As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Peterson who leads Human Resources for Wells Fargo Commercial Capital. She is responsible for developing HR strategy and aligning HR capabilities to support business transformation and performance objectives, including organization optimization, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, talent development and compensation strategy.
Ann has held a number of high impact roles in the financial industry and supported multiple large scale M&A deals as well as leadership roles in major markets and enterprise networks. Ann has supported a variety of business functions across a broad number of industries including the United States Army where she served as an enlisted soldier, noncommissioned and commissioned officer.
Ann holds an MBA and Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Colorado. Based in Charlotte, NC, Ann is also a certified nutritionist and wellness coach.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was the youngest of nine children and grew up in a rural Nebraska town. When I was three, my father was killed in a tragic farming accident, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Through a tremendous amount of faith and inner strength, my mother beat cancer and raised me and my siblings as a single mother. With no real support system, I watched her demonstrate tremendous resiliency, a trait I have always admired and still find incredibly valuable today, and something I try to influence in my teenage daughter and the teams I have been fortunate enough to lead.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Today I am a Human Resources leader supporting Wells Fargo Commercial Capital, a group of market-leading businesses, with nearly 6,000 employees that provide specialized lending, investing and servicing to more than 400,000 unique customers globally through asset-based lending, equipment finance, floor planning and other secured financing.
The group is currently focused on a large-scale transformation to streamline its organizational model, leverage technology to make it easier for our clients to do business with us, all while strengthening the overall employee experience. It is very aggressive and exciting work, and I have the opportunity to influence meaningful, long-term change to establish a world-class organization with optimal business and technology alignment to attract, develop and retain the best talent.
In my role, I also support Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives, which leaders throughout the company are very passionate about. I am fortunate to work for an organization that supports veterans, and one program I am especially proud that Wells Fargo works with is American Corporate Partners. Through the program, I’ve been matched with several women and diverse military veterans for mentorship, and it’s been both a rewarding experience for me and, most importantly, an opportunity to help others make the successful transition. Wells Fargo has many programs for current and former military members and their families, including financial resources, career preparation, and internship opportunities and housing affordability and down payment assistance programs.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
While attending the University of Nebraska during the first Gulf War, I was uncertain about what direction I should take my career. A friend and I started talking to the on-campus military recruiter, and I could see how the training, leadership skills and world travel could open new doors for me. My friend ended up not joining at the last minute and I had to make the decision if the military was the right choice for me.
Thankfully, I joined as an enlisted soldier with the U.S. Army and, after training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, I was stationed in Baumholder, Germany. At 21 years old, I found myself responsible for the accounting books for billions of dollars in ammunition. I was quickly promoted to a noncommissioned officer, which is an officer tasked with helping to execute military missions. I was then selected for Officer Candidate School and became a commissioned officer, which is more of a leadership role. I thrived in the military classroom and the hands-on learning environment where I was introduced to tactical and strategic military leadership concepts. We were given extensive classroom training on leadership principles and tactical maneuvers and had to simulate these principles in real world scenarios.
I spent three years in Europe and soaked up everything I could from my leaders and worked evenings and weekends to finish my undergrad. I was then moved to Fort Carson, Colorado where I completed my military career. I made the difficult decision to turn down flight school and leave the military to go to graduate school and complete my MBA, something I never dreamed I was capable of.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
When I was 23 years old, I was selected to brief the Army Chief of Staff on a Global Leader Joint Military Exercise, which simulated the Cold War with the U.S. and several other NATO nations. I was beyond nervous, but I was very disciplined in my approach to learn and be familiar with the content so I could speak to it credibly in front of an audience of top military leaders. I stood on the stage for what seemed like an eternity and presented my 15-minute overview, prayed no one would ask a question and somehow I managed to get through it and not to allow them to see my knees shaking, my palms sweating and my heart racing.
