Leadership Tips from One of the Fiercest Women in Life Sciences

Spotlight on

Sara Kenkare-Mitra, PhD

Who is Sara?

Sara Kenkare-Mitra received a job offer from Genentech that inspired and attracted her to take the leap into biotech, and she spent the next 23 years at one of the most innovative biotech companies in the world. Today, she’s the President and Head of R&D at Alector where she’s leading their mission of pioneering treatments to change the course of neurodegeneration.

Sara knew early on that she wanted to focus on drug discovery, an ambition that pushed her to come to the U.S. following pharmacy school in India. After getting her PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UCSF, she completed her fellowship in clinical pharmacology at UCSF, where she learned the nuances of doing clinical research. She balanced that experience as a postdoc in a computational environment using clinical data to analyze and make pharmacological decisions. Even with so much experience that naturally pointed to a career in academia, Sara was always attracted to the idea of creating medicine, something she knew she wouldn’t get the chance to do if she didn’t pursue a career in industry. Here, this 2018 Fiercest Women in Life Sciences award winner shares thoughts on why women need to use their voice in a male-dominated industry and how to scale and build a successful leadership team.


Push through your unconscious bias

Women need to see other women in the roles they want, so they believe it can be done. Every time I entered a new leadership role, my first thought was “my feet are too small for those shoes” - I had imposter syndrome. This trait seems to be more unique to women as we find ourselves overcoming self-doubt and questioning if we are good enough for something. This is reflective even in the language we use when speaking about raises, promotions and new opportunities. Men tend to be much more direct in these conversations, whereas women are more likely to say something like, “Do you think this open position is something I’d be right for?”

At Genentech, I co-created our women in science initiative, and much of the feedback we heard from women was the same. They were nervous to speak up at senior meetings or committees, but there was often nothing specific that caused it– it was all in our mind. We really have to work to get over our unconscious bias, to be more confident and to use our voice.

Every time I entered a leadership role my first thought was “my feet are too small for those shoes”


You are not the only problem solver on your team

Leading a small team versus a large one is vastly different and requires different approaches and strategies. When you lead smaller groups, you can still be very hands-on, but beyond a group of ~7 people, this becomes nearly impossible. The focus needs to be on multiplicative leadership, which is the practice of creating other leaders.

If you hire great people and can become a mentor and teacher to your team, you will see a scaling effect with a very high level of excellence. As a leader, you have the responsibility to create and develop a team that’s solving the problem, and it’s critical to remember you are not the only problem solver. In fact, you are likely not even the smartest person on your team. That’s not only OK, it’s great! You’ve hired a team of smart problem solvers, many of whom have more expertise in specific areas than you, and you need to embrace that, recognize their skills and learn something  about yourself along the way.

[As the leader], you are likely not the smartest person on your team.


There are no shortcuts in leadership

The key to being an effective leader is to give your team a clear direction and vision, and make sure they know how critical they are to the success of that vision. Leaders really need to invest in the individuals on their team and spend at least half of their time on mentoring, guiding and leading them. Really learn who they are, identify their strengths and weaknesses, where they have opportunities to grow and where they may need help in filling in gaps.

This often comes to light during development conversations, which people often unnecessarily fear, instead of realizing their extraordinary value. The key to having successful conversations is to be honest with yourself about individual performance and what it may take to help your teams reach their full potential. It’s a huge time investment, but there are no shortcuts in being a great leader. It just doesn’t happen otherwise.


Evaluating how someone builds a team is a key indicator of success

There’s often an unspoken obligation within startups, where everyone must wear a lot of hats and take on a wide variety of roles to help out the larger organization. There’s not always defined specialized roles, and you pull people into functions that they aren’t necessarily trained in. This can become quite challenging as an organization scales, and it’s why culture is so important, especially in a startup environment. You can have a great idea, but if you don’t have the right team and the right environment, you won’t be able to execute it. What I look for in leaders is their ability to lead, support and empower by watching how they recruit a great team. You can always tell the quality of the team by the leader, and you can always tell the quality of a leader by the team they’ve built.

Spending the time to cultivate a positive work environment is crucial because if people are happy and thriving, they feel empowered to master skill sets and think critically about how to improve them. The longer you have people wanting to work together, the better the likelihood for success. Lead your team with a focus on the organization's mission, on recognizing the team's success, as well as the opportunities to learn from failures. Startups truly are a perfect balance of a science and an art, and the art aspect only comes from being retrospective and learning from your failures and successes

You can always   tell the quality  of the team by  the leader