Cindy Kent: A Life Authentic | Authentic. Visionary. Inspirational.
Updated: Jan 20
by Dana Johnson
Distilled to her very essence, these are three words coworkers use to describe Cindy Kent, President and General Manager of the Infection Prevention Division at 3M—just what one would expect from LEAD360 Magazine’s Executive of the Year.
In selecting the recipient of this honor, LEAD360 conducts a comprehensive review that assesses candidates on five criteria: 1) a record of driving success in challenging markets; 2) courageous leadership; 3) outstanding commitment to bold sponsorship in creating other leaders; 4) willingness to be an accessible mentor; and 5) passion for community building as demonstrated through active service.
Cindy Kent takes these five characteristics, designed to complement and further the mission of the National Leadership Consortium, to the highest tier simply by living a life of authenticity, integrity, and humility.
Her remarkable career path and ensuing business success is exceptional. Her practice of living out loud a principled, spiritual life is exemplary. Yet the most striking feature about her is that Cindy Kent is Cindy Kent, no matter the situation. In the boardroom, the office, the community, the same woman shows up to put her stamp on the project at hand and lead in the way only she can.
Kent’s life is a textbook example of welcoming opportunity when it knocks and creating opportunity when it doesn’t. From her beginnings, Cindy has excelled through various circumstances, emerging ever stronger and more determined to live a life of purpose.
And although some would say good fortune may have a bit to do with it, it is more likely her Christian faith that nourished the mindset of possibility and abundance that set her on a trajectory for success.
A WELL BUILT FOUNDATION
Born in Nashville to high schoolers Jessie W. Smith, an 18-year-old senior, and Larry E. Smith, a 17-year- old junior, Cindy was blessed with profoundly committed parents who insisted on providing her with a stable home and upbringing. “My foundation definitely started at home, with my parents,” Cindy says. The proximity of extended family created a nurturing village, with her paternal grandparents and seven of her father’s nine siblings living on one end of the street in their predominantly Black, blue-collar, working-class neighborhood, and Cindy and her parents living about ten houses down.
Sent to Head Start at an early age and identified as gifted, Cindy benefited from a mother who focused on her education, reading about and implementing experts’ suggestions for raising gifted children. “If articles said hot breakfasts were good for brain function, then I had hot breakfasts,” says Cindy. During the summers throughout middle school, Mrs. Smith fed Cindy’s blossoming intellect with educational programs.
Cindy credits her father with her imagination and confidence, leadership traits that are still strengths today. After returning from service in the Air Force in Vietnam, Mr. Smith gifted Cindy with a newly heightened pro-Black stance. In - stead of reading typical bedtime stories to her, he read Marcus Gar - vey and Richard Wright. They also went on outings to the airport, where they would choose a gate with a destination they liked, and he would ask Cindy to tell stories of the arriving and departing pas - sengers. It not only fueled her creativity but also fostered her love of travel.
Both her parents were integral to her development, attending every parent-teacher conference and every award program. But more than educational development, they were instrumental in Cindy’s spiritual development. At the age of eleven, she gave her life to the Lord and was baptized. Cindy also began practicing her lifelong spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, and fasting. Although Cindy and her mother took this life-changing step together, her father would join them at the new church a few months later, further strengthening their family bond.
"You are a brown girl who is good at math and science..."
Cindy is quick to stress the crucial roles that others have played in her early life, from the African American second-grade teacher, Mrs. Bright, who recognized a bored and unchallenged child instead of a talkative troublemaker, to the high-school guidance counselor, Mrs. Moorman, who encouraged and helped Cindy apply to a college preparatory school, six hundred miles away from home. Cindy’s parents’ eventual consent proved to be a pivotal event in her life. So, too, was the decision Cindy made during her junior year to pursue a degree in industrial engineering with some guidance from school counselor Ms. Solomon: “You are a brown girl who is good at math and science. You need to major in engineering.
Cindy applied to three schools— two for industrial engineering and the third for chemical engineering—and was accepted to all. Choosing Northwestern University for both its academic credentials and for providing the most substantial financial aid package, she began her journey there in a summer program for incoming African American students in engineering. Several of the twenty students that participated then remain close friends even today.
In addition to the program activities that familiarized the students with professors and courses and helped the students build effective study habits, Cindy stayed involved with other organizations. She was an active member of the National Society of Black Engineers, which allowed her to attend regional conferences where she drew encouragement from interactions with other minority engineering students. A member of the school’s gospel choral group, the Northwestern Community Ensemble, Cindy served as an officer for three of the four years she participated.
