As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Vicky Kennedy.
Throughout her 20-year career in the education and training industry, Vicky Kennedy has developed certifications for Amazon advertising and technical training for publisher teams at Facebook, rewritten curricula for bachelor programs at the Art Institutes, and taught courses on campus and online. She’s currently the chief strategy officer for Intellum, where she leads the company’s strategic teams, such as education and enablement, people and culture, and learning science.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I knew at the very beginning of my career that I had an entrepreneurial spirit. And while I have not yet launched my own initiative, I always strive to make what is in front of me better. Having begun my career in academia where I was the youngest chair member at the school, I was exposed to unique opportunities early on in my career that an instructor typically would not have access to. For example, I was able to redesign the curriculum across two departments, and institute an assessment strategy that provided regular, objective feedback to students.
At 32, I had to hit a reset on my career after being laid-off, which is always daunting — but in a way, it was also exciting. Taking an entry-level position at this time was most certainly humbling, but I know that this nontraditional career path and the unique opportunities helped me reach the leadership roles I’ve risen to today.
Having to find my feet after the lay-off by accepting a SaaS product support role, I eventually worked my way up to a management position where I spearheaded multiple initiatives, including launching 24/7 customer support and an internship program. This is when I found my sweet spot — being an instrument of change. Shortly after, I took on education-centric roles at Facebook and Amazon where I leaned into my passion for reimagining curricula to align with business objectives, overseeing education and training programs at both companies.
Fast-forward to mid-pandemic 2020, I took a leap of faith to take on the role of VP of education strategy at Intellum. As I familiarised myself with the company during my first few months in this role, I realized there was an opportunity to create a new role with a broader scope, chief strategy officer. I felt strongly about promoting myself for this role as it directly aligned with my passion for strategy within the context of education.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As I onboarded remotely, I was quickly made aware of all of the moving parts of Intellum and the exciting projects our internal teams were working on across the organization. As I settled into my position, I had the chance to meet one on one with a number of the team leads to learn about their innovative ideas — there were so many cool plans in motion.
For example, one of the engineering managers had developed an assessment tool to evaluate each engineer’s skill level, which has since become quite useful as we’ve expanded that department significantly. It’s been really great to get more exposure to all of the awesome talent we have across the company, with our team based all over the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There’s a well-known financial acronym that I wasn’t familiar with when I first started, being that my background isn’t sales and marketing. Much to my embarrassment, I got this extremely well-known acronym wrong during one of our executive planning sessions…thankfully, no one laughed at me, just politely corrected me.
I’ve since learned the acronym, but more importantly, I always remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with asking,”–and what does that stand for?” And no, I’m not telling you which acronym it is!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
First off, I must say that there are so many people who have helped me get to where I am today. And to those people, I will forever be grateful! But one person who really helped me get to this stage in my career was my previous manager at Amazon. He was a great leader and mentor, which made him an awesome advocate for his teams. He ultimately taught me what being a good leader really means — being a voice of transparency and empowering your team members to run with autonomy.
He was also the first person who exposed me to the concept of “improving competence”. This means that while leaders tend to be experienced enough to make informed and educated decisions, they still need to be able to show that they are actively listening to other team members. Maintaining a humble attitude and staying open to your team’s input is crucial to making important business decisions, as another team member’s idea/approach may offer a new perspective. In other words, we’re all life-long learners.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
During my time at Amazon, I learned the concept of the “2-way-door decision.” Basically, this means that making a decision will always lead to an outcome that is changeable in the future — there is never a need to stress or overanalyze. So, for me, I go into meetings looking at the bigger picture and remind myself that most decisions can be tried and tried again. It also doesn’t hurt that my wife is a meditation teacher!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity means so much more than race, gender, sexual preference, etc. While those factors are very important to consider, it’s also quite important to have diversity in thought. And really, the two tend to go hand-in-hand. Once you have a diverse mindset, this makes room at the table for innovative, creative, and diverse ideas that would not be made possible in an otherwise homogeneous environment.
Having a diverse executive team is not only influential but also crucial to having a diverse company. People will be surprised just how important breaking down barriers is when striving to achieve a diverse company. When you have diversity of thought at the executive level, it opens the door to cultivate and foster a diverse company.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Inclusivity should not be surface-level and must go beyond inclusive hiring practices. It is more important now than ever before that we truly embrace what makes an individual unique — how can we as leaders and peers enable each individual’s uniqueness to shine?
And, actively standing up against any and all barriers to inclusivity and diversity by calling out when one of these standards is not being upheld is imperative — today, companies are being held to truly walking the walk, which is an important evolution from the surface-level allyship of years past.
