A Matter of Priority: Where Should Alliance Managers Focus Their Time and Effort?

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, ASAP Roundtables,

What should I focus on today? Often, the answer isn’t as straightforward for alliance managers as it is for other types of professionals. At any moment, there are critical initiatives on the horizon across the portfolio—governance meetings, kickoffs, partner selection and onboarding, joint sales presentations, health checks/partner surveys—plus a blooming garden of issues that crop up out of nowhere, necessitating additional powwows with sales, marketing, finance, legal, regulatory, product development, or your partner counterpart. Or all of the above.

Then there’s the matter of getting the rest of your organization to prioritize alliance affairs, which is a perpetual fight in many alliance organizations. Prioritization is a battle fought on many fronts by alliance managers—and with many weapons. Several dozen practitioners joined the latest ASAP roundtable to discuss how to determine which alliances and activities deserve their attention, as well as how to get the rest of the organization’s mindshare, in an event titled “What's Your Priority?: Optimizing Alliance Activities for Maximum Impact.”

“This is something we all deal with no matter what vertical you’re in,” said Penny Wright, who coordinates ASAP’s roundtable programming and previously served in various alliance management capacities at test and measurement software and hardware manufacturer NI (formerly National Instruments). 

Our House: Lighting the Fire of Internal and External Collaboration

There was almost unanimous agreement across five discussion groups that clear and consistent communication helps establish priorities and underpins every effort to get other stakeholders invested in the alliance—and it all starts from within. A breakout group led by Danielle Martinez, CA-AM, associate director of alliance management at Jazz Pharmaceuticals, stressed the importance of “honest, transparent, and collaborative conversations internally around the business impact and the strategy that we’re looking to drive” from the start. 

“Internal collaboration is a must to navigate that complex terrain, ensure that you have that alignment to properly prioritize and work through the most critical tasks,” said Erika Johnson, CA-AM, senior alliance manager at Illumina, who led a different group. “Driving trust with your teams starts internally. It’s important to have your house in order before you’re looking externally.”  

“Equal access to information was a consistent theme in our discussions, and clear communication,” said Neil Blecherman, CSAP, technology alliances and partner program director at Nutanix.

Monitor and Manage from Onramp to Exit

This openness and candor must extend to partner relations, and it becomes particularly important as collaborations transition from one phase to the next. For example, Martinez said that partners need to assess “differences in priority” at the launch/kickoff stage “transparently and openly, and most important, respectfully of their business needs and business strategies.” 

“Start establishing shared metrics and objectives with your partners proactively right away. Most of all, determine and consistently revisit the shared value proposition. It makes it easy to position yourself and develop a dashboard for performance,” said Jarrod Midboe, CA-AM, director of clinical affairs and vendor and alliance management at Upsher-Smith Laboratories, another breakout discussion leader. Midboe mentioned that his alliance team regularly consults a ”scorecard” that appraises the health of each alliance. “You can monitor and manage by exception if you establish those shared value propositions and revisit them down the road.”

Internal communication becomes critical if and when parties decide to dissolve a partnership, as exits require additional resources to ensure that “we can exit gracefully and maintain that relationship for the next collaboration or partnership that may come along with the same partner,” according to Martinez, something senior executives and colleagues don’t always realize.  

I’m Gonna Let It Shine: Guiding Light Should Illuminate Both Corporate Strategy and Alliance Initiatives

Those communication efforts are especially important vis-à-vis company leadership. The senior-most officials play a huge role on both side of the prioritization coin—alliance leaders look to them to ascertain organization objectives, and it’s an ongoing job getting them to digest the criticality of alliance initiatives. Jane Pepper, PhD, MBA, director of global alliance management and corporate business development at Novartis, said that her breakout group concluded that it’s up to the “alliance manager [to] proactively reach out [to senior management] to showcase the function.” 

“Executive sponsorship—that’s not always easy,” said Johnson. “Sometimes for these long-term partnerships, you may not have great executive engagement, but persevering, persisting, and finding the person to unlock that value is going to be really critical.”

Johnson’s group outlined what alliance managers need from company leadership, including the alliance North Star, company objectives, and overall value proposition.

“Your corporate strategy is really going to be a guiding light, so if you find yourself going off track, it’s good to consistently reevaluate the market conditions, and also the strategy, and make sure the things that you are working on really line up,” she said.  

Working Short-Term, Thinking Long-Term

From there, alliance managers have a tricky balancing act to navigate. 

“It’s really important to balance the short-term goals while thinking long term,” said Blecherman. Do this correctly and the alliance organization will better allocate resources, particularly “people and dollars,” he added.  

Pepper’s group found that managing from a “portfolio versus an individual perspective” also went a long way in applying resources effectively, and so did having an eye toward potential dangers.

“Proactively managing risks, we want to look maybe six months out [for] what’s happening with resources,” said Pepper. She added another piece of advice: “Build in flexibility. If everybody is 120 percent, when things come up, who’s going to handle the [issue]? It’s a balancing act, for sure.” 

Cash Cows Are Easy—High-Risk, High-Value Is Another Animal

There are many tools that can help decipher priorities.  

In Midboe’s group, the term “financial modeling” came up more than once to clarify what initiatives might make the most positive impact and which ones to avoid. Obviously, there’s little ambiguity where big cash-cow alliances stand in the pecking order, and it’s easy to tell when partnerships at critical junctures are top priority for the day or week. However, revenue isn’t always a marker of a partnership’s importance. 

“Value is not always just dollars; sometimes it’s the value of that partner and what they can bring to the table, and how streamlined and efficient they run through things to position you for future programs,” said Midboe. 

In addition to financial modeling, Pepper’s group discussed a quadrant graph labeling one axis “risk” and the other “value.” If by all accounts a collaboration ended up in the top-right quadrant, it was agreed that it needed white-glove treatment. 

“High risk, high value, then we obviously need internal alignment with senior management,” said Pepper 

Reset Button: Changing Priorities Require a Realignment 

Of course, sometimes priorities change within an organization, and that affects what attention is afforded to certain partnerships. One alliance manager in Midboe’s group who works for a contract research organization (CRO) spoke of an instance where senior management’s goals had changed, and high-ranking officials in the company who weren’t involved in the day-to-day affairs of this individual’s alliances started to farm out work to other CROs without consulting the alliance practice. Up until that point, the alliance team had been adequately gauging the priority of its alliances by monitoring the milestones associated with each collaboration. Now, it needed to reevaluate organizational objectives in tandem with its company leadership. A periodic comprehensive reassessment isn’t always the worst thing, however. 

“If needed, don’t be afraid to hit restart. It takes tremendous effort and sometimes very, very transparent communication. There are ways to be tactful about that. Don’t be afraid to be bold and step up into those situations and reestablish what’s working, revisit your objectives, and hit reset,” said Midboe. 

Fly Me to the Moon: In Other Words, Meet Critical Partners Face-to-Face

Finally, in a world in which videoconferences have been normalized, encouraging finance departments around the globe to cut back on travel budgets, Blecherman’s group was emphatic in its belief that in-person meetings are still invaluable for reestablishing priorities. 

“For big-picture and critical paths, face-to-face still has value,” Blecherman summarized. However, one data point that seems to have no correlation to the relative importance of an alliance is the partner’s geographic location. Since a key partner can come from any continent, “It’s really about what does each partner need, and what does each partner have to offer?”