Cindy also worked in the office of the Dean of Students all four years, where Dean Carolyn Krulee’s oversight, described as “teetering between maternal and drill sergeant,” was in full force, offering support and a safe place to talk openly about any challenges. Between Krulee, faith and family, and despite the grueling classes, Cindy graduated in four years with a full-time job in her field. “Between these organizations, I always felt a tremendous amount of support— within as well as beyond academics.”
Looking back, Kent believes she made a solid choice in her area of study that serves her well in both business leadership and life. She feels that no other discipline could have prepared her any better for her career. “The greatest benefit of studying engineering is that it gave me a strong foundation for how to think—critical thinking, reasoning, and problem solving. Regardless of one’s ultimate career path, STEM fields prepare you to take big, complex problems and break them into smaller problems and, ultimately, solve them.”
CHARTING HER COURSE
Having worked primarily in the corporate health care industry since graduating from college, Kent is brimming with expertise. She is currently President and General Manager for the 3M Infection Prevention Division—a $1.7 billion business committed to keeping patients safe from health care-associated infections and complications. Kent has global operational P&L responsibilities, including the development of strategic and annual operating plans. She also manages resource allocation across research and development, clinical, manufacturing, and commercial functions.
Kent relishes her work in health care and the ability to touch and improve lives. She believes strongly in the industry’s triple aim of improving access to care, attaining better treatment outcomes, and reducing the overall cost of care. “I absolutely love the work I do. I love being in health care. I love developing talent. I love innovating new ideas and business models. While it’s not always easy, it is well aligned with my interests and abilities.
Exploring interests and testing abilities are encouraged and supported at 3M, which Kent fully appreciates. She believes 3M is an outstanding company. “Their ability to drive innovation and growth is a direct result of the company having business leaders with scientific and technical backgrounds who can bridge the gap between customer needs and the technology to deliver really elegant solutions to the markets we serve.” Kent also credits the company with building a culture that supports innovation and encourages product development that directly impacts lives.
Prior to joining 3M in 2013, Kent was Vice President and General Manager of the Gastro/Urology Therapies business unit at Medtronic, the world’s largest medical technology company. Under Kent’s leadership, the global franchise grew at a 21% 6-yearcompounded annual growth rate to become one of the fastest growing businesses at the company.
Numbers like these reflect Kent’s drive for strong results and the high bar she sets for herself and the businesses and teams she leads. Several times in her career Kent has been assigned businesses with slow or declining growth and rose to the challenge, working with the teams to turn around the businesses and achieve sustainable growth. “I have been very fortunate to lead teams that accomplished unimaginable stretch goals to deliver values to the company.”
One of Kent’s greatest and most recent successes came with the record-speed development and approval of a sterility assurance innovation for the instruments used in the operating room. Not only does the system allow for a rapid readout in 24 minutes, benefiting both providers and patients, its development was an exercise of various functions working together.
“This was an amazing collaboration between engineers, folks in the research lab, technical services, regulatory affairs, manufacturing, and marketing—it really was a group effort and tapped multiple disciplines to bring it to market in record time. This reflects the team approach that drives 3M.”
Kent’s first role out of college landed her at Eli Lilly and Company, where she stayed for fifteen years. After about twelve months, while still a new staff engineer, a senior leader initiated discussions on her broader career, encouraging her to explore other roles within the company. He suggested she experience as many roles as she could in the first five years of her career; only then would the company ask her to pick a functional home.
“A few months later,” says Kent, “I found myself as a pharmaceutical sales representative, then [in] human resources, and that fifth year, doing a marketing role. ries to her, he read Marcus Garvey and Richard I had a blast. What I had not anticipated was how well these experiences would prepare me for my future role as a general manager. I now have leadership and resource allocation responsibilities across several functions. Having worked in many of the functions has not only increased my empathy but also allows me to speak the same language as members of the various functional teams.”
“I truly believe that when you seek to walk in purpose, God will create a path and conspire with the universe to support you!”
After settling into a marketing role with Lilly, Kent decided to leave in pursuit of educational goals. She had a dual degree in mind, one of which would be an MBA in Marketing. For the second graduate degree, she felt led to the Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Leadership. That dual program did not exist at Vanderbilt University, but the deans of both programs committed to helping her create it.
A few months before she was to leave the company, she was called to the office of Pedro Grandilla, Lilly’s Chief Human Resource Officer. He informed Kent that the company intended to support her education leave—for both degrees—fulltime. She was elated that not only would Lilly reimburse her tuition and fees, but they would also allow her to retain her service tenure and full medical benefits.
