Be More Than Stories

Leadership and Mentoring 

In this series, Korn Ferry interviews people who are living our Be More Than principles.

“Everything I’ve achieved is because someone took me under their wing.”

Name: Cindy Kent
Occupation: Executive Vice President and President, Brookdale Senior Living; Board of Directors, Best Buy

“My parents were teens when I came into the world, both from very poor families in Nashville. By all accounts, another statistic. Nothing about my experience today reflects that starting point. I became the first person in my family to go to college and to work in corporate America.

In the second grade, I was extremely talkative in class. Previous teachers had told my parents I was misbehaving and disruptive, but my second-grade teacher recognized that I was gifted and was talking out of boredom. That’s the first time someone wanted to cultivate something in me that others thought was a problem. After that, she began to give me extra assignments, and I became a voracious reader and was put into a gifted development program.

leadership and mentoring

I always knew I wanted to go to college, but because no one I knew had ever graduated from college, I had a fear of failing once I got there. So, I researched boarding school programs that helped students in need get into college preparatory high schools and, subsequently, on track for college. I learned about and applied to a program called A Better Chance and was accepted into a boarding school called St. Catherine’s, in Richmond, Virginia—600 miles away from my family. I won a scholarship before I even told my parents I’d applied.

They totally supported me. But they were criticized in my hometown. People said, “What kind of parents let their 14-year-old daughter move that far away?” But they stood their ground.

At boarding school, my dad would send me letters every week, and the girls on my basketball team would gather in my room to read them. I didn’t understand their fascination at first; after all, their dads were picking them up in private planes and their lives seemed enviable. But one friend said, “If I get a letter from my dad, I know not to call him to say thank you, because his administrative assistant likely sent it.” She was closer to her nanny than to her parents. That experience taught me that all the money in the world wasn’t the answer to a happy life. I didn’t like growing up poor, but that experience at boarding school showed me that I had something priceless: love, attention, and support from my parents.

Like most people, I did want to be successful in my career, but I’ve always strived to use success to do something good, something bigger—not just for the material trappings. Once I interned at a healthcare company during college, I was hooked. I felt like I was doing well by doing good.

My dual master’s degree in divinity and business is a reflection of how I look at leadership, and shapes how I lead as well capturing both the head and the heart. I’m an operational leader, comfortable with metrics and scorecards, but I lead my teams through inspiration rather than intimidation. I didn’t realize that my background would become increasingly relevant with time, as millennials and Gen Z employees want to know the purpose and spirit of the company they work for. They want leaders who think about the organization beyond the balance sheet and P&L.

I continue to spend a great deal of my time mentoring others. I do it because so much has been given to me by my own mentors and sponsors. At the start of my career, I didn’t know anything about corporate America or how to be an executive. Everything I’ve achieved is because someone took me under their wing and advocated for my advancement. I have had to learn everything on the go—not just in leadership but in life. And I am grateful for each and every lesson.

Despite any perceived success to this point, I would say I’m still in the process of “becoming,” to quote former First Lady Michelle Obama. I go into things with the intention to add value, and to leave every situation, as well as the people involved, better. I consider leadership a privilege and am humbled that people choose to be led by me.”

Korn Ferry empowers ambitious individuals and businesses to Be More Than: Seize opportunities. Embrace new perspectives. Never stop learning. Be ready.