In today's era of business uncertainty, coupled with women's increasingly difficult ascent to the top of major corporations, one woman is successfully climbing the ladder two (or three) rungs at a time (often with a sidestep in between). I recently spoke with Sandra E. Peterson, CEO of Bayer CropScience -- a $10 billion business that's part of the German industrial giant Bayer AG.
Sandra Peterson, 52 and a New York City native, has an impressive resume showcasing her wealth of experience running product lines, businesses and entire divisions for the likes of Whirlpool, Nabisco, Merck-Medco and, finally, Bayer. In several cases she has taken on the challenge of turning around a business and making it profitable. Peterson says her road to the top was never a straight line, and she's always taken on risky roles. In fact, she thinks that women need to take more risks in order to get ahead.
"Most women I know who have been successful in business, it's because they've been willing to take on the risky challenge that other people would say, 'Oh, I'm not sure I want to do that.' If you look at my career, I've taken on a lot of risky roles. They were risky to some people, but to me it was, 'Wow, this is this great opportunity and it's allowing me to learn new things and take on a bigger role and a bigger organization.' But some people would view that as, 'Are you crazy? What do you know about diabetes, or what do you know about washing machines or the food industry or automobiles or the agricultural industry?'"
But Sandra has aligned purpose with passion -- choosing jobs that fit with her interests. In particular, she looks for positions that:
• offer an opportunity to think about the customer and the market differently,
• are global in nature;
• present innovation and technology challenges, particularly in science policy,
• can benefit from her goals of broadening diversity based on gender, geography and generation; and
• are turnaround situations with potential for future growth and innovation in the business.
Variety and New ChallengesSandra has worked in six different industries, and each of the high-profile senior executive jobs she's held over the past 20 years has presented welcomed challenges. Many women -- and men -- would prefer not to start afresh with a new company and organization over and over again. I asked her how she approached these situations.
"When I walk into a new organization and I don't know the industry or the people, which has always been the case, I do a few things. One is I think about the business from the outside in. I spend a fair amount of time early on with customers [to] understand what the market wants and needs versus what we want to sell them. Those are two very different things, right? And so I spend time outside directly interacting with customers, but then interacting with the people on the front lines like the sales and marketing people."
She also tells everyone to expect her to ask a lot of questions. Sandra meets with people at various levels in the organization to get a sense of what is working well and what needs improvement.
"One of the things I've learned is people are smart and they understand what should be done. They understand what the challenges are, but they're not always able to have their voices heard."
Based on the input she gets, Sandra then gives key people more prominent leadership roles, which she finds unleashes a torrent of positive energy throughout the organization.
This is the first post in a series about Sandra Peterson, CEO of Bayer CropScience. In the next post, I'll examine Sandra's leadership philosophy and approach for mentoring middle management in her organization.
This post first appeared on Forbes.com.