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Lessons on Busting Through the Glass Ceiling

I am often asked, “How did you do it? How did you become the CEO of a $10 billion dollar international, traditionally German-led company?”

It’s a common question, considering I am the first American and first female to serve in this role. As I often respond, it’s not just about delivering the business results or having passion for your industry—it’s truly a dedicated balance between creating a collaborative spirit for your teams to thrive, and delivering outstanding results based on the needs of your customer.

Two distinctive activities supported my career success:

Taking on big challenges and risks. I’ve changed industries more than six times and held a variety of leadership roles. These opportunities allowed me to run very different businesses and turn each around by focusing on the marketplace and changing industry dynamics.

To do this, I was always willing to take on what appeared to be risky roles, but ones that I thought, given my passions and interests, I could do well at. The road to the top was never a straight line. Sometimes you need to take on challenges that are different, and with different organizations to get there. So when those doors were opened for me, I walked right through.

Creating a collaborative spirit. This is so important in any role you are in throughout your career. Today, with the volatile markets, with uncertainty in the market and several generations working together, you can’t succeed without it. People need to be put at ease with each other to create a winning spirit that celebrates diverse perspectives based on different genders, generations, and geographies. I refer to these as the “3Gs” of diversity.

"I always found it important to not be perceived as “the smartest girl in the room." -CEO, Bayer CropScience

As one of the few senior female women in various companies and meetings I always found it important to not be perceived as “the smartest girl in the room.” The unintended consequence of this behavior is that colleagues would think it was done to make “the smart girl” look better at the expense of her colleagues. I always try to work collaboratively with my colleagues and was appreciated for what I contributed and how I helped my colleagues succeed as well.

This is counterintuitive to women. We often believe that if we just work harder and produce more by ourselves we will be recognized and succeed. I often share this with young women leaders at Bayer because I feel it’s important to realize you can’t do it all alone. You need the support and collaboration of others to truly be successful.

Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report
Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report

As women working toward leadership positions, we need to recognize that frequently we are the only female in the room and being “different” is not comfortable. While this is evolving, it’s still not ingrained into every culture in every industry that there is strength and power in diversity of experience, gender, and culture. Time and practice will make this a norm, eventually!

My advice: View yourself as a pioneer in your own career. Set out to be the best at your game and understand that you’ll make sacrifices, trade-offs, and changes during your journey. Only you can decide proactively what is important in both your personal life and work life, what you’ll go for always, and what you will not compromise on. From there, walk through the doors when they’re opened. Try it — you may just find it’s the next great step in your journey to the top.

Sandra E. Peterson is Chief Executive Officer of Bayer CropScience and Chairman of the Board of Management of Bayer CropScience since Oct. 1, 2010.