A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Career in Alliance Management…

Posted By: Jon Lavietes ASAP Webinar, Member Resources,

Talking about the “typical” path to and within an alliance management career can be tricky—mostly because there is no typical path. Just as people like to say that “if you’ve seen one alliance, you’ve seen one alliance,” each alliance manager takes a different route to the profession, and once they are there, their careers unfold differently.

Take Bob Thompson and Kevin Little, for example. Thompson started his career in tech support, then progressed to sales and marketing roles within both independent software vendors (ISVs) and systems integrators (SIs). After pitching a new business development role to his C-suite two decades ago, Thompson ended up in alliance management, where he has been pretty much ever since. He is now leading his own team as vice president and head of systems integrators at PTC.

Little started in academia, where he wound up doing postdocs in gene therapy. He realized a few years into his career in academic research that he wanted to switch to the business side of life sciences, so he cofounded an NGO that sought to attract investments into regional science-related initiatives in New Zealand. His next move was to start a new preventative health program for a Canadian university, which was followed by a stint as chief scientific officer at a diagnostics startup. It turned out he had dealt with alliances informally at many of these roles without realizing there was a profession dedicated to the craft. A few years ago, he took his first official alliance management position at pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, where he is now a senior partnership director.

Thompson and Little shared their stories as part of ASAP’s webinar “Upward Trajectory: Mastering Your Career Progression to Alliance Leadership,” which took place in March, and what transpired was one of the most well-attended and interactive virtual ASAP events in recent memory. As moderator Michael J. Burke, ASAP’s senior editorial consultant and editor in chief of Strategic Alliance Quarterly, noted, career development is a “perennial topic” that is top of mind to neophytes and longtime alliance managers alike.

“What is [my] next move? What is my plan a, b, or, c? What is my ‘soft landing’ before retirement?” he said.

As the panelists outlined how to gain the necessary experience and move up the alliance management ladder, current ASAP advisory board members, former board members, and veteran professionals were answering questions from alliance managers of all experience levels in the Zoom side chat.

“There are whole conversations going on in the chat,” marveled Burke at one point during the presentation. 

Pulling a Rotation Could Set Your Career Foundation

What skills should alliance managers look to attain in roles preceding an alliance management career? Both Little and Thompson listed contract negotiations and aligning business models and objectives as foundational competencies. Little added partner selection to the mix to round out the first phases of the alliance management life cycle. From there, “how you actively go about managing [alliances] long term is really where the strength of everything within the ASAP community experience and as an alliance manager comes in,” he said.  

Where should you get that exposure? PTC is grooming recent college grads for a variety of company roles as part of its “rotational analyst program,” in which those recent graduates perform four six-month stints in different parts of the organization. Thompson recommended participants “try to get a broad exposure to everything you can while you’re here,” which could include corporate development work to understand how mergers and acquisitions activity fits into company strategy or sales because it “is the lifeblood of the organization—that’s how we pay our bills. Ultimately, all roads lead to revenue—you have to have some experience on the revenue side. It doesn’t hurt to have experience in a support role; understand what support does and how that contributes to customer success.”

“Get that foundation, get the experience, work on things that would help you understand how partnerships contribute to the bottom line of the corporation,” he added. 

When asked in the chat by an audience member whether he would recommend becoming a subject matter expert in a specific area of science, Little relayed an observation that HR departments are less inclined to pay for PhDs, MBAs, and other advanced degrees in favor of on-the-job learning, and he added that programs like the aforementioned PTC rotation help build knowledge and networks.

“Try to find opportunities where you can do a rotation, some kind of a project-based involvement that’s not just going to stretch your experience but your exposure to the organization. That’s where you can position yourself in the right spot to become this alliance coordinator,” he said. 

Chaotic or Dynamic? Empathy Is the Hardest Part

When it comes to soft skills, Thompson and Little highlighted empathy and a willingness to learn as two very important traits prospective alliance managers should have in spades. Thompson said he regularly puts himself “in the other organization’s and the other person’s shoes and looks at a particular issue or opportunity from their lens. That approach has served me well.”

Interestingly, Little gave the impression that empathy can be a hard part of the job.

“Because alliance managers have to be considerate of so many functions and so many other people, it can be pretty taxing,” he said, adding that alliance managers can’t expect a predictable nine-to-five job. The flip side to that of course is that a natural curiosity will fit nicely with the duties of the role. “We make it sound chaotic, but because it’s so dynamic, that’s really exciting. That makes it super interesting. No two days are the same.”

Managing Alliances and Managing Teams

Responding to a question about how to move from managing individual alliances to a higher-level alliance leadership position, Little tackled the issue from two angles.

First, he noted that those overseeing alliance management functions often didn’t rise through the ranks within the profession themselves and may have actually never done the job before. Thus, you may need to “get some experience in a manager role with direct reports [and] understand what it is to manage a team,” even if that position is outside of the alliance function.   

Portfolios and Priorities

Another key to moving into bigger alliance roles is taking the “portfolio” view of your alliances and understanding where they sit within the context of business development, corporate development, and internal development activities, Little said. Thompson added that you also have to “keep pace with any sort of strategic direction adjustments, organizational changes, even personnel changes; priorities of one individual are not the priorities of another.”

There was so much more great dialogue between the panelists and among the active listeners. Retrieve “Upward Trajectory: Mastering Your Career Progression to Alliance Leadership” from the ASAP Content Hubnow and hear Thompson discuss how CA-AM and CSAP certification “gives structure where one doesn’t exist,” and how Little is actually starting to see certification come up as “nice-to-haves” on alliance manager job postings, among many other insights.   

To hear more about Thompson’s story and how to move up the ladder in alliance management, see “Endless Progression,” a feature that appears in our Q4 2022 edition of Strategic Alliance Quarterly.  And be sure to check out our follow-on feature on how experience in other divisions, such as sales, marketing, and technical support, specifically raises alliance managers’ effectiveness in their day-to-day jobs in our upcoming Q2 2023 Strategic Alliance Quarterly, which delves deeper into Little’s career journey.