Culture Hero: How Alliance Managers Can Instill Collaborative Values Within Organizations

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources,

It takes a village of people across functions and companies to bring a partnership to success. Many hands often make light work in an alliance. To get the collaboration boat heading in the right direction at peak speed, stakeholders across each partner company must row in unison. 

Whatever cliché you choose, just about everyone who has ever managed a partnership would agree that organizations must promote, encourage, train, and reward employees at all levels and in all departments for prioritizing critical partnership-related responsibilities, treating partners with respect, and recognizing the importance of alliances to company goals. 

How does a company get to this point? That was the discussion—well, four separate discussions—at the center of ASAP’s latest roundtable, “Changes in Attitude: Fostering a Collaborative Culture in Your Organization.

Senior Leaders Should Lead—and Not Fade Away

Although some might say it goes without saying, all four breakout groups hammered home the importance of senior leaders’ sponsorship and engagement. In the conversation moderated by Petra Sansom, CA-AM, vice president of alliance management at Beam Therapeutics, a cross-industry group of alliance professionals agreed that a partnership would go nowhere if alliance managers don’t “engage senior leaders, early on and throughout the relationship, providing that vision, that North Star.” 

And these influencers can’t fade into the background entirely once the plane has reached cruising altitude. Candice Bakke’s group stressed the importance of “making sure they’re weighing in” and that alliance managers continually educate senior management on how the collaboration fits into larger company strategy. C-suite executives have plenty on their plate, and it’s not uncommon for them to lose sight of a partnership’s purpose as their attention drifts in other directions.   

“What do you do when they don’t [engage in your alliance]? How do we educate them? Do you have to sell them on it? Do you have to explain to them what it is? How do you get them out of that ‘pay-to-play mindset’ in the IT world?” said Bakke, CA-AM, senior director of strategic global partnerships at Captello.

Other times, senior leaders “have scars that can hold back collaboration,” said one participant in a dialogue led by Christine Carberry, CSAP, principal of Carberry Consulting.  

Senior leaders also set the tone from a portfolio perspective. Aditya Kammula, CA-AM, ecosystem alliance business manager at Nutanix, noted that his CEO shares his goals with each division annually. The company’s alliance leadership devises its priorities for the year based on the CEO’s aspirations. Kammula likened this dynamic to a “pyramid”—“everything trickles down.”

One veteran tech alliance manager in Carberry’s group spoke of an old employer whose leadership didn’t practice what they preached when it came to dealing with partners. Despite plenty of rhetoric about the importance of partnerships and being collaborative, the prevailing modus operandi was, “‘We’re going to beat them. It’s all about us’—very self-centered. It wasn’t practiced up and down the organization,” he recounted. “The CEO has to do that, right from the very top.” 

Soft Skills Thaw Hardened Stakeholders

What can be done to instill collaborative values throughout the organization? In Kammula’s discussion, it came up that partner-centric companies make available “tools and infrastructure to really facilitate and enable this sort of collaboration.” The participants got into a lengthy discussion about training around “soft skills, such as conflict management, empathy, internal leadership of their own teams,” recounted Kammula. They collectively observed that these trainings are often lacking at companies that didn’t fully tend to their alliances, or at best they are offered only to senior management and not to employees at all levels.  

In one individual’s estimation, it is “necessary for all layers of the pyramid to get this training”  because alliances require stakeholders across all contributing functions, not just alliance managers, to have self-awareness, authenticity, and emotional intelligence. 

It’s Rewarding to Be Recognized 

A couple of the breakout sessions brought up the practice of spotlighting people’s contributions to alliance affairs as a way to incentivize cross-functional team members to do what needs to be done to make partnerships successful. Bakke recounted her group’s chat about a “collaborative rewards system,” where individuals are recognized quarterly or annually for “going above and beyond.” 

“Put some type of a program in place that is calling out, whether it is internal or with a partner, that this person has done something to support that collaborative effort,” she added. 

One Bad Apple Doesn’t Spoil the Whole Bunch 

It's easy to see—and feel—when you have a collaborative culture. One contributor to Kammula’s group spoke with reverence about the moment an alliance team shifts “from ‘I’ to ‘we,’” while Sansom added moments where “you have a meeting where you feel like we’re all in the same company together.”  

This team harmony is a powerful weapon for neutralizing negative forces that partnerships inevitably encounter. In the minds of Sansom’s group, strong relationships with partner counterparts help defuse rogue detractors not acting in the best interests of the alliance and excise bad apples before they spoil the whole bunch.  

“[It’s] healthy sometimes to be very up front about it,” said Sansom. “‘I was at that meeting. I recognize that that person wasn’t behaving the way that we need.’ That can go a long way with the partner, to [help them] understand that this isn’t the norm. This is something that is recognized and needs to be addressed in a healthy relationship.”

Crisis Makes Perfect

Carberry’s group remarked how the spirit of collaboration tends to be high at the outset of a collaboration when enthusiasm tends to be at its peak and outlooks are generally positive, but “that collaboration gets tested when you hit bumps in the road. What happens then?” she asked. A solid collaborative culture allows stakeholders to air differences of opinion in a constructive manner. “There are disagreements because there’s a level of trust to be able to disagree. The right people get in the room where you are bringing different points of view in.” 

Of course, it can take a little practice to make collaboration perfect. Another interlocutor in Carberry’s discussion recalled a time when a partner’s initial refusal to open up its books put the collaboration at the brink of crisis. This friction eventually forced the partners to improve their communication. Thus, when another crisis recently broke out, there was transparency “from the first meeting” on.  

Risk Illustrates Rewards Partners Bring 

That wasn’t the only collaborative makeover that came up in Carberry’s breakout group. There was extensive conversation about how to “move from the mindset of vendor-CRO relationships to truly strategic relationships,” according to Carberry. In fact, one participant dug up a quote from Carberry that appeared in an issue of Strategic Alliance Quarterly three years ago that outlined how alliance managers can impress the importance of CRO and CMO vendor relationships on their own C-suite if they “speak their language,” she said at the time. Instead of focusing on the benefits those partners were bringing, alliance managers might frame their importance by asking rhetorically how well the company would fare without them. “[C-suite leaders] tend to think more about business risk than about creating more alliance value.”