Our Stories

Choosing a Different Kind of Leadership

'Balanced’ approach informed Cindy Kent’s rise in health care business

Cindy Kent
President and General Manager, 3M Infection Prevention Division, 3M Health Care

Vanderbilt MBA 1999
Vanderbilt Master of Divinity 2001

Cindy Kent was prepared to begin work on a dual post-graduate degree in law and business when her career services director at Eli Lilly called her into his office. Cindy had turned her industrial engineering degree into early success with Lilly, and now she was ready to take a big step forward. The meeting came after the company put her through a battery of assessments.

Cindy recalls that he said her tests showed she had all the right skills to succeed in their executive program, but that her empathy component was off the charts.

“Have you ever considered the seminary?” he asked. “We think the MBA/Divinity combination will nurture your leadership. People follow you, and we believe your religious leanings—your seeking—will make you a better leader overall.”

Cindy looked at several schools before choosing Vanderbilt. “When I visited other campuses,” she recalls, “everyone told me how competitive they were, how cognizant they were of the rankings. We didn’t have that at Owen. It was a nurturing environment where I could learn and thrive as it shaped me as a business leader.”

While she describes the workload as “maddening,” keeping up with it made her the first person to earn the dual MBA/Divinity degree at Vanderbilt.

Cindy went on to advance rapidly at Lilly and then Medtronic — and then at 3M Health Care, where she now oversees a $1.6 billion business at the leading edge of the field. But she remains proudest that her success was “never because I left casualties in the wake. I think my dual degree and the fact that I was at Owen at all was a reflection of the type of leader I have chosen to be.”

Always one to embrace work-related challenges, Cindy wrestled instead with career changes. “Some of the hardest and best decisions I ever made involved leaving jobs and companies I absolutely loved to take new jobs and get new skills in my toolbox,” she says. “I didn’t leave because I was mad or because I wasn’t getting what I wanted or needed. I just realized I was way too comfortable, and that’s my signal I’m probably ready for a change. Part of that is, ‘Do you want to be a great leader in that specific setting, or do you want to be a great business leader in general?’”

That wider calling has taken Cindy into the community and prompted her to nurture leadership potential in others. “I probably spend a third of my time on mentoring others,” she says. She volunteers with the Girl Scouts, and she and her husband have established a charitable foundation. Cindy remains active in the ministry.

She is always looking for the kind of balance she was able to bring to the seemingly disparate degrees of business and divinity.

“Metaphorically, I kept my Bible close at hand when I was in business school,” she says. “Then, when I was in divinity school, I’m there with my calculator. Leadership means being a balanced citizen. Every day we see examples of business leaders who’ve made ethically poor decisions. I have honestly never had to compromise my ethics and personal values to make money—not that there’s not the opportunity—and I feel like I’ve been more rewarded for doing so.”

“Leadership means being a balanced citizen.”