A woman with long, dark hair smiles at the camera in an office. The Henkel logo is on the wall behind her.
Ruth Kelly. Image: Henkel

‘You can’t work in R&D and not be good at dealing with failure’

31 May 2022

Even with 20 years under her belt at Henkel, Ruth Kelly still gets a kick out of seeing products in hardware stores, knowing she was part of the team that put them there.

Ruth Kelly is the global head of product development, packaging and special projects at Henkel, having been with the company for more than 20 years.

She told SiliconRepublic.com that even as a small child, she was always destined for a career in science.

“I derived great pleasure from dismantling things and understanding how they worked. As I worked my way through school, my interest in science never waned and I was very clear on the path I wanted to take through higher education and into my working life.”

Kelly studied at DIT, now TU Dublin, and graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a PhD in chemistry before moving into the industry.

‘Don’t let other people’s definition of success impact the decisions you make about your career’

What brought you to your current job?

I have spent my career working in product development for Henkel’s consumer adhesives division. I moved through the ranks of chemist, senior chemist and technical lead – working on and managing projects to bring new innovations to the market.

A couple of years ago, I became product development manager and then recently moved into the role of global head of product development, packaging and special projects.

What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered on your career path?

The biggest surprise for me was that the business and strategic side of how the company worked interested me just as much as the science. Through collaboration with multifunctional teams across the globe, I had the chance to learn so much and to shape my career into something far beyond what I had ever imagined walking through the doors on day one.

The biggest challenge continues to be making sure I maintain a good balance between my work and family life. With three kids, it’s sometimes a juggling act! You quickly learn the importance of blocking time in your calendar for yourself and for family and friends, and not just for meetings. They are the best appointments, though.

Was there any one person who was particularly influential as your career developed?

While building your career is something you need to take ownership of for yourself, it is invaluable to have support around you. I was extremely blessed in my career to have a couple of people who helped me learn and grow and were always on hand to give advice or help me see a different side to any situation – both in management positions and among my peers.

No one can have all the answers, so opening yourself up to diversity of opinions and viewpoints helps you grow. I was also fortunate to have people in more senior positions recognise the potential I had to contribute more to Henkel and so help me find opportunities to expand my role.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love working in a multinational company. The interaction with people right across Henkel and the globe is brilliant, with each person having different skillsets and different roles. We all contribute to make one successful team.

Honestly, however, I still get the biggest kick when I walk into a hardware store and see a product hanging on the shelf, knowing I was part of the team that put it there!

What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to this job?

I am a resilient person – you can’t work in R&D and not be good at dealing with failure. If you are doing it correctly, research will hand you many failures on the path to an innovative success story.

I am also calm – though maybe everyone wouldn’t agree – and have a good analytical way of thinking. It helps to keep things on track, especially when dealing with large teams.

What can people expect from career progression in this industry?

Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you. You have to look out for yourself, be prepared to take a leap of faith and try something outside of your comfort zone. If you do this, then there are lots of exciting pathways you can take.

Being an employer of Henkel’s scale, there are job opportunities in different divisions, different functions, different countries, and Henkel is keen to support anyone who would like to make changes and try different roles. I always felt that there were opportunities available to me – it was up to me if I availed of them.

What advice would you give to those considering a career in this area?

The main piece of advice I would always give is that the definition of a successful career is different for everyone. For some it’s to experience different countries and roles. For others, it’s to find a role that suits them well and excel in that position. For others again, well, they might want to be CEO.

No one path is correct. Don’t let other people’s definition of success impact the decisions you make about your career. Find something that you enjoy doing and do it!

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