If you’re curious about effective management philosophy, Cynthia Grimes can break it down for you: Instead of providing answers for your team members, ask them different questions that lead them to the conclusion.
It’s a lesson she learned early in her career while serving as an assistant store manager at Kmart.
“I had this garden center manager, Nell, and she would frequently ask me to come back there so she could ask me a question,” Cynthia remembers. “So I asked her, ‘What is the desired result here? Whose permission do you need?’”
Those questions and the thinking behind them were the nudge that Nell needed.
“My job was to help her realize, ‘Oh, I already know the answer to this’ and have the confidence to move forward, not simply confirm that answer,” Cynthia adds. “Those kinds of interactions made me realize I had an affinity for people and helping them reach their potential.”
She applies that same approach today as an organizational development manager at BlueCross, the culmination of an unlikely career journey with stops at grad school, a nuclear power plant’s purchasing office and a mental health service center along the way.
“When I was starting out, if somebody had told me I would be in human resources one day, I would have said, ‘There’s no way,’” Cynthia says with a laugh. “There was nothing about HR that I had formal training for.”
But the pursuit of knowledge and an affinity for people have been consistent themes for Cynthia. Born and raised in Chattanooga, she’s spent most of her life here, save for four years when she attended Austin Peay State University in Clarksville. However, despite having remained close to home, she lives by the mantra, “Change is the only constant, and adaptability is key.”
“I thought I wanted to do corporate law, and my understanding was that you could major in anything and go to law school,” Cynthia recalls. “After I chose business marketing at Austin Peay, I realized, ‘I like this.’ I decided to go to grad school instead.”
After graduating from Austin Peay, Cynthia returned home and immediately enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s grad school. She soon discovered a graduate degree didn’t automatically guarantee employment.
“What people don’t tell you when you go to school is that you won’t necessarily get a job,” Cynthia says. “After spending all those years in school, I thought, ‘Okay, I finished. Where’s my job on my silver platter?’ But that didn’t happen.”
Embarking on a career
Cynthia connected with a temporary service and found work in the purchasing department at Siemens Nuclear Power before being hired there full-time. A couple of years later, she saw that Kmart offered a 16-week management training program and those who completed the program earned an assistant manager position.What started as a foot in the door and opportunity for change taught Cynthia a great deal and helped her realize her career calling.
“My district manager once told me, ‘You’ll learn what to do as a leader, and you’ll learn what not to do,’” Cynthia remembers. “After working with four different stores with four different managers, I understood what she meant. I still apply the knowledge I learned in each of those stores.”
Retail hours were grueling, so in 1994, when Cynthia heard about supervisor training opportunities at BlueCross, she made the leap. Her two years of management experience helped ease the transition.
“At the time, the BlueCross program put you in the classroom environment, provided foundational information, then assigned you a department,” she says. “Health care was not in my background at all, so I had to learn the lingo.”
Eight weeks later, Cynthia was put on the floor as a supervisor for the internal mail department before moving to a claims processing team.
‘What are you passionate about?’
In 1998, an opportunity outside of BlueCross arose. Cynthia went to work at a mental health service center, managing a team of nearly 20 in clinical support staff and member/provider services. She returned to BlueCross in 2000, managing five operations teams. Once again, the words of another made an impact.
“During that time, I had a mentor who asked a question that stuck with me,” Cynthia recalls. “Remember, I was usually the one asking questions. But she said, ‘What is it that you are passionate about?’ I thought and thought on that.”
“I came back to her and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what the role is. Just give me people to develop, and I’m happy.’”
Today, Cynthia puts that purpose into action in her role as organizational development manager, an extension of what’s commonly referred to as talent management. At BlueCross, the department incorporates performance management, leadership development, succession planning and corporate development programs, to name a few.
Cynthia provides a foundation on which new leaders within BlueCross can build their own successes.
“If we can create better experiences for our employees and enhance their knowledge, that does more than help BlueCross become a better company,” she says. “It means we’re better equipped to serve our members.”
Cynthia’s particularly proud of a program she helped implement that offers training for first-time leaders.
“Whether they’ve been promoted or hired into the company, these people need in-depth support and tools to assist them,” she says. “What excites me most is the opportunity to re-skill or up-skill people. We have to look at skill sets people need for the future, and work on that now, because optimizing talent is critical to supporting the organization. I’m always thinking about how I can help people.”
Supporting others at home and at work
With social distancing measures still in effect, Cynthia’s missing her strict gym regimen (it was not uncommon to see her wearing jogging shoes in the Chattanooga office hallways), but she’s enjoying time spent with her son, Demetri, a 2020 Illinois Institute of Technology graduate.
“Anybody that knows me, I talk about my favorite son,” Cynthia says with a laugh. “He was in Chicago and earned his chemical engineering degree, but he returned home a few months ago. He’s preparing to take a Fundamentals of Engineering exam and continue his job hunt, but I’m in no hurry for him to find one just yet.”
That same sense of familial pride extends to Cynthia’s colleagues, as well.
“One thing I really miss about being in the office is employees approaching me for career advice,” she says. “I always respond with that question that was posed to me: ‘What are you passionate about?’ Because what I’ve realized is whatever you’re passionate about, whatever you fight for, is usually your calling in life.”
“I’m passionate about developing people, so I don’t consider this as ‘work,’” she adds. “No matter what I am or where I am, helping people reach and exceed their potential is my purpose.”