of the business. That understanding may not be as detailed as the executive’s knowledge of his or her role in the business, but leaders should know enough about all components to speak intelligently about it when asked.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Being a CEO or an executive doesn’t require a specific educational pedigree or knowing every detail about a business. It’s more about the leadership skills and knowing what questions to ask.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being a mom — especially of younger kids — can be a challenge with a demanding career. While the societal norm is shifting, it was only just a few years ago that my daughter’s teacher asked her if she was having a difficult time because her mom “worked and was gone a lot” as a result of me being unable to attend events during the week due to travel and meetings.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
A transition for me has been the need to rely more on delegation. As the role gets larger, you can no longer be as deep in all the details. It’s good for empowering up-and-coming leaders and providing a coaching opportunity for them to understand what information should be relayed.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Many corporate professionals say that the only way to move up is to manage people, and some people just don’t possess the skills to be a good people manager. They may be great individual contributors, but not good managers. Executives inherently need to be able to manage people both directly and indirectly. It takes a level of EQ in addition to IQ.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find the successful people in the organization and identify what makes them effective. From there, identify how you can masterfully develop those skills.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
From a work standpoint, I focus on developing products with true consumer and customer benefits. From a personal standpoint, I try to set an example to my kids and their friends and talk to them about the different types of jobs and careers that are out there. For instance, when I was younger, I was unaware of all the possible career options out there. If anyone had told me what I am doing now when I was in college, I would have had no idea what they were talking about.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Get comfortable with conflict and feedback: While now I understand how to manage it and that the best way to approach it is head on, it was initially hard for me to not take conflict personally and I would avoid it.
- Perception is reality: As a data driven person, I was always under the impression that the facts will prevail. However, if not presented properly, even good data can be just as problematic as faulty or bad data.
- Find a place to work that makes you want to go every day: In my first “real” corporate job, I met a lot of great people and learned a lot of new things, but I didn’t love the culture and the type of work. It took me a while to figure that out. I am an extremely committed person who doesn’t like to “quit” anything. So, I struggled with the fact that I was “giving up.” When I finally made the move, I realized how motivating and fulfilling it was to be doing something that I really loved.
- Learn to ask for what you want: It’s easy to just expect you will get rewarded or coached for what you need to do to get to the next level or to do your job effectively; however, knowing how and when to ask for what you want is the key to success.
- Not everyone processes information like you do: I have always been a fast processor and not always the most patient. It took me a while to understand that the way I take in information and make decisions isn’t the same as others. Typical personality and Meyers Briggs type of assessments have taught me a lot, but it would have been great to have had that insight earlier in my career. It not only helps you be a stronger colleague, but also a stronger manager who better understands where people are coming from.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It would be for everyone to give out five compliments a day. We always tend to focus on the negative, but if we challenged ourselves to offer positive statements more, it would promote a sense of teamwork and make people feel better about themselves. Personally, this would make a huge difference, as I’m not comfortable with receiving compliments and, as a result, I tend not to compliment others. While it’s not something I’m comfortable with, I recognize the importance of it and have seen the impact of celebrating the positives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
I was scared to death of chemistry when I went to college. In fact, I tried to avoid it. Despite being awarded a full scholarship and graduating in the top 5% of my class, I had the impression that I wasn’t as smart as others and only “smart people should take chemistry”. I had a professor tell me “you know you are actually good at this.” I ended up getting an American Chemical Society (ACS) Advanced Degree in Chemistry. When applying for grad school, I decided to get a master’s degree because I didn’t think I could get a PhD. Once I was in the master’s program, I talked myself into the PhD and never looked back. I think it’s easy to underestimate what you are capable of and sometimes, the outcomes of ignoring the doubt and jumping in with both feet will surprise you.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would have loved the opportunity to sit down with Margaret Thatcher (also a chemist), the first female prime minister and the longest serving in the 20th century. Her ability to command respect in a male dominated profession during a male dominated era — and with a sense of humor — is impressive to me.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.