From the Farm to the Majors: Taking a Swing at Alliance Leadership

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, Collaborative Connections,

If you are putting together a job description for an open higher-level alliance position for your HR department to post, it has to cover several general skills. 

“Strategic thinking, financial and business acumen, leadership through influence and diplomacy,” said Ann Trampas, CSAP, professional development practice lead for Phoenix Consulting and senior lecturer at the University of Illinois–Chicago, listing a few of the most important qualities of a good alliance management senior executive. 

However, it takes even more than that to be effective in this kind of role. 

“You need to build upon those. You need to wrap those with [an] understanding [of] your partner. It’s not just about your business,” said Lisle Holgate, CSAP, senior director of global strategic partnerships at HCL Software.

Holgate outlined several attributes of a great alliance leader and what they look like when put into practice during the first Collaborative Connection Monthly webinar and roundtable presentation of 2024, “Becoming Tomorrow’s Strategic Leaders: What Do Partner Managers Need to Succeed?” 

Under Investigation: “Probing Questions,” “Forensic Notes” Help Uncover Value Proposition

The first part of being an alliance leader is to “know your partner, evaluate how you are going to impact their go-to-market strategy,” said Holgate. This entails understanding your partners’ offerings—Holgate’s career has centered around the services offered by global systems integrators (GSIs), such as IBM, Accenture, Cognizant, Infosys, Wipro, and Tata—as well as their goals, and how your products and services enhance those offerings and help partners achieve their objectives. 

Holgate does this by asking “probing questions” without making judgments or forming opinions and by taking “forensic notes” to be used later to hold people “accountable for what it is they said they would do. It’s the lack of that accountability that often leads to efforts being wasted.” If alliance managers gather detailed information about a partner’s go-to-market and partnering strategy, service offerings, training and enablement proficiency, and case studies, they will have everything they need to determine how to meet their ally’s goals and become indispensable to them. 

“The term ‘strategic’ in ‘strategic partner’ means if one of them is missing the other one is hurt very badly,” Holgate explained. 

Knowing People, Processes, and Policies Helps You Keep Your Head

This strategic thinking then “has to be informed by the organization’s processes, policies, and people,” said Holgate. “If those aren’t part of your strategic thinking, you’re in trouble.”

Holgate told a story of how early in his career he put together a go-to-market plan containing sales plays and tactics for his counterparts at IBM in isolation without consulting anyone at the partner organization. He thought his plan was brilliant. Big Blue disagreed. Strongly. 

“That’s not the way we go to market. We identify ideal customers that meet a certain profile, we engage those customers in a one-on-one workshop that deals with these specific kinds of topics, and based on that engagement within certain IBUs—independent business units—we then begin to formulate the go-to-market that you’re [currently] laying out without proof points from the workshop,” Holgate recalled his alliance manager counterpart telling him. The lesson: Planning in a vacuum without the partner always results in one’s alliance plans being “decapitated.”

IOPEC Helps Alliance Managers Strike Oil 

Acknowledging that he is “old school,” Holgate leaned on a few acronyms to fill out his “structure-process-outcome” methodology. For the former, he walked attendees through the “IOPEC” system:

  • IO: Intention and objective – “What are our intentions? What are the objectives that are going to modify or help us obtain those intentions?”
  • P: Plan – “What is the plan or approach? Then demonstrate how are we going to be achieving those objectives?” 
  • E: Execution – “What resources do we need to execute our net plan that’s going to deliver on the objectives that allows us to reach our vision, our goals?”  
  • C: Cadence – “How are we going to keep track of where we stand during the trajectory of the project?”

These letters are “the building blocks that build one upon the other,” said Holgate—i.e., an objective requires a plan, which eventually needs to be executed using some form of cadence. 

High on the Hogs: Getting in the Mud with Key Stakeholders 

Of course, an alliance leader won’t go far without people skills. Holgate, who on nights and weekends trades his “business clothes for overalls” to help manage his wife’s pig and garlic farm, boiled down the process for aligning stakeholders into another acronym: BEM (“befriend, educate, and manage”). Although his crops won’t necessarily help win first impression points, the BEM methodology lays out how to create and sustain the relationships needed to make collaborations successful. The first step: Identify the key stakeholders internally and within the partner organization. 

“Who are the key players in your company?” asked Holgate. “Who are the key roles who are going to impact the partnerships? Who is going to create results—bad results or good results? Who are their counterparts across the aisle?”  

Communication, Great Conversations, and Lifelong Friendships

Once you know who the key influencers are, alliance managers have to get counterparts talking and engaged with one another. 

“If you don’t have communication, you don’t have a relationship,” Holgate said. Worse than no communication? Only hearing from the partner when they’re angry. That certainly is not sustainable in the long run. If you establish and maintain good relationships from the beginning, it’s a lot easier to withstand adversity. “You need to have a good, consistent, organic relationships in order to handle the bad times.” 

In fact, Holgate went as far as to assert that the building blocks for business partnerships, friends, and significant others are fundamentally the same, just with different intensity levels.

“If I say ‘I don’t want to do chores,’ it gets an intense reaction from my wife,” he quipped. 

On a serious note, Holgate said that relationships with opposite alliance managers often evolve into lifelong friendships—he ticked off a list of partner executives from Microsoft, AWS, and other organizations that he still keeps in contact with today. This high level of trust can be used to help disarm volatile situations, trade sensitive but vital information, or inspire stakeholders on both sides to do what collectively needs to be done for the partnership. 

“All of a sudden you become friends and now you’re actually able to have great conversations,” he said. 

Take It from Big Papi: An Alliance Hero Is More Than Just a Sandwich 

While workshops and ASAP materials can serve as the turkey, lettuce, and tomatoes of core leadership principles, they can only take alliance professionals so far without the leavened hoagie roll of hardened real-world experience. Although he acknowledged he hasn’t put in the time on his batting swing to rival legendary former Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, Holgate’s two decades in the business has at least helped him hone his craft. He urged listeners to make their work days count at the office and take in as much as they can because practice makes closer to perfect as alliance managers accrue service time. 

“The difference between a great sandwich and a terrible sandwich is the bread,” he said. “Never stop learning. If you stop learning, you’ll cut yourself short.”