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Kennedy speaks to starting out her working life as a mom, leading from authenticity and vulnerability, and holding your vision.
Kennedy gave birth to her first son in her final year of law studies so being a working mom was her reality from the start: “When I think back, the image that really stands out is sitting at this desk in my little college apartment, the baby in a rocker, and me rocking the baby with my foot while working my way through big, thick law books.”
As a single mother, Kennedy completed her law licensing exams and then secured a role with PricewaterhouseCoopers in their corporate finance team where she qualified as an accountant.
Shortly before the banking crisis, she joined Bank of Scotland Ireland, and was there until the company exited the Irish market. Kennedy then reassessed where she wanted to live and moved to the north coast area of Ireland to enjoy the lifestyle and support of family while growing her own. It was there where she joined Prudential. Coinciding with the arrival of her third child, she moved into PGIM Private Capital, and became CEO of their Irish entity 18 months ago.
“It’s been an extremely challenging but also a very rewarding year. My legal background, my finance background, my banking background, every single one of those aspects I use and weave together in my day-to-day role as CEO,” says Kennedy. “Each twist and turn along the way led me to being the right person for this role at the right time.”
“In my early 20s, most of my peers and colleagues were out partying at the weekend. I think being a mom really focused me on my career,” reflects Kennedy. “I was either at work or studying, or I was looking after my son. I was very serious early because I had a lot of responsibility, which from a career aspect is very helpful.”
She still remembers her weekly and daily schedule, as keeping to a rhythm was important in making her full life work: “Those years built resilience. I gained an ability to deal with challenges, because I confronted so many of them early on.”
“I am extremely curious. I believe that knowledge and perspective bring a deeper understanding of what you are doing and why you are doing it. The bigger picture perspective allows you to deliver over and above what your role allows and creates opportunity for you and your company,” says Kennedy.
An essential ingredient to self-development in leadership, she feels her curiosity has truly come into greater value in the C-suite, where Kennedy is constantly interpreting “what does this mean?”
Kennedy has learned to embrace that she’s wired for growth more than comfort.
“I’ve had to accept about myself, and my personality, that I always want to be involved and be moving forward,” says Kennedy. “Even when I have taken jobs that could be a Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, which are good from a lifestyle perspective, I could not just say stop and enjoy it. I couldn’t help but to involve myself in other projects.”
She has learned to manage her own drive to intentionally balance both family and work, which calls on those boundaries she learned young. Today, she is mom to three sons, who are 18, 4 and 2.
“I come home and I put down the phone or the laptop in a corner for family time,” says Kennedy. “I block out my calendar so nobody can put meetings in when the kids are home from daycare so I have those hours exclusively with them, and then I’m open to a meeting with colleagues once they are in bed.”
Along with many women in her generation, Kennedy feels she was strongly influenced in her worldview by seeing Mary Robinson, a lawyer, who had studied at Trinity College in Ireland and at Harvard Law School, become the first female president of Ireland in 1990: “My mother sat me down in front of the TV during the inauguration and said, ‘If a woman can become president of this country, there is nothing in this world stopping you from being who you want to be and doing what you want to do.’”
Kennedy feels that she internalized that message as a young woman, as did many women in her generation, and it has fortified their sense of belonging to their dreams.
From early on, Kennedy learned the value of keeping your eyes set on the big picture, regardless of situational challenges. “There have been hurdles and challenges along the way, but I don’t focus on them, I focus on where it is I want to go, and the hurdles eventually fade away, and I keep moving forward.”
“That’s the resilience I built,” she says.
The biggest skill that Kennedy has leaned into more in her CEO position is vulnerability.
“When you come from a technical background, whether it’s on the law side or the finance side, you pride yourself on technical knowledge and knowing everything about everything,” she notes. “As you step into leadership roles, that isn’t always going to be the case. You have to learn to be comfortable with not knowing everything and turning to others for guidance.”
“I like to surround myself with people that are a lot smarter than me and people from different backgrounds and perspectives. I embrace their challenge and feedback, and actually feel quite uncomfortable in an environment where everyone agrees with me.”
Kennedy has observed that if we truly value authenticity in leadership, then we should not encourage women to fit into a corporate mold that precludes the ability to be themselves.
“I love to see people push the boundaries a little. My husband, as a joke one year, bought me a book on defiant Irish women. I loved it. I keep that book on my desk, and it reminds me that we can achieve great things. You can be professional and successful, but you can also be yourself.”
Beyond all the advice one might receive on how you need to be and how you need to act as a leader, Kennedy suggests one benchmark: “At the end of the day, when you look back, how do you feel about how you behaved as a person? If you want to be proud of what you did, the way you do that is to be true to yourself.”
Kennedy’s first partner she worked for at PwC is among her most inspiring leaders—and one she would want to emulate. He was personable, down-to-earth and approachable, but extremely knowledgeable and effective in his role. Those qualities inspired the organic support and loyalty of his team.
When it comes to managing her teams, Kennedy pulls from her experience playing team sports to emphasize the team approach: “We all have our roles and we all have to equally put in our input in order to deliver on a team focus,” she notes. “We all have our responsibilities, but we all need each other. It’s never about just one person, and when someone is overly focused on only themselves, it is disruptive.”
With time, the one thing Kennedy has improved on is embracing mistakes, and knowing that one mistake does not define a career nor negate your many accomplishments. She remembers a time when a mistake would have overtaken her focus, and she’s had to learn to overcome that tendency to beat herself up.
“I’ve learned to be easier on myself throughout the years. It’s still not easy and it’s something that I have to work at. I have found ways that help me relax, such as exercising and going to reflexology on a regular basis,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy’s sons are her greatest achievements. After hiking to Everest base camp back in 2012, she loves to hike in the mountains of coastal Ireland around Donegal with her family, where she relishes the energetic high of an expanded perspective.
Article written by Aimee Hansen and originally published by The Glass Hammer.