Every detail of her impending adventure fell into place. “I truly believe that when you seek to walk in purpose, God will create a path and conspire with the universe to support you!”
LIFTING AS SHE CLIMBS
Not surprisingly, Kent’s recognition of the people who have made all the difference in her career and education has led her to turn and do the same for others in whom she recognizes potential. She is a strong believer in developing talent. “In addition to integrity and leaders of character, I look for potential in people who are strong in their subject matter expertise but who maintain a level of humility and intellectual curiosity—always learning and wanting to be better and do better for the business. I look for collaborators who create space for the brilliance of others to shine without it taking anything away from them.”
One such beneficiary was Kelly Wei, a PhD scientist at Medtronic. Wei considered herself purely a scientist, but Kent recognized that Wei’s curiosity, relationship-building skills, and credibility would likely transfer into business leadership. When a new and coveted role was created, Kent saw Wei in that role supporting her organization, a move that required a significant jump in job grade. Despite strong opposition from other leaders who believed Wei was too junior, Kent leveraged her organizational power.
“I fought hard for Kelly’s promotion into this role—which she eventually did get. Kelly was brilliant in the role, and I provided her both the support and air cover to soar. She crushed it, and within a few years was promoted into an even more senior leadership role.”
A mutual respect is conveyed in Wei’s words: “Cindy is one of the most dynamic women leaders I know. Her vision is big; her passion is infectious. Cindy gives direct feedback, but she has a unique gift. No matter what the feedback is, you walk out of the meeting fired up and ready to be greater than what you have ever been.”
Kent accepts this praise in stride. “I truly believe that we who have advanced professionally have a responsibility to create a path for others and to lift as we climb.” She takes great pleasure in focusing development efforts on those who are earlier in their careers, who are still “bright-eyed with wonder, ambitious with grand expectations.” Kent shows no shortage of gratitude for those who played important roles in her career and championed her contributions. “It seems only right that I pay it forward in similar ways.”
In like fashion, Kent invests time and effort in the development of direct reports and those reporting to them. Kent hosts one and two day quarterly development off-site meetings for her top fifty leaders. She also puts on smaller, more intimate lunches limited to six to eight team members, providing time and space for them to share and for her to listen. “My mentor, James Dallas, once told me, ‘As you advance in an organization, people are more likely to talk about you than to you.’ I have found this to be a truism, and so I take extra effort to stay engaged and to understand the temperature at all levels of the organization.”
LEADING THE WAY
Kent has received wide recognition of her leadership both in career and community, nationally and internationally, garnering numerous honors and awards lauding her ability to provide vision, direction, and encouragement. It’s hardly surprising that Kent ascribes wholeheartedly to the Max Dupree philosophy of leadership: A leader’s role is to establish a compelling vision for the future and to say thank you.
Kent’s strong vision and strategic and integrative approach to leadership has been honored by the business world time and time again: Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s “40 Under 40,” the Women’s Health Leadership TRUST of Minnesota’s “Top 35 Women Leaders in Health Care,” Twin Cities Business Magazine’s “2015 Wonder Women,” the Informational Technology Senior Management Forum’s “President’s Award,” and the Society of Women Engineers’ “Suzanne Jenniches Upward Mobility Award.” Most recently, in March of 2017 Kent was ranked by Black Enterprise Magazine as one of the “Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Business,” and in October of 2017, as one of the “Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America.”
One particularly memorable moment happened when Kent’s father attended a 2013 awards ceremony and “Woman of Distinction” presentation by the Girl Scouts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and River Valley. Kent recalls that several people, including her boss, came by to meet her father. When the video highlighting Kent’s story and her contributions to the company and community was aired, he cried. She shares, “He just kept saying, ‘I had no idea. I kept trying to figure out why everyone was coming up to me asking what I thought about your success. I had no idea of the breadth of your impact.”
Indeed, Kent’s talent to lead has moved her beyond success at work and in her immediate community to a place of growing significance in the world. As a 2007 German Marshall Fellow, Kent was selected from many emerging leaders from business, government, and civil sectors to participate in the transatlantic leadership development program that empowers through intense learning and networking. In 2013, Kent was awarded the Henry Crown Fellowship from the Aspen Institute. The aim of the fellowship is to develop the next generation of community-spirited leaders, providing them with the tools necessary to meet the challenges of business and civic leadership in the twenty-first century as participants engage in a journey of personal exploration.
Kent follows the tenet that leadership and service intertwine, graciously lending her time and talents to further worthy missions. In the past, she has served on the boards of organizations in areas from health care to economic development. Currently, she holds a seat on the Board of Visitors for Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. She is also a board trustee for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that drives gender equity and builds pathways to economic security for women and girls, particularly those marginalized.