A decade later, I happened to be at a military gala and I recognized this former Army Chief of Staff, who was now retired. I approached him to shake his hand and mentioned that we had met years prior in Europe when I briefed him. To my amazement, he remembered me, and was very impressed with how I conducted the entire presentation flawlessly without one cue card or prompt. This experience made me realize that through all the hierarchies we encounter in the military and corporate life, we are all simply human. I often remind myself of this as a leader and bring my genuine self to work every day and create an inclusive environment where employees can be heard and feel their perspectives are valued.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
I have worked alongside soldiers who have experienced severe crisis in combat situations and sustained injuries, both visible and non-evident. These people use their experiences to teach others how to deal with overwhelming circumstances. I especially admire their ability to look past their circumstances and make good out of what may seem like an unimaginable challenge.
I am fortunate enough to know a gentleman who is a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his heroic service in Afghanistan, which he received for his role in a nearly impossible fire fight situation where he did not abandon his team under heavy fire and administered lifesaving medical aid. Although he could have protected himself, he chose to stay and make sure that every single one of his soldiers made it out that day, even if it could have cost him his own life. When praised for this, he is incredibly humble and refuses to use his experience for his own personal gain and will only agree to engage when it benefits other veterans.
Military stories like this amaze and humble me because their willingness to put their own lives on the line for the safety and security of our nation and their team members is un-paralleled to any of the things that we do every day in a typical working environment.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I define a hero as someone who sacrifices themselves for others, goes above and beyond and remains humble.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
Definitely not. I think anyone who exhibits self-awareness and the ability to adapt and overcome adverse circumstances and uses those learnings to help others overcome their own personal hardships is a hero. I think of single parents, medical professionals, and people with significant life challenges who show up every day with positive attitudes, live their best lives and do their best to help others despite the adversity life throws at them. These individuals are absolutely heroic.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Take care of your well-being.
I cannot advocate enough for a healthy diet, fluids, rest and exercise. These tools allow you to be at your best and achieve your dreams.
Be self-aware and recognize that your actions impact others.
In the military, your actions impact life and liberty. If I failed to do something in the military, my team was punished along with me, which created self-discipline and an accountability to others.
Dig deep inside yourself for the courage to make it through even the most challenging situation.
When given impossible scenarios in the military, you had no choice or you would not survive, let alone succeed. I was often in less than ideal situations during my service and I would force myself to embrace the task-at-hand because it was affording me the opportunity to grow and expand my appreciation for the most basic things such as clean water, hot food and a comfortable bed. I still remind myself, ”I can do anything for an hour… a day… a week…” There is always an ending.
Practice self-discipline and master your trade.
This will reflect in your work, your personal brand and ultimately your confidence and success. As a young leader in the military, I had to lead by example and influence soldiers that were often my senior and had a lot more life and military experience than I had. I worked hard, studied and became an expert in my field and relied on facts and data to present a compelling argument for change or action. I still use this today to gain credibility and influence those around me.
Sign up for things that seem like a reach.
This will force to you to rise to the accomplishment and build your confidence along the way. Even when I feel I am at my capacity, I tend to jump in when challenges present themselves, and this ultimately has served me well.
Allow others to see that you are human.
Know who you are, own your opportunities and be confident enough to acknowledge them and allow others to embrace theirs as well. It’s almost impossible not to appreciate someone when you really get to know them.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Absolutely, the leadership development training I received in the Army taught me how to deal with complex issues, challenging timelines and how to respond to failures. Because of these experiences, I am able to quickly assess complex situations, examine known facts, make decisions, and move forward. When asked by a colleague how I remain so calm and resilient in some of the most challenging situations, I say that the military conditioned me for this.
The greatest part of what I do today is that there are no lives or limbs at risk and I get to take a shower tonight, eat a good meal with my daughter and sleep on a comfortable bed. These are privileges that no one should ever take for granted.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
Fortunately, I did not struggle, but I have watched others go through it. This issue is real and does not receive enough attention or resources and I would like to see more programs that assist Veterans and their successful transition.
