From Marine to Mariner
Chris Kennedy pivoted at Foster from piloting military jets to plotting strategy and analytics for the Seattle Mariners of Major League Baseball
On the playground, some children dream of one day growing up to be a fighter pilot. Others dream of perhaps being part of a major league baseball franchise.
Chris Kennedy (MBA 2016) has gone on to achieve both these childhood aspirations.
While humble about his accomplishments, he points out that behind them is an immense amount of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and an often indirect trajectory. He is grounded in his belief that accomplishments are not solely the result of one’s individual efforts, rather they are the result of your team, in life and in work.
Love to compete
Kennedy’s path from the military cockpit to the front office of the Seattle Mariners began in Seattle, where he was born and raised. After high school, he sought a quality education while being mindful of the financial burden higher education can entail, which led him to the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated with a degree in quantitative economics and a desire to make the most out of his commitment to serve in the military. Drawn to the Marine Corps’ ethos—“the few, the proud”—Kennedy accepted a commission into the Marines following graduation with follow-on orders to flight school.
“I’ve always been the type to ask what’s next? How can I improve?” Kennedy says. “The internal desire to see if I have what it takes to perform at the highest levels has always resonated with me. I love to compete!”
Kennedy began his Marine Corps career at the famous Quantico base in Virginia, where he was first indoctrinated into what being a leader of Marines and “service above self” meant. Over the next three years, Kennedy honed his craft as a military pilot, culminating in his “winging” and placement into an operational squadron.
“You have your flying job and your ground job,” he explains. “I was trained in all the competencies and capabilities of a combat operator. Simultaneously, I led an array of departments including administrative functions, logistics teams, strategic planning and operations teams. Throughout my time in the military, I was able to learn practical leadership experience and develop skills that directly apply to civilian life.”
How do you fly in Italian?
Kennedy’s skill sets qualified him for a unique opportunity, as he was selected to represent the Marine Corps as an exchange pilot, embedded with Italy’s only attack squadron, serving as tactics training advisor and military liaison to the Italian Navy.
Before joining the squadron, Kennedy had to master Italian, which he did via an intensive 10-month, five-days-a-week language training program all while developing a fundamental understanding of the differing military cultures. To succeed in this role, Kennedy had to balance the life and death stakes of operating a fighter jet safely, as well as incorporate tactics outside the customary methods that Marines employ.
“It was an opportunity to share my knowledge as well as learn,” Kennedy says. “It was the first time it hit me to look at things as different versus wrong. Inherently, we think if it’s not the way we would do it, it’s wrong. But understanding the differences in how the Italians do things and how we do it, we were able to assemble pieces we could leverage to be even more effective by melding our methods together.”
Rechanneling military leadership
On the heels of his exchange tour, with their first child on the way and orders back to the U.S. forthcoming, Kennedy and his wife, Theresa, decided it was time to transition to civilian life. After multiple discussions with friend and mentor, Peter Olagunju (MBA 2009), Kennedy decided that an MBA would best support and accelerate his desired transition.
“As I was departing the military, my thought was, how can I best transition to the business world? Without an MBA, I don’t know if I could have made an informed career path decision.”
Kennedy had extensive experience making high-stakes decisions under great pressure, as well as years of training in business functions within the context of the military. He chose Foster to teach him to apply those abilities in the private sector, build his network and broaden his skills.
In Foster’s Executive MBA Program, he was able to learn from and partner with faculty and students from multiple industries, disciplines and career levels. The collaborative atmosphere was a highlight for Kennedy, who remains good friends with many of his classmates.
“I appreciated that the engagement with the faculty was almost at a peer-to-peer level,” he says. “Classes were conversational versus a one-way lecture. They are the subject matter experts and were teaching, but we weren’t taught or spoken at. It was more of ‘here’s what’s relevant, here’s how it looks today. Let’s discuss.’ I felt I could be more open, honest—and question while learning—versus being dictated to.”
Getting on first
While still at Foster, Kennedy secured his first post-military position at the consultancy firm PwC. He excelled and climbed the ranks from associate to senior manager, yet he acknowledges the transition to the private sector was challenging.
“It was tough. Initially, I was in observation mode, learning all that I could absorb. Building authentic relationships was a focus for me, and I was fortunate to have some great mentors that continually and tirelessly pushed me. When I talk to people transitioning from the service today, I let them know that’s the biggest challenge. You need to seek out those that are able and willing to invest in your success. I think transitioning military members underestimate the amount of external support needed. Even if you plan it perfectly, you still need champions that will bring you to the next level, and I was incredibly fortunate to have several that supported me through my transition.”
Kennedy later transitioned to a government affairs role at Accolade healthcare. Outside of work, Kennedy had remained a lifelong Mariners fan but never thought he’d be part of the organization until a colleague informed him of a potential opportunity.
“A friend of mine, who is a partner at a consulting firm, learned through his network that the Mariners were seeking candidates for a new strategic leadership role,” Kennedy says. “And as Venn diagrams go, my interests and skills surrounding strategy, analytics and driving meaningful data-supported decisions overlapped with what the organization was looking for. Having the opportunity to work with a sports team that’s near and dear to my heart…it was a no brainer for me.”
Better baseball through data
His title at the Mariners, senior vice president of business strategy and analytics, is broad, encompassing the wide range of his purview. The Mariners are a data-driven organization, on and off the field.
“The job changes from day to day, especially this being a new position,” Kennedy says. “A lot of it is figuring out how I can assist and collaborate with the existing functions to work together more effectively while refining our long-term strategy and driving efforts towards that outcome. I’m thinking about the next step. What will the Mariners organization look like in three years? What does it look like in five years? And what do we need to do today to prepare us for that?”
That future will be shaped by leveraging the wealth of data available to the team on everything from fan base composition, and desired ballpark experiences to concession sales and sponsorship opportunities. As Kennedy points out, a vital aspect of the Mariners’ success is ensuring the fans have a great experience.
The Mariners have a terrific advantage in delivering that superior experience in T-Mobile Park, one of the Major League Baseball’s most fan-friendly venues, from great views from every seat to a wide array of regional food and beverage options.
Kennedy reports that All-Star Week preparations are going well, and he is excited about the events available for fans. “It’s going to be incredible,” he predicts. “The breadth of experiences we have created with MLB for All-Star Week highlight the best of Seattle and will offer something for everyone. There are so many different ways the community and our fans will be able to experience the Midsummer Classic.”
Success is a team sport
Of course, what fans want most is for the team to win a World Series. Since its inaugural season in 1977, the Mariners have made it to the American League Championship Series three times, but never beyond that.
Kennedy and the rest of the organization are confident that it is just a matter of time. He appreciates the loyalty the fans have shown the team through its ups and downs.
“There’s an expectation from our fans to win ball games. I think it’s great that they expect that. I love the fan base here. You can tell that we have the city behind us, which brings us hope and the motivation to continue to push forward.”
That spirit of teamwork and elevating the performance of his organization has been the common thread of Kennedy’s career, from the military to consulting roles and now his position at the Mariners. He firmly believes in the adage that a team is greater than the sum of its parts.
“When I was consulting, we could come up with the world’s greatest solution, but if the people implementing that change weren’t on board and in place, it wasn’t going to work. In the military, you quickly realize this is your team. You must be effective together to get things done. The role of a leader is to facilitate the output of others, to inspire greatness, and to ensure we are pushing ourselves to be the best we can be.”