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The Range

Former Boeing Exec Peri Widener On New WSU Program And Why Piano Made Her A Better Business Leader

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There was a time when Peri Widener thought she might make a career as a pianist.

Instead, she took her communications degree from Wichita State University and spent nearly 40 years with Boeing, retiring in 2017 as vice president and general manager for Global Services.

And she learned that her background in music and communications — plus a minor in business — was a strength in the international business world.

So she is funding the Widener Global Leaders Program at WSU’s Barton School of Business. Eight students a year will take business courses, but also classes in the College of Fine Arts, and the Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Widener says the multidisciplinary approach will better prepare students to succeed in business.

She talked with Tom Shine and The Range about the connection between music training and business; the Global Leaders Program; her career at Boeing; and why she still plays the piano.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

How musical training can help you in a business setting

If you think about the process of being a musician and what it takes and how you have to react in the moment based on the learned skill ... so you're in the middle of the performance and something doesn't go quite right, you don't telegraph that to the audience. You move on, and you still make it an enjoyable and appreciable experience.

Business is the same way. In a business environment, you can't always predict what's going to happen the next moment. And that ability to be quick on your feet, to be innovative, to be creative and to still deliver a good outcome is very similar to a musical experience.

The interplay of culture and business

For my team (at Boeing), I actually encouraged and supported them to arrive at least a day early if they were going to a region of the world where they'd never been, or a country where they'd never engaged before and spend that day acclimating by going to a local museum, going to key points of history and learning what they could. So that the first time they engaged with their customer, they would have some common conversations, some common understanding.

It turns out that that is a profound and important way to establish a business relationship. And these types of skills are big differentiators in the success of people, particularly in today's world, which is so interconnected, so complex.

Why diversity is critical to corporate success

The research has proven repeatedly that the more diverse voices are in a decision-making process, the better the results in terms of innovation, creativity, business, success, problem solving, profitability; it all goes together.

So it really turns out that doing the right thing — embracing differences, having a broader lens, bigger understandings, celebrating unique perspectives — is a strength. It's good for people. It's good for countries, and it's really good for business.

How she handled being one of the few women executives at Boeing in the 1990s

I made a decision very early in my career that my whole approach was just to be the best I can be at what I did and that I would be to stand on my own two feet and make my own way without regard for any special consideration. That was it. I just wanted to be chosen because I was the best at what I did.

The emphasis on education in her home when she was growing up (Widener is a Wichita West High graduate)

Education in my family was seen as the key to the future. I was very blessed. My grandmother went to college in 1917, so before women even had the right to vote. … And so that had a big impact on me. It was a very rich learning environment.

I realized that not everybody has that great good fortune, but I did. And as a result of all of that, that’s also part of the reason that this program has come to be. I really do believe that you’ve got to pay it forward.

I'll be the very first to admit that I hit the lottery in terms of parents and grandparents.

Why she still plays the piano

It brings me joy. It’s a way to travel without leaving your piano bench, brings you freedom. Creativity. I mean, music is such a gift and a stress reliever. … It just takes you to places that almost nothing else can.