I have seen successful programs that are focused on overall wellness that have very positive impacts. I personally have continued to practice the physical fitness and wellness routine that the military instilled in me. When I have been in my most stressful civilian career situations, intuitively, I knew to double down on healthy eating, drinking plenty of water, and focusing on rest and exercise. I share this often because it has served me well and I enjoy seeing others thrive with an active and healthy lifestyle.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am fortunate enough to be part of a large-scale global corporate transformation where I am required to leverage my background and skills to influence leaders and drive sustainable change. Through this work, we are also creating a long-term, sustainable process to improve the development and advancement of underrepresented groups in all dimensions of diversity.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
- Know your team and understand what motivates them as well as what does not.
- Demonstrate genuine interest in them and create a collaborative and inclusive environment.
- Respect your differences and use these differences to develop the collective team.
- Set proper expectations and confirm understanding.
- Have the tough performance conversations around opportunities and create an environment where feedback feels like a gift to help them succeed.
- Share relevant and timely recognition in a way that resonates with your audience.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
- Be present and demonstrate your willingness to dive deep into the work, but do not forget to pull back up and lead the team.
- Set expectations, follow consistent routines and check-ins and provide ongoing feedback.
- Encourage the team to use facts and data to address systemic issues and influence change.
- Allow people to fail, and be sure to showcase their successes.
- Create an environment that allows genuine conversations to create an authentic, collaborative team.
- Have fun!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have never had a specific mentor, but rather adopted the strategy that everyone I worked with had something to offer me, good or bad. I have been fortunate enough to have a very diverse background with a lot of exposure to different types of leaders. I have had several leaders believe in me and encourage me and I have had leaders challenge me beyond what I thought I could accomplish. Both made me stronger in different ways, and I am eternally grateful.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
No matter the life experience, I like to share my learnings with others. I was fortunate enough to watch all my siblings growing up. I learned a lot from their successes and failures and one day realized that, when you are genuine and transparent around your learning along the way, you can inspire others with your own truth. I have done formal mentoring with various programs and different councils, but I would really like to do more around driving sustainable, systematic change at the most basic level. I try to insert humor and add levity to engage our younger talent and I think it is really cool to know you can help someone just by sharing you own experiences.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Hands down, wellness. I am a huge advocate of education and understanding how diet and exercise impact our whole being. Wellness encompasses how we look and feel, how we perform and how resilient we are against harsh environments. I have always had a fascination with how our bodies work and that we are comprised of millions of cells that just function every day and we don’t even really need to think about it. I have come to realize it isn’t quite that simple, and that the choices we make and our ability to deal with stress and disease are fully incumbent upon us.
I think as a society, we have really gone the wrong direction with nutrition but I am slowly seeing a shift to the positive happen. I am proud of the pioneers who have gone against the grain and influenced this change and reform. Simple, small actions can make a big difference; I want people to understand how these little things can give them a longer and more fulfilling life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? May you live all the days of your life. ~Jonathan Swift
Like Gulliver in “Gulliver’s Travels,” I have found that life is a series of adventures you can’t always predict and you have to have a sense of humility and humor and embrace the culmination of all the lessons learned along the way.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Condoleezza Rice. She grew up in a segregated Alabama town and was raised to believe she could face adversity with education, hard work and an appreciation for other cultures.
With this resilient mindset and her commitment to lifelong learning, she was wildly successful, becoming the first African-American woman named Secretary of State, which followed a number of progressive public appointments.
Her background and success demonstrate an appreciation and passion for a multitude of subjects from music to nuclear warfare to economics. She has been affiliated with both the Democratic and Republican parties, which lends itself to bipartisanship and an appreciation for both sides of the equation.
After breaking down many barriers for women and African Americans in the political arena, she is currently the Director of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, my 17-year old daughter’s dream school, and serves on the board of directors for two large corporations.
Considering her vast experience and diverse background, I would enjoy hearing her current view on the world and what she plans to do in her next chapter as she is clearly “living all the days of her life” to the fullest!