Sandra E. Peterson ’80 speaks on campus Nov. 1.

Hatfield fellow calls for personally engaged leadership

Sandra E. Peterson ’80, the 36th Robert S. Hatfield Fellow in Economic Education, emphasized the importance of noticing economic trends and disruptions as part of an overarching historical cycle – and being prepared to meet these changes – in her Nov. 1 lecture.

“When you don’t know where you are going, everything is a surprise, and usually not a very pleasant one,” she said, noting that when leaders are unable to acknowledge and strategize for disruption, they are reduced to reacting to unanticipated events.

Until her retirement this fall, Peterson was group worldwide chair for Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest health care company. She has previously served as CEO of Bayer CropScience AG in Germany, CEO of Bayer Medical Care and president of Bayer HealthCare AG’s Diabetes Care Division. She is a member of the board of directors of Microsoft and of the Institute for Advanced Study and has appeared on Fortune magazine’s list of most powerful women.

Peterson also observed that to handle the kind of volatility we are experiencing today, leaders must take a very different approach than that which has been taught for the last century. Specifically, she said, impersonal leadership no longer works. While early in her career Peterson tried to keep her personality out of work to be taken seriously, she has found that empathy and engagement are essential to creating an open and innovative work environment. Not only does the fast-paced digital era necessitate this leadership style, Peterson said millennials and gen-z, both as employees and consumers, expect it from their leaders.

In response to globalization and diversification of customers, Peterson said companies need to reflect that diversity in their decision-making processes. One way she helped make Johnson & Johnson more global was placing their research and development center in Brazil, both a symbolic and strategic move. Beyond diversity in gender or culture, Peterson also advocates including more junior employees in decision making to lend a fresh perspective and energy. These moves will help companies stay innovative and predict the needs of their customers, she said.

In closing, Peterson reiterated the value of actively listening to employees’ goals and suggestions and valuing progress over one’s own ego. A leader’s most valuable phrase, Peterson said, is “I don’t know. What do you think?”

According to Mark W. Nelson, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of Cornell’s Johnson College of Business, the Hatfield fellowship is highest honor that Cornell bestows on an individual from the corporate sector. 

The Continental Group Foundation established the Robert S. Hatfield Fund for Economic Education at Cornell in 1980 to honor its retiring chairman, president and CEO of the Continental Group Inc. Among previous Hatfield Fellows are Jeffrey R. Immelt of General Electric; Henry M. Paulson Jr., former secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury; and Eric E. Schmidt, executive chairman of Google.

Elizabeth Kelley ’19 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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