When Paula Tolliver was growing up, she and her entrepreneur father did story problems—math applied to the real world—for fun. He was a self-taught engineer who founded and ran a machine products company in Nelsonville, Ohio; she loved math, and enjoyed the word problems they did together after her homework was done.
It’s no surprise then that when Paula, who today serves as Corporate Vice President, Business Services and CIO at The Dow Chemical Company, grew up and built a successful career as a top executive in technology, she wasn’t intimidated by being the only woman in the room (which happened often). “My confidence was built and instilled in me by my parents,” she notes. “I chose jobs where I knew I could make a difference, and I always came in with confidence rather than discomfort about being the only female.”
Paula graduated with a Bachelors of Business Admin from Ohio University. Initially drawn to computer science, she eventually realized that her real passion was in applying her technical understanding to solving business problems. The business side of IT gave her the opportunity to apply her math and analytical skills in a real-world setting.
Paula has built her career over more than 14 years at Dow. She considered moving on in order to gain a diversity of experience, before realizing that Dow offered an unparalleled breadth of opportunity. “In a company the size of Dow, you can have your cake and eat it too. I didn’t have the disruption of changing companies, rebuilding my capital, rebuilding relationships; I could build on what I had and still gain increasing responsibility in a company I enjoyed.”
Dow offered the ability to engage with many different lines of business and industries, as well as a chance to work internationally, gaining experience in various geographies.
Of course, Paula couldn’t help but notice that colleagues occasionally regarded her as a curiosity. “I went to Europe in 1996, where I was an American manager in a European business culture and the only woman in upper leadership in my business sector. My operations leader got a big kick out of setting up meetings with suppliers under the name P. Tolliver and watching their faces when I entered the room!” she laughs.
“Women colleagues would come by my office just to see what I looked like. Everyone was curious about a female executive. I felt a bit like a zoo animal, but I took it as an opportunity to educate and leave a positive impression.”
Paula never modified her personal style to fit into a largely male business culture, but she says she did develop herself over time to become an effective leader. “I learned three things,” she recounts. “I learned to acknowledge that different people value different things, and to engage and interact accordingly. As a leader, you have to modify your style with different team members to have the right impact on performance. Second, I learned very quickly to focus on financials, financials, financials; if you have aspirations for top leadership, you need to understand an income statement and a balance sheet and where you impact both. Third, I learned the art of negotiation through my purchasing role. That skill has made me more effective in selling ideas and managing deals.”
People often ask Paula how she juggles the many demands in her life, and she admits she hasn’t completely figured that out once and for all. “I’ve always been someone who tries very hard to preserve my weekends for family and friends,” she says. ”This gets harder as you move up in leadership, and I have not been able to maintain this in the last few years of my career. But for a long time, I made it a point to work late during the week so that I would be free of work on the weekends, and for me, that was the right way to refuel.”
She says that balance is a matter of knowing yourself and what works for you and makes you happy. “You really have to pay attention to your internal barometer,” she cautions. “I’m very conscious of when I need breaks, when I need to take care of myself—including exercise and eating—and when I need to nurture my relationships, because that keeps my whole self effective.”
Paula takes vacation time seriously. Her c-level status doesn’t really permit extended vacations, so she makes a point of scheduling mini getaways to keep things in perspective. Her last big trip was to Thailand, where she and a group of friends took cooking classes, boat trips, scuba diving excursions (diving is a personal passion), and rode elephants in the jungle.
“I’m as curious in my personal life as I am in my professional life!” she laughs.