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Leadership Insights from Darlene Mann by Karin Kissane

Karin Kissane, Managing Director, Gates Capital Partners

I had the pleasure of hosting a Table for 10 with Darlene Mann, who brings 20 years of operating and venture capital experience to her role as President and COO at Akoonu.  Darlene and I first met in 1998, when she was leading the technology practice at Onset Ventures, a very prominent early stage firm.  I was a newly minted MBA, desperately seeking a female mentor in my new field.  During these early days of Internet and enterprise software investing, there were few women role models in venture and technology. Darlene was always willing to connect, guide, and mentor a female colleague.  She brought this same warmth, accessibility and expertise to our intimate dinner that was attended by female senior Bay Area executives.  Darlene is a mother of two, and remains happily married, so she gave some great advice on how to balance it all.

Our dinner group represented diverse experience and perspectives ranging from enterprise software to banking to industrial infrastructure and retail.  The topic themes included achieving professional success with life balance, personal competitiveness & growth over time and intricacies of thriving in the VC and Entrepreneur worlds.

Here are a few Tips from the Top:

  • VC vs. Entrepreneurship:  Darlene left VC because her learning curve had flattened and she preferred creative aspects of an operating role; she missed the prestige and could have been wealthier, but valued the balance she gained.  As a VC, she predicts she would have spent less time with her children. Her teenage sons are now heading towards college and Darlene has no regrets!
  • Given her roots, Darlene has always preferred smaller company environments. However, she counseled us that there is great value in working in a big company during the early years of a career.
  • In a small company, Darlene notes no problem is “too small” for the President to address.  She shared a story from a fellow CEO once asked to find a solution to what they deemed a very important, sensitive problem – an engineer had taken to washing his iguana in the company lunchroom’s sink!
  • Darlene has some great time management tips:
    • Become a morning person in order to complete two hours of work before your colleagues wake;
    • Turn off email, slack and other collaborative communication during the wee mornings;
    • Don’t over-schedule your days, so you have time to respond to operational/staff needs as they arise;
    • And, sharing a tip from Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates, don’t discount the value of your future time (if you are inclined to say no to an event now, why put it on your calendar during the future just because you appear less busy then?)

Darlene had excellent insights about leadership

  • Learn how to frame business situations: “she who controls the model, controls the outcomes.” Show ownership in solving an issue by inventing how to frame it.
  • Darlene also gave great advice on leading a team/empowering staff to their best. Strong feedback is equally important. A leader has to address poor performance by helping the staff that is not fit for the role to find a better fit.  Not taking action can harm the rest of the team.
  • She pointed out that a critical differentiator for moving into or being successful in senior leadership roles is about having a growth mind-set (to help the company make money).
  • In addition, for strong women or men leaders, a pitch is always a performance. There is no winging it.
  • If you are still climbing the ladder, become the trusted advisor of the CEO/President. Help the president learn or deal with realities of the business. Information gets filtered on its way to the top.  As a trusted advisor, you can help bring clarity to how things are and how they could be addressed.

Our evening was energizing, full of masterful insights from Darlene and questions raised by the group. Women leaders face a unique set of opportunities and challenges in business.  Intimate gatherings, such as Table of 10 with UPWARD women provide a great forum for sharing learnings.

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