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Flag Wavers: Getting the C-Suite on Your Side

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 11/21/2013

On Thursday afternoon at the 2013 ASAP BioPharma Conference, in their presentation “Listening In on the C-Suite: And Getting Senior Executives to Carry the Alliance Flag,” Mary Jo Struttmann of Astellas US and Jeff Shuman of The Rhythm of Business showed how Astellas implemented several tools and processes to rationalize its alliance management operations and measure and monitor how well they are delivering value and how they could be improved.

Noting that alliances are “conceptually easy but operationally hard,” Shuman led off by arguing that alliance managers’ real job is to lead and get alignment, realize the strategic intent of their alliances, and get out in front of potential brushfires—which means not just putting them out but preventing them from happening. Moreover, he added that many alliance professionals complain that “My senior management just doesn’t understand what I do.” But as the world changes and becomes more collaborative, he said, alliance people need to “flip the question” and focus on the strategic issues that are “front and center to the executive suite and focus on their agenda”—a case, perhaps, of Ask not what the C-Suite can do for you, but…

“You’ll be speaking their language and help them make better decisions. It’s absolutely critical to flip the question,” he summarized.

Astellas came out of a merger of two Japanese companies in 2005. Struttmann was hired at that time to manage two critical alliances for the U.S. In 2007, the company added to its portfolio of alliances, and by 2008 started implementing the VitalSigns assessment from The Rhythm of Business to measure its alliances. In 2009, this was followed by a Positive Impact Assessment to get feedback from internal customers.

According to both presenters, alliances should deliver three types of value: financial value (making money), risk mitigation (proactively looking around corners and watching out for problems), and partnering effectiveness (reducing cost of time). Struttmann asked her team to look at these measures and see where they were having positive impact. “We’ve learned a lot through the years—we learned how to do something better,” she said.

Astellas next worked with The Rhythm of Business on a Partner Listening Tour, talking to 30 executives within Astellas, as well as affiliates, different functions, and partners.

“They value the fact that you’re wanting to hear [from them], and they think more highly of you because of that,” Struttmann said. “But you have to be prepared for the feedback. We heard good feedback and bad feedback. People wanted more from us, and it was a good thing. Senior executives were expecting more. Some things hit me in the gut, but we really had to act on it and show that.”

Struttmann and her team looked for patterns and common themes in order to make an action plan. “Don’t take it personally!” she advised. “Look at what we can do to address what we’re hearing. This is our customer, and we have to meet our customer’s needs. And there was a common theme: we needed to take a strong leadership role, be more strategic, and step up to the plate.”

Among the outcomes were that alliances were now discussed in new forums within the company; there were semiannual alliance reviews at the C-level; the organization was engaged in enhancing governance practices; there was a new focus on relationships with governance leaders; alliances were integrated into Astellas’s standard operating procedures (SOPs); and finally, the strategic plan produced was cascaded to all key alliances.

Going forward, the plan is to continue this conversation at the executive level, and get the C-Suite’s help with internal alignment. This is what the presenters meant by getting senior leadership to “carry the flag.”

In conclusion, Shuman emphasized that “You can get better at alliance management. It’s a challenging job, but an exciting job. We’re all collaborating more than we used to be, so it’s a skill set that will serve you well.”

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