By Janell Hazelwood
When Shakeya McDow, vice president of ethics and compliance strategy, intelligence, and operations at Kaiser Permanente, was growing up in Ashville, North Carolina, she quickly learned about accountability, pride, and making an impact.
“My grandmother and mother instilled in me that, wherever I am, I need to make sure people know that I’m there,” McDow says. “They told me, ‘You are going to be amazing,’ and they always taught me that opportunities are limitless.”
This confidence, instilled as a youth, would bolster her ascent up the corporate ranks as an adult.
“Even when they were reprimanding me about things, they offered me the opportunity to voice what I was thinking—not in a disrespectful way—and share my thoughts and my perspective about what was happening.
I think that groundwork allowed me to be brave at the leadership table and speak up for things that others would not, and I have done that along the way.”
McDow’s path to helming risk assessment, work-planning processes, company code of conduct, and some of the most vital aspects of company-wide regulatory soundness at one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plan providers has taken several twists and turns.
Before she landed her current role in 2018, the University of Phoenix and North Carolina Wesleyan College graduate served in various management roles in risk advisory for accounting powerhouse Ernst & Young, was an accounting operations manager in the restaurant industry, and even had a stint in banquet sales.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I know I would be one or two removed from the CEO of Kaiser Permanente,” McDow says.
Diversity Woman: You are a proponent of intrapreneurship. How does the concept relate to your career in corporate leadership?
Shakeya McDow: Whatever I’m responsible for, I take an ownership mind set to mobilize people to innovate, to challenge thinking, and to bring products and services to life. It is a way for me to harness that spirit that I probably started in Girl Scouts with selling cookies.
DW: What’s your leadership style, and how has it evolved over the years?
SM: When I first came in, I didn’t step back to appreciate the way I had to pivot my style and approach from management consulting to this industry. Initially it took my team by storm because I was putting certain demands and expectations on them when their desires for their careers were different. We did a 360 and I learned.
I like to meet people where they are, so I manage by person. It’s very difficult to do, and I have spreadsheets to help me know kids’ names, how people like to be recognized, and how people like to be rewarded. This knowledge brings a deeper connection and fosters trust. I do not take a one-size-fits-all approach. I meet with every single person on my team at least once a quarter. Before that, I go back to my spreadsheet to see what we talked about last and what their leader says they’re working on. When I meet with them, they feel like I am still connected to what they’re doing. That has really formed cohesion on my team.
Getting the feedback from the team has enabled me to to overcome my battle with imposter syndrome. Expressing vulnerabilities is something that, over the last year or so, I’ve gotten more comfortable with, and I also see the team come together more because of it.
DW: When you started college, did you know what you wanted to do for a living?
SM: No! I went to college initially for speech and language pathology. For my practicum, I thought I was going to be in an elementary school, but I was placed in a nursing home. I went to my mom and said, “I can’t do this.” And she said, “Look, you’ve got four years, so whatever you need to do, you need to figure it out and graduate on time.” I changed my major to business administration and then had a series of [diverse] careers that made me wonder, “Why am I in this spot in this moment in my life?”
As I sit back and think about where I am today, every single experience has led me to be the successful leader I am today. I’ll give you a couple of examples. When I graduated from college, I started at IBM. At that time everybody was dabbling in IT. I was a self-taught units programmer. My team was responsible for publishing the products and prices using units programming to shop IBM.com in the late 1990s. I wasn’t professionally trained as an IT person. It was just something that I did with some friends on the side, and it landed me a gig that was very well paying. Fast-forward to today: I have a team [of professionals] in compliance intelligence—data scientists, programmers, and business analysts—to provide the enablement for our ethics and compliance programs. I didn’t know then that I needed to understand the software development life cycle and the QA testing related to software, but it prepared me to have intelligence-based conversations about the work that my team is responsible for.
I did a stint—when our IBM jobs were outsourced to India and I was trying to find my way—in banquet sales. Little did I know that at one point I would be in management consulting and would need to know the tools and tricks of the trade for sales. Little did I know that the strategies I use right now in my role, when I’m responsible for bringing people together each year in a multiday forum at a hotel—and create an experience that leaves them inspired, engaged, and aligned with our strategy—require understanding how food and beverage works, how hotels operate. We don’t have a meeting and event services group at Kaiser Permanente. Because of that earlier experience, I was able to negotiate with the best of them when it came to getting the best deal for our team.
DW: Much of your work revolves around risk management. How did you learn that skill?
SM: My risk management experience came when a key regulation was introduced in the early 2000s. I was in accounting, and the headquarters of the organization that I was involved with needed someone to help start up regulatory functions with an internal audit at the headquarters. I knew accounting and had an understanding of controls. My husband and I moved to Dallas. That’s where the risk management work started.
DW: What career advice would you give new college graduates?
SM: Stay connected to the relationships you’ve made while in college, whether through a fraternity or sorority, or another organization, or with your classmates.
Graduates say, “Well, I need to build my network,” but there can sometimes be a tendency to discount the network you’ve built over the last few years in college. As you advance, those people are going to advance too, so they can help support you. It’s important to stay connected as you continue to nurture those relationships because you may need to lean on them as you continue to grow.
Also, be open to new experiences, especially if they are off plan. You have to have that openness and willingness to have those experiences even though they can take you out of your comfort zone.
DW: What books are you reading or what books would you recommend that focus on leadership and career advancement?
SM: Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.
As leaders, especially as women and women of color, we believe we have to be so strong because there aren’t many of us at the top, and we want to put up this facade that we have it all together.
This book really spoke to me, and there have been lessons I’ve learned about leading this team in this industry. We’re taught most times to be perfect, and this book allowed me to release some of the need for perfection I had going on throughout my career.
One of the things—she calls them guideposts and there are many throughout the book—focuses on cultivating laughter, song, and dance, which connects back to the joy I find through music. DW
Janell Hazelwood is an award-winning media consultant, traveler, and journalist who covers minority entrepreneurship, women’s issues, and lifestyle content.