Kathleen Taylor ’87
Whether managing processes, people, or a high-stakes spin-off at Johnson & Johnson, industrial engineer Kathleen Taylor ’87 rises to the challenge

When Johnson & Johnson unveiled its plan to spin off its consumer health division, home to big-name brands such as Tylenol and Neutrogena, Kathleen Taylor ’87 found herself at a crossroads. “It was 2021 and I was running manufacturing for the Americas for the division,” says the industrial engineering alumna. “Over the course of a weekend, I had to digest what was going on. How was this going to affect the rest of my career?” Having risen from a third-shift manufacturing supervisor to managing a plant in Mexico to directing global pharmaceutical and medical device supply chains—just a snapshot of her trajectory over 35 years with J&J—Taylor embraced yet another new challenge: leading the engineering and property services separation of Kenvue, now the world’s largest pure-play consumer health company by revenue. “It was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to set up essentially a multi-billion-dollar Fortune 500 company from scratch.” Newly retired from her post as Global VP of Engineering and Property Services, Taylor continues to channel her expertise back to the Rossin College through the Dean’s Advisory Council. “Re-engaging with Lehigh over the years and sharing my industry perspective has been so energizing.”

Q: What was it like to launch Kenvue?

I spent the past two years separating all of Kenvue’s real estate and facilities, which was complex, because J&J is a conglomerate of acquired companies. Most of the engineering and real estate facilities management people did not map over, so I had to start a whole new leadership structure and hire a full new team—everyone from regional VPs to construction directors to facilities directors across the world—in just a year. That was an enormously daunting task, not to mention figuring out how we would we run our facilities. We had to set that all up, while keeping everything—customer service, facilities, projects, and our workforce—moving forward during an incredible time of change.

It was a fascinating experience, and one that I could have because of my confidence in getting out of my comfort zone and taking advantage of opportunities when they came up. A theme in my career has been doing things I maybe wasn’t an expert in, but I felt I had enough experience and knowledge to be successful. When change happens, you might think, This is terrible. This isn't what I wanted. But mourning that is not productive. I was able to say: How do I make this a learning experience use my talent to help drive success?

Q: How does your career path compare to what you had envisioned as a Lehigh graduate?

My approach hasn't been to set goals on specific positions. I’ve focused more on learning and building experience. I particularly wanted to live in different places and learn how companies and manufacturing worked.

My first job as a supervisor reinforced how much I loved to understand how machines work and how products are made. Manufacturing processes are fascinating to me, and that curiosity helped make me successful. I would learn how a product was made, so that I could look at how we could do it better. I’d study how people worked, look for bottlenecks, and figure out how to help them be more successful. I was able to pivot from being an engineer and a supervisor in manufacturing to being a leader of people.

Living and working in another country builds greater awareness not only of other cultures but also your own. I wasn’t really aware of my predispositions until I moved to Mexico or was living in Europe. All of a sudden you question—why do I think or do things that way? I was initially very resistant to the idea of working in Mexico, at a time when lots of manufacturing was moving there. I had all these stereotypes in my brain. Working in Mexico opened me to a whole new perspective. I feel very fortunate that I said yes to those opportunities and challenged myself to be uncomfortable. It’s not a bad thing. One of the biggest dangers, especially in this work-from-home environment, may be that we are too focused on what's comfortable, versus recognizing the value of growth that’s possible from being uncomfortable. In situations where I’ve had to change is where I’ve seen myself grow the most.

Q: What’s different about leading a process like manufacturing versus leading people?

As an engineer, part of your value is what you know, your expertise. But I learned early on that it also had to do with how I worked with people who might know things I didn’t. Often, they were manufacturing associates or maintenance staff, the electricians, the repair people in the shop. I further developed my technical knowledge by talking to people and understanding different perspectives.

As a people leader, your mentality shifts from “What do I know about that technology or science or process?” to “How do I learn what the people who work for me know about that? And how do I learn the value that each person brings to the table?” You can’t be the expert in everything. You need to respect their technical or process or business areas of expertise. You need to piece together that puzzle for a team to be successful.

Leaders are often successful because they have technical expertise or a unique niche of knowledge. The challenge they face in moving up is learning how to rely less on that muscle in themselves and more on that muscle in others. How do you recognize what your colleague is an expert in and what they bring to the table? It isn't about being smarter than the people you lead; it's about being smart enough to identify how you can support their success. That's a key difference. It takes humility to recognize you're not always the expert in everything. And the biggest failure is to think you have to be or to think you are when you aren't.

It isn't about being smarter than the people you lead; it's about being smart enough to identify how you can support their success.

Q: How have automation and technology played a role in your career?

I’ve seen automation take on jobs we thought required humans. Now, you’d never envision a person doing these tasks for safety, efficiency, or cost reasons. I was able to play a role in that transition. I spent a good part of my career at J&J in the manufacturing of medical products. I saw us automate so much. I was involved in implementing vision systems for inspection and automating packaging operations. We looked at how systems interfaced with equipment and allowed us to continuously optimize based on data and performance, whether making changes to raw materials or responding to demand in the marketplace. All of that has shortened the supply chain, from what we make to what we supply out to customers, and allows us to respond faster to how rapidly the world and what people want changes.

Artificial intelligence can give us insights and knowledge, and its future in industry is going to depend heavily on leadership's ability to use AI in spaces that really matter—like improving product quality, employee performance, and the consumer experience. Even anticipating and connecting the dots on what’s going on in the world, whether it's weather patterns or consumer trends and behaviors, to how we manage supply chains. Companies that are able to harness AI and be first to get insights and respond are going to have an advantage.

Q: What is your advice to early-career engineers?

People get hung up on “this isn't my dream job,” but you can get something out of every job that you do. There certainly have been jobs in my career that weren’t really what I wanted. But life is not linear. You've got to take a lot of turns and pivots. Sometimes that path can be surprising. The third-shift job I took after Lehigh was not the highest paying nor the most glamorous. It was hard work, and at times, there were people who were very open to tell me they knew way more than me, and I was only a temporary blip on their radar screen. I matured a lot from that experience. Your learning and growth do not end with Lehigh. I'm currently taking an executive course on AI and business strategy at MIT, because I see the influence of AI in my day to day and that the possibility that it could open up a new door for me. I may be retired from J&J, but I’m not done learning yet.