Cindy Kent is no stranger to medtech – she’s spent 20 years in healthcare, moving up the ranks and finding her way to president & GM for 3M’s infection prevention division. She spoke with MassDevice.com Publisher Brian Johnson at the DeviceTalks event in Minnesota this week about her skills as a leader, how she ended up as an ordained minister and the importance of inclusion and mentorship in the workplace.
Brian Johnson: Recently you were hanging out with Oprah. How did that come about?
Cindy Kent: I love giving back, and I was invited to Johnson C. Smith, which is an historic black college and university, in Charlotte. I was supposed to make a reception for all of their faculty and graduating seniors in STEM fields.
As we were ending the [first] night, the president and chairman of the board pulled us aside, and they’re looking at each other very strangely, and they said, “We think we should tell her.” “Well, do you think we should?” And I’m like, “Somebody tell me something.” And so they leaned over, very sheepish smiles and they said, “Oprah’s going to be there tomorrow. We don’t want you to be nervous.” And I said, “Oprah, as in what’s her last name?”
When I got home to the hotel I had already prepared my message for the evening, and it went through my head, “Oh my gosh, I better read through it. Is there anything that might offend her, what should I do?” And I just had to turn the player off. I had to push pause on that inner voice, saying, “You’re here for the students, the graduating seniors. You’re here to send them off into the world with your greatest words of wisdom, and ministerial and spiritual support. You can’t pander because of who’s in the audience.” It was for the students.
One of her girls from a South African school was graduating in the senior class and [Oprah] was there, front row by herself. She clapped and cried and stood up on her feet the whole time, and I didn’t learn until three weeks later that she was actually supposed to be ushered out 30 minutes before the service ended and she had a really large security detail. She told them not to escort her out because she wanted to stay to greet me, and she greeted me and hugged me, and told me it was amazing. When I got back into the office the following Tuesday, there was a huge basket of peonies that she had shipped here with a hand-written card. It’s very special, it’s now preserved and framed forever.
Johnson: You’re an engineer by training so I’m sure you’re pretty good at building products, but I bet that you’ve enjoyed building people. Who are the people who built you and who you are today?
Kent: There have been many and I think that’s why giving back and advancing talent is so important to me – because so many people poured into me. Being the first in college and first person in corporate America from my family, there was no playbook. I didn’t know how to be in industry. I didn’t know how to sit in a business meeting. I didn’t know what a boardroom looked like. And so it was mentors from very early on.
My very first mentor’s name was Paul Johnson, and he was the senior vice president of supply chain operations for Eli Lilly at the time. I was a newly minted engineer, about six months into my career, and I had volunteered for this thing called Diversity and Inclusion. It was the early 90s and it wasn’t as swanky as it is today. They said, “We want a team together at the plant site.” I signed up and had a lot of energy around the topic and wanted to do some training, and the first meeting he said, “You’ve got these ideas, a lot of ideas. Meet me for lunch and let’s talk about what we want to do with diversity for the plant site.”
I think I could have easily been intimidated that an SVP came and asked for my ideas – I was 21 years old, fresh out of school. Maybe that’s when I had my best ideas, because it was before all the constraints of what I’m supposed to say. But I gave him my ideas.
By our third luncheon two months later, it was not, “What should we do with this committee?” It was, “Where do you want to take your career?” And I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything else.” I had gone to school as an engineer. I’m working designing these research laboratories and a manufacturing plant. I think I want to work with customers. I didn’t even know what that meant. I don’t know what strings he pulled, but within six months I was in Detroit, selling product as a primary care sales rep.
After that, he made this commitment to me, which he honored before he passed away. He said, “Cindy, we see a lot of potential in you, so you take the next five years on us, and you go play, and you go work in as many disciplines and fields as you like, and in five years we’re going to come ask you what you want to do for this company, and we expect an answer.” So I did sales for six months and was the highest sales rep in the tri-state region, and then I came back and did an HR stint for two years, and from HR I went to marketing.
HR wanted me to stay and I wanted to go back to grad school. So the vice president of HR went to the marketing organization and they said, “Look. We don’t have an FTE for this engineer sales HR thing.” So my second mentor’s name was Greg. Greg said, “So I’ll keep her on the HR headcount for a year, at the end of that year you decide you want to keep her, and then you put her on your book, if not, we’ll happily take her back.”
Well, that year was the most amazing year for me because I was part of a five-person team that totally revamped the go-to-market strategy for the US subsidiary for Eli Lilly and company, and that was about 1997. At 25, 26 years old.
Everybody got promoted. They came to me after the nine-month project and said, “What do you want out of it?” And I said, “I want to leave and go back to grad school.” And I don’t think anybody was expecting that.
