• Cass Polzin

Partnerships, Relationships, and the Power of Mentoring

This article is part of our Women in Partnerships series, highlighting female professionals in the partnerships space. To learn more about the series and the Women in Partnerships group, check out the series intro.


Kathleen Phillips is the Head of Partnerships and Strategic Alliances for Digital River. With more than 25 years of experience, Digital River allows brands to grow their e-commerce channels globally through its Global Seller Services, the back-office functions of payments, taxes, compliance, and fraud mitigation.


Throughout her career, Kathleen spent time in a number of VP roles, including as a VP of Marketing, VP of Sales & Marketing, and VP of Strategic Partnerships and Programs. In each of those roles, she’s found ways to excel, with managers often asking her to step up to roles with additional responsibilities.


Today, Kathleen joins us to discuss her experience in partnerships, what she looks for in each of her roles, career highlights, and advice for other industry professionals.


The Sum is Greater than the Parts

Kathleen has an impressive career journey, which has centered around partnerships and strategic alliances. She explained, “I've spent my entire career working with companies from startups, to multi-billion dollar companies, in partnerships. I have been so blessed to work with partners all over the world that, through partnering, we have generated millions of dollars of profitable revenue for our respective organizations. It gives me such heartfelt gratitude knowing I have had some influence in building their company.”


Kathleen has spent a little over two years at Digital River, but moving to the organization was a significant career shift. “I worked in the security industry for a long time. I wanted to do something different, learn something new, challenge myself. Digital River had a partnership position I interviewed for. Having a go-to-market strategy that includes partners can be complex and complicated. I interrogated the heck out of the hiring manager! After spending some time with him and having all the right answers, then meeting the executive team, I knew this company was committed to building their business through partnerships.”


Her interrogation worked out because Kathleen was able to implement an effective partner program at Digital River. How did she know it would be a great fit? There were two key factors she was looking for and Digital River delivered executive buy-in, and funding the talent, programs and marketing to develop and activate mutually successful partnerships.


Kathleen and her boss have been able to ensure team buy-in and understanding through education. “My boss, Mike French, is wicked smart. As we formed partnerships with Salesforce and Magento, we put together a cross-functional team that met weekly. It was initially really arduous. We spent two hours every Wednesday going through partner recruitment, pipeline update, training and knowledge base tools, software development progress, and new client implementations. But it was worth it because it exposed the rest of the group to what was critical to ensuring our success with partnerships. For team members that haven’t been exposed to partnerships in the past, it's about educating, educating, educating, and educating. If they've worked for companies that have a direct go-to-market selling strategy, it's very different than selling with partners. Taking the time and having the patience to educate those colleagues has been a bit of a character-building event, however, very rewarding.”


Early Accomplishments at Digital River

In the first month of a role, especially one in a new industry, you’re typically learning a lot all at once. In the middle of that initial onboarding phase, Kathleen accomplished her proudest achievement. “What I'm the proudest of, in the first 30 days, I'm trying to understand the business, are the terms my colleagues are using a Digital River term or an industry term. All high-tech companies love their technology. They do a great job talking about their technology, and not always such a great job explaining their value to customers.”


“Magento was a partnership I needed to close. The company had already met with Magento and been told they were not interested in a partnership with Digital River. At first, I panicked. However, I was not going to fail. I took a different route and arranged a conference call with another member of the Magento partnership team and ended up closing the account. — my boss and I closed Salesforce B2C Commerce six weeks later.”


For Digital River, who was just getting into the headless e-commerce space, this was an enormous deal. “I was proud of the ability to get outside of my comfort zone. I had been coaching teams for the majority of my career vs. being an individual contributor. To come in and make those things happen quickly was very gratifying.”


Overcoming Obstacles

Kathleen has always done well in her career, but she was initially very humble. “My biggest obstacle has probably been believing in myself. I always had roles where I was meeting and exceeding expectations. I was at Fargo Electronics, running customer service, tech support, inside sales and our service depot. Our CEO tapped me on the shoulder and wanted me to build and lead a new product management function.”


“I walked into the conference room with him and the board of directors and I looked at them — It was all men, and one woman on the board — I said, ‘Wow, I am so honored, but no thank you.’ They assured me that they had all the confidence in the world that I would be wildly successful. The biggest obstacle has been to reach outside of that box that I'm comfortable in.”


She has learned from those experiences. “We have to believe in ourselves and take risks. Midway into my career, I was blessed to have the company fund an executive coach - Greg Henderson. He pushed me and inspired me to do things that I probably never would have done. I didn’t do anything that wasn’t a calculated risk, but he encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone — I would never be where I am today without his guidance. Especially early in your career, try things. I got tapped on my shoulder early on, and I wish I had taken more of those opportunities.”


From Mentors to Mentoring

That push from a mentor helped Kathleen take on new opportunities. “Within six months of working with Greg, I got promoted to running all of our global marketing and sales. I feel blessed that I was able to work with people that took me under their wing and challenged me. After having those experiences and success there, it drove my confidence. I also have an amazing female mentor, Jane Salmen, President and Founder of Human Capital Partners. When I took a buy-out package early in my career, she believed in me and helped me find new opportunities. When you leave a company, even if it's your choice, it can be scary out there — you have to find that next chapter in your career. Jane wasn’t just an amazing coach; she was an amazing friend, she always made me feel like I could do anything and I was a rock star.”


Kathleen Phillips and her parents

“The other two influential mentors in my life are my Dad who taught me how to be resilient, courageous, and how important your integrity is. From my Mom, I learned compassion, gratitude, and humility.”


After such an impactful experience with mentors herself, Kathleen now helps other professionals move past their self-doubts and accomplish their goals. “When I got my first VP of Marketing role, I was asked to be a mentor for Menttium, who pairs business professionals with high potential talent. I quickly found out it was all about helping mentees drive the agenda in their career, helping them get noticed, and stand out among their peers. I have been a Menttium mentor for 17 years and I am so proud and humbled by all the success and promotions my mentees have had during our partnership. It's all about inspiring, building confidence, and nudging them to believe in themselves and take calculated risks. At the end of the day, the mentee owns their actions, I am here to inspire them to believe they can achieve and exceed their most audacious goals.”


After a long career in the industry and her success supporting mentees, Kathleen is starting to explore what her next career step could look like. “I love mentoring. Honestly, for me, my dream someday is to do executive coaching. I want to work with women and men, work with diversity, and help professionals knock it out of the park. I want them to believe in themselves and fly higher than they could have ever imagined. That is pure gratification. The best moments in my career have been seeing the people on my team soar to unbelievable heights and achieve success in ways they did not think were possible.”


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