For this Commerce leader, banking truly is a family business.
It’s fair to say that very few people accurately predict their future career path before they start preschool. Paula Petersen is one of them. “I figured out what I wanted to be at the ripe old age of 3,” she says. “My dad was a banker. He got to wear nice clothes and had an office. When we were out and about, everyone knew him and would thank him for helping them. I remember thinking, ‘What could be cooler than that?’ It stuck with me.”
The 3-year-old version of Petersen turned out to be right; she got her first job in banking during her senior year of high school, and she’s built her entire career in the industry. During her almost four decades in banking (31 of those at Commerce), she’s had a wide variety of roles, both in branches and behind the scenes in Commercial Credit, product management and other corporate roles.
Petersen’s breadth of experience has served her well, as evidenced by her recently being named executive vice president of Commerce Bancshares, Inc., the parent company of Commerce Bank. The new position marks a significant expansion of Petersen’s role. In addition to her strategic support services responsibilities, she will add oversight for retail banking and customer support to her consumer credit card, mortgage and indirect lending responsibilities.
It’s an opportunity Petersen is excited to take on. “I’m following people who have done this job for a long time, so I’m stepping into some giant shoes,” she says. “That’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. What’s nice is that I’m working alongside good, strong leaders, and I’ll get to learn from them.”
Petersen adds that she’s honored to take on her new position.
“When I started at Commerce 31 years ago, I never thought I’d be in a role like this, but I’ve been lucky to be at the right place at the right time.”
“I’m surrounded by incredibly smart people, and we all push each other to get better. That helps our customers in the long run. On top of that, to be in a leadership position at an organization where the core values match my own really means a lot.”
Those core values have been a key element of Petersen’s career at Commerce. She has been the executive sponsor of PRIDE, Commerce’s employee resource group (ERG) supporting the LGBTQIA+ community; and RISE, the bank’s ERG supporting women; and has been involved with each group since their inception.
Of PRIDE, Petersen says the amount of excitement she felt from other team members about the idea of this ERG was inspiring.
“The passion that people clearly had for the formation of this group was energizing, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
“I raised my hand to be involved. ERGs like PRIDE support our desire for everybody at Commerce to feel comfortable being their authentic selves at work. That’s very important to me as a core value.”
Prior to her involvement with PRIDE, Petersen impacted Commerce’s value system as the bank’s Enterprise Culture Champion. It’s work she’s very proud of. “Ten years ago, we recognized that the world was changing, and we wanted to change with it, so we began a culture-shaping journey,” she says. “I think if people could look inside our organization and see the caliber of people who work here today, they would flock to do business with us, either as a customer or by joining us as a team member.”
Her commitment to the bank’s culture and values extends to her leadership in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). As part of her role, Petersen is leading a significant effort to support DEI at Commerce.
“DEI programs are nothing new at Commerce, and we’ve made great strides, but we see the opportunity to accelerate our progress.”
“We’ve made a formal commitment to build on this foundation and elevated DEI to ‘Corporate Blue Chip’ status in our organization, which is our way of indicating that it’s one of our top priorities.”
Petersen notes that Commerce believes diversity is a critical element for success. “Diversity fosters innovation,” she says. “Each of us sees the world through our own unique set of filters. Surrounding ourselves with people who are different from us is the best way to tackle an issue or create a new product; it provides the benefit of seeing things through many different lenses. In the end, this approach benefits our customers, because it results in creative products and services that work really well for them.”
While it’s clear that Petersen has a lot on her plate, Chuck Kim, Commerce’s chief financial officer, is confident she’s up to the task. “I’ve worked with her for more than 25 years at this point, and I’ve learned that if you want something to get done, give it to Paula,” he says.
“She’s very persistent and puts a ton of effort into making sure things get across the finish line. I never have to worry about whether Paula’s making progress on her objectives; she always is.”
— Chuck Kim
Kim adds that one of Petersen’s many qualities is her willingness to learn. “She’s a great student,” he says. “She’ll study up on a subject if it’s new to her, and she’s always prepared. She’s willing to take on difficult tasks, and she can handle it. She gets things done in a way that not many people can.”
For her part, Petersen says her innate curiosity about learning new things is a key part of her ability to develop her skills. “I’ve always tried to keep a growth mindset,” she says. “I want to learn and absorb all that I can. Embracing new challenges is the best way to grow, and listening is a big part of that. There are plenty of examples of great leaders who didn’t always listen to other people. You have to be open to other people giving you feedback and sharing their perspectives. There’s always room to improve.”
Through it all, Petersen continues to be inspired by her father. “My dad is a big part of what makes me who I am,” she says. “Following in his footsteps has always been a goal. The shadow he cast was large and is one I aspire to duplicate.”
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