Even after completing studies for a bachelor’s in industrial engineering and management sciences from Northwestern University, Cindy Kent swiftly experienced her toughest and most informative business lessons in her first job as a 22-year-old engineer for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co.
“I led a team of senior engineers who had more time working than I had time living,” recalls Kent, now vice president and general manager of Gastro/Urology Therapies for Medtronic Inc., a medical technology company based in Minneapolis. “I learned really early on that they weren’t going to do anything for me. It was critical for me [to learn how to encourage them] to buy into the things that I was proposing—and I’ll be honest, I learned the hard way. I had some knock-down, drag-outs. I wouldn’t have gained any credibility or gotten anything done if I hadn’t learned that lesson. I’m glad I learned it early. By the time I left that role two years later, the ones who originally said they couldn’t work with me were the same ones who would go to the wall for me.”
Although sharing business thoughts and ideas comes naturally to Kent, she admits that her second formative experience was related to company expectations at Eli Lilly.
“Collaboration was actually one of the leadership dimensions,” she explains. “It was one of the things that you were evaluated on in your performance review. And so knowing that it was required even if it wasn’t natural to you, after a while you build a habit. Now, it’s just ingrained.” Such training and seeing firsthand the benefits of collaborative work have informed Kent’s approach to leadership. Kent joined Medtronic in 2007 and today leads a half-billion-dollar global division. Collaboration is a required competency for members of her team. It’s on a list of guiding principles she shares with every new job and new team. “It’s one thing for people to know what you want them to do—giving marching orders,” says Kent, who was recently awarded an Aspen fellowship. “I want people on my team who can inspire others to do things for them.” Here she shares why collaboration is critical to business success:
Why is cross-functional collaboration more important today than it has ever been?
A 2012 IBM study of 1,700 CEOs and public sector leaders across 64 countries reported that more than 73% said that the No. 1 leadership competency is collaborative competency. This is global. It’s not just cross-functional, but cross-business, cross-geographical—learning how to lead and work across boundaries is the most critical. It’s important now because businesses are so complex. Most companies are multinational. The thought of individual contributors is mistaken. There’s little work that is ever done because of a single person. Collaboration ultimately breeds innovation, which leads to financial performance.
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