Modesty, leadership advice from Avaya CEO at MIT Sloan

Published: September 28, 2012

Kevin KennedyAvaya president and CEO Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy, president and CEO of Avaya, has a foolproof question he relies on when interviewing job candidates: “Where were you born and why?”

The only answer is “wherever your mother was at the time.” Candidates who ramble on for too long in answering the question are suspect and probably won’t get hired.

“If your head of sales misses their quarter, do you want [him or her] to give you a lot of paragraphs to make it hard to figure out if they are telling the truth, or do you want authenticity?” Kennedy asked at MIT Sloan yesterday. “You want just the facts.”

Kennedy was the first speaker this academic year in the Dean’s Innovative Leaders Series (DILS).

Modest and unassuming, Kennedy joined Avaya, a provider of business collaboration and communications solutions, in 2009.

“I never aspired to be CEO. It just happened,” he said. At DILS, he shared the wisdom he has learned during his 30-plus year career.

Avaya, a Fortune 500 company, is in the midst of transformation from being a voice company to a collaboration company, Kennedy said.

“A transformation company has a lot of challenges. You need experts and you need people who are passionate about the future,” he added.

Kennedy also presented more of his insights, including ideas such as: details matter, covet learning, beware of conventional wisdom, and stay humble. He added a point about remaining modest.

“I think you have to have the self-discipline to realize that what goes up comes down. You’ve got to stay humble and I think you have to make the choice about it,” he said. “The world is tough.”

Upcoming DILS speakers include Jay Hooley, chairman, president, and CEO of State Street Corporation, and Robin Chase, SM ’86, founder and CEO of Buzzcar and co-founder of Zipcar. For more information, visit the DILS website.