In my mind, business leaders set the tone of society, in and out of the office. So they’re the ones with the power to change how we embrace different social groups in all environments.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Regardless of title, an executive is responsible for the entire organization, not just a specific area directly under their purview. It’s not enough to just have a well-performing team — you have to consider the overall health of the company, from its values (and how/if they are used authentically), to sales metrics all the way to collaboration and transparency. You know your company is on the right track when the executives are working together in this way and a positive employee experience follows.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that executives only care about financial metrics and the bottom line. There is so much more that goes into achieving a healthy “bottom line”, including the overall well-being of the company and its employees. An executive takes careful consideration into how teams are working together and whether employees are happy and driven. While the bottom line is important, it’s really only one aspect.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Even in 2021, there are still old biases present about what it means to be a “woman in charge.” For example, while having an assertive voice is a typically celebrated trait of an executive, it is often misinterpreted as “overly emotional” or “aggressive” when taken on by a woman. My biggest challenge has been finding a balance between being confident and assertive and not being afraid to NOT turn it down. I encourage all women to take their seats at the table and make their voices heard.
Years ago, a male colleague told me to smile more when I went into the office. Since I was not in a role that required overt friendliness and his feedback was not relevant to my work performance in any way, I remember leaving work that day feeling very confused. It is disappointing that situations like these still happen, even at the executive level.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I was happily surprised to learn that the range of responsibilities and projects that I am involved in is much broader than originally expected. This is exciting and inspiring for me because, in order to guide strategic alignment, you need to be tuned into work across all levels of the business.
In action, this has meant interacting daily with team members in every division and function of the company. I really enjoy having my hands in so many pots.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I will always encourage anyone aspiring to be an executive because I believe if you want to be an executive, then chart your course to be one!
That said, I do think that having a passion for success helps you along the way — as does having managers and mentors as advocates to help open your growth path along the way. If you strive to make high-impact changes and have the ability to think strategically about butterfly effects, then being an executive is the right fit for you. Successful executives have the ability to see how one decision today can impact other teams in addition to the entire company down the line.
I’m personally a big fan of the individual contributor role because moving up in your career does not have to be confined to moving up the traditional management ladder — you can also be seen as a leader within your particular area of expertise without taking on a C-suite position.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Regardless of gender, I believe having the ability to empower your team to be autonomous is crucial. I encourage all women leaders to remind their teams that growth in business requires failure just as much as it requires success. And that’s okay. Women leaders should encourage their team members to have a voice and use that power to empower their team.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My aim in life is to impact one person at a time to leave a small mark in what’s a big and crazy world. As someone who is extremely passionate about giving employees a better experience at their companies, one way that I’ve decided to use my business knowledge and experience to leave my mark has been by participating in a few volunteer advisory boards, such as for Your Passion 1st, which is a non-profit international coaching and mentorship platform focused on helping under-resourced young adults overcome adversity and earn money in the area of their passion.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) It’s okay to ask questions. This goes back to my previous answer about the financial acronym — it’s important to know that asking questions is not only okay but expected, as it’s the key to learning. There’s no expectation to know everything about everything, so being honest with what you don’t know goes a long way to building credibility and trust.
2) Having a team you trust is essential. There’s no way for one person to do it all. The most successful organizations are able to work strategically as a whole, which requires leaders to delegate important projects to their teams. I’m fortunate enough to have an amazing team that often surprises me with the creative solutions they come up with.
3) Failures are as important as successes, and it’s important to share them. I’ve learned over the years not only that failure is important (and inevitable), but sharing that failure — or more specifically the learnings from that failure — is often the best way to inspire others to take risks.
4) No one really knows what they’re doing. It’s easy to feel like everyone around you knows so much more than you, AKA imposter syndrome. But the reality is, most of us are figuring things out day by day. Yes, experience is a real thing, but gaining experience as you go actually helps you land on solutions quicker.
5) “Strength” and “expertise” are not synonymous. It’s common to think that a strength is something that you’re really good at, but I’ve learned that a strength is really something that you’re passionate about and want to become better at. I’ve been able to craft my career by consistently leaning more and more into my strengths, learning more with each opportunity.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I know for me personally, at the young age of 17, the thought of student loans and deciding what I would do for the rest of my life was terrifying. This is why I have always wanted to inspire a movement that provides high schoolers with resources to help them navigate career selection. With all the different career options available these days, it can be hard for schools to adequately present options to their students. This movement would be meant to provide mentorship programs to inform high schoolers that there are many different education and career paths. There is no one size fits all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
That would have to be Eleanor Roosevelt’s line, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I’ve taken a number of pretty big risks in my life, from moving to NYC with nothing but an airbed and a bag of clothes, to making the case for promotion to a C-level position at my current company. I really believe that you have to take charge of your path, and you can only do that if you’re willing to face the things that scare you.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Steve Wozniak created a company called Efforce, which aims to use cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to make it cheaper and easier for companies to fund ‘green’ projects. I am very passionate about sustainability and admire big corporate leaders who prioritize this topic. I would love to pick his brain about this and learn how the company came about, how it’s going, and where it’s headed!