The next thing I know is I got a call from the CHRO, who says, “We asked you what you wanted. You were very forthright in saying what you wanted. Tell me why you want to get those degrees?” When I decided to go back, it wasn’t just for the MBA. I also wanted to pursue a masters in divinity. And that ticket was five years for me because they didn’t have a dual-degree program at Vanderbilt. I had to create it, which I did. I wanted to take a year off because I thought staying away five years was too long. I wanted the company to give me insurance benefits so that I would be covered and not take student insurance dollars away, and I wanted a stipend as a percentage of my paycheck while I was away. And they said yes to all of that.
It’s the first and only divinity degree that Lilly’s ever paid for, and I’m sure they’re still scratching their heads saying, “How did that happen?” When I came out [of school], I went back and it was a wonderful, I grew up there [at Eli Lilly]. I was there almost 16 years.
Johnson: How do you balance being a business-person and an ordained minister?
Kent: When I came to introduce myself to my team, one of the things that’s on every single slide of who I am as a business leader is the fact that I’m an ordained clergy. Now the joke about that is, “Shoot, if our business strategies don’t work I’ll just pray about it, somehow we’ll make our numbers.”
I do believe this is part of my purpose. That’s why I’m up here. I believe this is an industry that is so aligned to my purpose. I think about how many patients that we’re serving and how many more people that we’re helping, and if you can make it a win-win, then the better.
When I requested for Lilly to pay for me to go to a divinity school, and he said yes, my first question was, “Why would you do that?” And his answer then was fortuitous because it’s proven to be exactly the case. He said, “Cindy, we can go and we do have the best MBAs in the world working for this company, but there is an element to your leadership that we believe will only be worth more when you are through your divinity and theological studies. And we want to see you being the best leader for this company that you can be.”
I didn’t understand it fully then. And what I have found to be true, that being comfortable operating in both of those spheres, I can usually tell pretty early on when something is going on with my employees. I think of myself as a 360 leader. That yes, I’m going to hold you accountable to the business priorities, but I can also see if it’s a down day, if there’s something going on in your family. I have had employees come in my office and break down that I’ve prayed with.
It’s not something that I’ve advertised, but I want to make sure that they’re getting the support to be the best, because if you’re your best person, you’re going to be the best leader for a company that you can be.
Johnson: Help us understand the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and secondly, how did you at such a young age know how to ask for the sponsorship?
Kent: Mentors are people who talk to you about you. They give you advice. They help you navigate, but it’s very one-to-one. And normally they don’t go outside of the confidential relationship that you establish with them, except if you ask them.
Sponsorship is way different. Sponsorship is the person that cascades or halos their organizational power on your behalf. They give their chips for you. They may have a role in their organization that makes that possible. For example, what I described with Paul Johnson. There was no way, 18 months into my career, that I could self-exit out of engineering. Only a sponsor had the power to make it happen – to go to his peer, who was the VP of engineering, and say, “I want her to go and I want her to move out of your organization and I want you to pay her salary while she does it.”
I have had six major pivots in my career, when it was something significant that I couldn’t make happen, where a sponsor said, “I like what I see in you and I think you can do it.” And they make that happen. So a sponsor’s somebody who leverages their organizational power for you.
Johnson: Sometimes when I hear diversity, I start to buzzword out a little bit. When you talk about diversity, what are you really talking about?
Kent: Diversity means nothing. I think a much more meaningful buzzword is inclusion. I want to have a table that, regardless of who’s sitting around it, that everybody feels courageous. That they would articulate concerns and that they would be heard. And I will say, as a woman, as a woman of color, that has not always been the case. So some of what you call my confidence has been a learned behavior when I wasn’t feeling heard, of just demanding to be heart. That’s something that my family embedded in me. I grew up with that mantra.
There’s been enough research to say companies with the highest level of diversity and inclusion have better business results and outcomes in a significant, not incremental, way. The more people you get around the table the more ideas you have.
Diversity is more about the leader than it is about the employees, because it takes a special kind of leader to put all kind of rambunctious, idea, fearless, courageous, conversation-heavy people around their leadership table and listen to them.
I’ll give one example that I was privy to, that my boss, he actually raised his hand and called out. I’ll be honest, I was ashamed as a woman leader sitting in that room that I wasn’t the one that either made the observation or raised my hand. And it was a pivotal moment in my leadership.
We were talking about two directors, and were working on a quality issue, we were needing somebody to quickly assemble a team and do some pretty quick turnaround on some urgent issues. We were talking about the background of the male, and we started saying, using things like “proven experience.” When we talked about the woman, we were talking about “it’s a stretch assignment,” “has she done it before?” and we wanted every single “i” dotted and “t” crossed. And finally my SVP said, “I need to call an audible. Did you just hear what we just did?” He said, “Listen to the language that we used.”
I can’t tell you how ashamed I was, because I would hope that somebody in the rooms when my name came up was listening for that too. And so, I committed to him thereafter and I certainly bring that with me to every single talent review that I do at 3M, every single one.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length.