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Paula Petersen

What business means to Paula Petersen.

Since the age of three, Paula Petersen has always known she wanted to be a banker. She grew up watching her dad work with customers in the bank he managed. Though she briefly put her dream on hold to work in a skating rink and then sell shoes, it was finally realized when she started working in a bank branch in high school.

But she realized that the magic – for her – wasn’t in the tasks of the job, like she always thought. It was helping customers solve problems.

Today, Paula is executive vice president and director of strategy, marketing and finance at Commerce Bank. No longer in the branch, she oversees many of the groups working “behind the scenes” to help Commerce staff anticipate, understand and solve for people’s financial challenges. From assisting customers with loan payments to developing marketing campaigns and following emerging technology trends, Paula’s teams handle a variety of challenges across the organization.

When you talk to Paula, it’s clear her passion lies in helping people, whether that’s customers, colleagues or members of her team. In honor of her dedication, the Kansas City Business Journal named Paula one of the Women Who Mean Business for 2018. The awards recognize professional women who have made significant contributions to their business or industry, as well as their community. We know Paula means business, but we thought it might be interesting to sit down with Paula and learn what business means to her, now that she’s living her three-year old self’s dream.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?

I have huge respect for the staff in our branches for resolving questions on the spot while also delivering high-touch customer service. But what people may not realize, and I certainly didn’t when I was younger, is that banking goes beyond what you see in the branch. Behind every interaction, there are even more people working in the background to make sure everything goes smoothly. My teams often get the call when something goes wrong, and that’s never a fun place to be. But, it gives us an opportunity to ease stress for our colleagues and the customer by digging in and solving the problem.

We also get to work on different types of uniquely challenging problems. Our loan servicing department once worked with a customer to restore their credit after they had experienced some payment challenges. When there’s a discrepancy with a customer’s account, we’re usually the ones to find the root of the issue and get it corrected. Then, there was once a customer that was about to go abroad and needed a credit card in time for their trip. We kept their application moving so that they’d get it in time, and they did.

For my strategy and analytics teams, I like how we get to proactively think about solutions we can offer to help people with their financial needs, as well as how we can customize our products even further as we get to know our customers better. Our marketing team finds creative ways to make sure people know we’re here and can help, and finance is working across the organization to ensure we remain a strong bank for another 150 years.

What would you say to someone interested in banking?

There are so many different career opportunities in the industry, whether you’re interested in math, science or even a creative field. You can get involved with data analytics, information technology and even video production working at a bank. Take me for instance: I knew I wanted to be in banking, but I never would’ve guessed I’d be doing what I do today – and I love it. The key is to stay curious, look online at different opportunities with a company and network as much as you can.

What does the future of banking look like?

Our strategy team is always keeping an eye on this. We like to think beyond banking and about how what’s happening in the world or other industries might affect our industry and company moving forward. We try to stay on top of changes in the economy, technology and around consumer preferences and social norms.

For instance, now you can buy something on Amazon and have it shipped to you in a day or two. That is changing customer expectations for service, including for banking. We’re figuring out how to balance how we’ve traditionally done things with the ways we need to evolve as we move into the future.

We also look at generational themes. Millennials tend to be a bit warier of banking. So, we talk about how to change what we do as an industry to be more appealing to our future customers.

What advice would you give someone starting their career?

Early on, I had a boss who told me to always have a plan: Know what you want to be doing a year from now, three years from now and so on. Write it down. You may not follow the plan exactly, but being clear with yourself helps you communicate it to others, and they can help you seize opportunities. Then, keep developing yourself, learning as much as you can about your company and experiencing new things – even if they don’t perfectly align with your plan. Do your day job but also look for ways to get involved in other things happening in the company. How do you balance your career and personal life? I try to be deliberate about how I spend my time, and I prioritize based on what’s most important at work, for my personal goals and for my family. It can be hard to say no to people, especially since others have been generous with their time, but I’ve learned overtime how important it is. Otherwise I end up shortchanging the people I’m trying to help, including my family.

Mentors at work have helped me figure out how to prioritize, and as my kids got older they became more vocal about spending time together. Then, when I went through our Commerce Bank culture program, called EDGE, I was struck by the concept “be here now”, which is about slowing down, paying attention and living in the moment. I try to “be here now” in several ways, including taking a yoga class every Monday and Wednesday. I’m able to quiet my mind, focus on my breathing, be fully relaxed and present. I’ve blocked the time on my calendar, and my team helps me get out on time.

On any given day, the work Paula’s teams do may benefit a visitor to a bank branch, a colleague launching a new product or a department head trying to understand young families’ financial challenges. Though she may not be working with customers in the branch, Paula has fulfilled her dream job solving problems for people. For Paula Petersen, business means helping people, and that’s why she means business.

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