Kevin Kennedy on Leadership

by Dave Michels

A recent interview with Kevin Kennedy was published in the Economic Times. I find both Kennedy and Avaya an interesting quagmire. On one hand, they are the classic victim of disruption – the market leader that was late with VoIP itself, then virtualization and cloud. Yet, there is much more to the story. The company has decreasing revenue – but it should as it moves away from hardware. It has a leadership retention problem, but that’s ok too and its new set is generally experienced and proven pros. It has a ton of debt, but it’s paying it off and improving its cash flow at the same time. It has too many products, but there’s tremendous activity underway to consolidate clients. Despite all its woes, there’s quite a bit of energy at Avaya – continued leadership in contact centers, strong networking solutions, and a professional services army like no other.

Kennedy is much more technical than most of the leadership in the industry. He’s also got some very smart brains on his team and at Silver Lake. I thought this interview was interesting and now I intend to read his book on leadership.  – DM

Avaya CEO biz tip: Pirates’ code of high courage & low ego works in tough times

Very few CEOs can claim to have a doctorate, a few patents, a clutch of scientific papers and a couple of management books under their belt but Dr Kevin Kennedy ticks all the boxes.

Avaya’s global CEO has taught engineering at Rutgers University, continues to hold two patents and has published more than 30 scientific papers while also finding time to author two books, Devil in the Details and coauthor Going the Distance: Why Some Companies Dominate and Others Fail.

With a career spanning more than 30 years across companies like AT&T Bell Laboratories, JDS Uniphase and Cisco, Dr Kennedy has spent the last six years at Avaya, realigning the IT company into a focused communication and collaboration major. Sitting at a massive table at the Falaknuma Palace, that at one point would have been used by the Nizam rulers of Hyderabad, Dr Kennedy discusses the intricacies of a turnaround. Edited excerpts:In​ one of your books, you write about CEOs being prisoners of perspective. What was it that you were trying to bring out?All of us are prisoners of our own mind. That being said, if you choose to be a person that does transformation work, you have to be very quick to validate whatever biases you have in your mind with customers. When our private equity owners bought the company, they had the view that because we had so many customers, we could just walk up to a customer and say ‘can we upgrade the phones to something new?’

So that was a prison of our combined mind. I went out to 40 customers and I asked them about what could I do to upgrade their infrastructure, and the response was ‘nothing’. So very quickly I had to ask them what are you buying and what might you buy from me next and it began to be mobile, it began to be applications, it began to be video.

A great example on this transformation is the incoming assumption of our owners was that an upgrade would be an entitlement or birthright, and the reality was we had to intercept where people were already spending their money. It’s a great example of a prisoner of your own mind. But if you go out and talk to customers, they will lead you to the right answers.

Why do you say people are hardwired for drama and conditioned to oversimplify?

It is human nature that we tend to remember people and situations where we made an overt choice at an earlier date. My daughter, who just got married, will always be my little girl and it is hard for me to accept that she is married now. We have to understand that many people become galvanized to the vision of what they married, the last choice they made.

Sometimes things go apart and when that happens, drama ensues. Then you have to hire new people that really want to be there for the mission at hand. Being hardwired for drama is a sort of recognition to get the right people on board.

You have written about the ‘the You have written about the ‘the tyranny of the functional heads’ in a turnaround effort. What have youdone to make sure that all the functions work together rather than within themselves?

First, let me suggest with the appropriate sense of humility that I do not think my work is finished on that front. The first and most important piece is you need to have a leadership team that wants to make the company a success versus themselves.

At Avaya, I am thrilled that I actually have a great leadership team; they have high courage and low ego. We have a pirate’s code of some traits and if we stick to those traits, it works. High courage, low ego is one of them. Second is extreme domain knowledge. We tend to work well together and the team work is great.

I hired an Olympic coach who specializes in making sure people stay aligned towards the mission and he helps break down some of the barriers. The third is to put systems in place that force a collaborative environment. If you simply hire people multiple levels down, they may not be so ready to collaborate even though your leadership team is.

So if you can put systems in place, it helps to reinforce the necessary collaboration on a daily basis. If you do not put the systems in place, your leaders actually get tired out and the wrong behaviors tend to win over time. We have to minimize or eliminate bureaucracy

The Olympic coach bit is very interesting. How has it helped you in managing people?

Yes, he does. I would say one of the challenges that a leader has is you hire somebody and you give them feedback. There is a bias for the next level to say, you know what, Kevin gave me that feedback, but he was just having a bad day so I am just going to keep on doing what I am doing.

Then you have another one and he had two bad days. So coming back to the coach, he would say, I think Kennedy is trying to tell you something and I really think you are not listening. Sometimes people will apply more drama to my words than would be appropriate.

So having somebody who continues to be a bit of an interpreter creates an emphasis on alignment as opposed to allowing suspicion or lack of awareness to permeate. It was crucial for the executive committee to be aligned and that is why the investment.

One of the competitors recently said that the big IT shakeout coming and only the major tech companies will survive. Your comment?

Some people like to forecast. I think consumer companies like Google and Amazon are going to begin to move into the enterprise space. That will precipitate partnerships in the near-term. Secondly you have companies that have very large professional services, or organizations that need high value content. We call them software stacks.

Dell is a good example of a large services organization where you need a software stack to get content with and I think you will see them have relationships with people that have lots of software intensity. HP would be another example of that. That will be a natural set of forces. Third, you have the cloud, which is not necessarily a friend of legacy players.

So I think it is a little bit early to be forecasting. I do think you are seeing consumerization drive a set of relationships. One thing that I have learnt from 37-plus years in this market and 130 acquisitions is that those kinds of shakeouts always take longer than anybody anticipates.

You made so many successful transitions within a company and in new companies. How do you adjust to a new situation?

I think part of it is I take on new jobs because I like to accept new missions and so I like change. Secondly, I celebrate the learning that I can derive from the eighties. When I first started work I thought I want to be a college professor. It turns out I was not very good at it. So you know you make the change and learning is very important. And third, if you surround yourself with the right people and customers that you care about you ultimately learn faster.

Any trick interview questions?

One question I usually ask people,about 20-25 minutes into an interview, is where they were born and why they were born there. There is only one answer and it is a very short answer. You are born wherever your mother was at that time; you will be surprised that about 70% of the executives will give you an answer that is the size of a homily.

And the reason that question is so important is if a leader misses a quarter and I asked him why did you miss the quarter, I would want the short answer, not the homily. The second question that I ask is tell me one (incident) in your life you have dealt with (in) a protracted period with a lack of self-confidence, how did you get into it and how did you evolve from it.