A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Kent pledged in 2007 with the Minneapolis/St. Paul Alumnae Chapter, serving as chaplain of her local chapter as well as regionally. Although her business schedule no longer allows Kent to participate as regularly as she did in the beginning, she continues to be a financial member and to participate in key programs. “But our sisterhood bond is deep and is a lifelong commitment . . . . My line sisters and I are amazingly close and keep up with each other’s life milestones—the good and bad— as sisters would.” Kent is also a member of The Links Incorporated, the Executive Leadership Council, and The Committee of 200, all organizations that exist to strengthen, support, and inspire its members in leadership and service, all united in purpose to affect social and economic change for the greater community.
Children and youth are often on the receiving end of Kent’s endeavors. More than a business leader at 3M, Kent is also an outreach leader as executive sponsor of a collaborative with a local integrated school district. The program, highly rated by students and staff alike, introduces students of color to careers in STEM fields and reaches thirty to forty students each year. Kent also enjoys giving back by engaging in career talks and recruiting for Northwestern and by giving keynote presentations followed by questions from the audience, her story translated into universal stories of failure as well as success.
Kent is also a member of The Links Incorporated, the Executive Leadership Council, and The Committee of 200, all organizations that exist to strengthen, support, and inspire its members in leadership and service, all united in purpose to affect social and economic change for the greater community.
As a first-generation college graduate, Kent truly commits to the words of Luke 12:48, “To whom much is given, much is also required.” Kent and her husband, Kelton, currently provide tuition and financial support to two of Kent’s younger male cousins. And through their family’s Kent Legacy Fund, a philanthropic fund directed toward education, they have made a gift in science to Hume Fogg Academic High School, Kent’s alma mater and one of the nation’s leading public magnet schools. Their gift will be dedicated in the spring of 2018.
TAKING CARE OF SELF
Still, Kent acknowledges that she does not and cannot accomplish these feats of leadership and service alone. First and foremost is her faith.
“...they can take off the superhero cape, let their guard down,...”
Maneuvering through trying times both personally and professionally call for prayer and guidance from people Kent trusts. “Depending on the nature of the challenge, those people could be family, mentors, friends, church leaders, or professionals [such as] my executive coach. Of course, my husband is my biggest sounding board. And while my mother is now deceased, I still talk to my dad almost daily.”Maneuvering through trying times both personally and professionally call for prayer and guidance from people Kent trusts. “Depending on the nature of the challenge, those people could be family, mentors, friends, church leaders, or professionals [such as] my executive coach. Of course, my husband is my biggest sounding board. And while my mother is now deceased, I still talk to my dad almost daily.”
Her family is her foundation. “Everyone, even the most authentic leaders among us, needs a safe space where they can take off the superhero cape, let their guard down, and just be—without judgment and with total emotional safety. My husband and my birth family do that for me. I also appreciate that my family is so close, which speaks to the importance of staying connected.” Kent talks with her aunts and first cousins several times a week, sharing her joys and pains, wins and losses.
Kent and her husband’s blended family of two adult children now live in different states, but they remain close. “Despite the distance, they always know we’re there when they need us.” Their daughter, Joffrey, who was five when Cindy and Kelton started dating, is now 22. Kent has savored the important life moments that being a bonus mom has afforded her. Their son, Jaron, is now 31. Through the years, both have observed Kent’s work and conduct and have sought her advice in their own careers.
Kent stays connected to others in person and through a strong social presence on Twitter and LinkedIn, usually leaning into all things leadership. Describing herself as “uber extroverted,” Kent finds that making time for friends and family recharges her batteries, so she tries to have dinner with friends each week and schedules regular date nights with her husband.
Kent believes in the power of positive affirmations and intentions for staying grounded. She focuses on five intentions that she uses daily like a mantra. Kent also follows guided meditations and podcasts, often listening to those topics that are relevant to the situations she is facing—overcoming fear, increasing mental clarity, applying the law of attraction, and more. “It might sound hokey to some, but it works for me.” In addition, Kent practices daily prayer and meditation and attends church services.
She makes efforts to eat healthy, tries to make time for exercise, prioritizes good sleep, and never underestimates the benefits of alone time. When she can, she opts to block lunch time on her calendar for herself. “If I don’t have a lunch date, I will shut the door to my office, and even if I’m working, it’s a good time to decompress and recenter.” Re-centering for another day in the authentic, visionary, inspirational life of Cindy Kent.