Economic patterns and the business models repeat throughout history, explained Sandra E. Peterson ’80, independent director of the Board of Directors for Microsoft, on Thursday during a talk on the importance of empathy in leadership.
“When the White House is occupied by some wealthy New Yorker, who is considered unfit and unqualified for the presidency, whose very election shocked his own party and even himself, and whose lifelong love of wealth and power invites incredible corruption to the highest levels of government,” Peterson said, “that’s very hard for business to contend to.”
“But do you know who I’m talking about? Chester Arthur, our 21st President,” she said, drawing the audience’s attention to the way political patterns repeat.
However, Peterson, Cornell’s 36th Robert S. Hatfield Fellow in Economic Education, explained that the fact that events fit an observed cycle “does not mean the same solutions apply.”
She compared the cycle of today’s digital revolution to that of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, a time filled with intense innovation and disruption.
The Industrial Revolution featured a hands-off, objective style of leadership that does not resonate with the millennial workforce today, “a generation that is used to open, transparent and constant communications.”
“Today, employees at all levels of leadership … have clearly defined expectations of business leaders,” Peterson said. “They expect you to be authentic, empathetic, consistent and engaged in and with the world — not silently and not even just internally.”
Peterson had to learn this the hard way. When she served as the Chairman and CEO of Bayer CropScience AG in Germany, she was met with a company that was going through radical restructuring — the company had entered a new cycle.
When she was asked to head the company, which had seen wild success in the past but was then floundering, Peterson moved to Germany and arrived on scene as an outsider.
“I’m an American. I am a woman. I am not a chemist or an expert in agriculture, but I was asked to move to Germany and take over a global business of over 12 billion dollars in revenue … I must have been crazy. I did say yes,” Peterson said.
“I spent the first six months listening and learning because I was an outsider and I had the humility to recognize that I had a lot to learn,” said Peterson. “Empathy and engagement … are active ways to determine and execute necessary changes.”
That approach proved to be effective according to Peterson because “within a year we had significantly improved our top line, bottom line and working capital.”
Peterson said her success in this case was the result of lessons learned years before when her husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
“When I had no choice but to drag my real self into work, I became a much better leader,” she said.
According to Peterson, “leadership today, in our current cycle, requires intellectual curiosity, continual learning, empathy and a willingness to be bold and experiment” and the ability to “ask questions and to learn from others.”
“When people know they are encouraged to think creatively, they are more likely to collaborate with others … and when they connect and collaborate it radiates out from the team,” she said.