How Alliance Managers Avoid a Failure to Communicate
If you think about the alliance manager’s job description—aligning executives, representing the partner’s point of view, framing messages, being able to read the room virtually or in person—one skill seems to run through the entire role: communication.
“It’s certainly at the center of everything we do as alliance managers,” said Christina Neary, corporate vice president for the global Microsoft alliance at Avanade. Neary was part of a panel convened to discuss the topic as part of ASAP’s latest webinar, “Listen Up!: An Alliance Professionals’ Fireside Chat on Communication.” She peppered the hourlong event with metaphors like “tuning fork,” “decoder ring,” “marriage counselor,” and “legal interpreter” to give a sense of the alliance manager’s tremendous responsibility to translate the thoughts, feelings, directives, and action items at the heart of any collaboration.
Take a Holistic Point of View—Then “Get to the Punchline”
It turns out that there are so many facets of communication to dissect. Language, tone of voice, and nonverbal exchanges are also critical forms of communication, and our biases, cultures, and experiences determine so much of how any information presented gets interpreted and understood by an audience.
“Those things are important when we look at communication from a holistic point of view that we take into account as an alliance manager, from the active and passive side,” said Sophie Lismonde, CA-AM, managing partner at Consensa Consulting, who advises alliance managers as a consultant. “This is a very, very, powerful tool.”
In any culture or language, you have to practice what you preach or you will lose credibility quickly.
“Be aware of your intent before communicating, then make sure there’s no contradiction between the words you use and the information you give,” Lismonde added. “It breaks the bond and trust when the intent doesn’t match the words.”
Peggy Taylor, senior director and head of alliance leadership at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, noted that “communication goes beyond just the information sharing. It’s sharing the information in a way that allows the recipient to understand why it should matter to them.” Different people want different pieces of information. For example, someone embroiled in the day-to-day minutiae of an alliance may want intimate details of a conversation or event, while for a C-suite member “you need to get to the punchline” and outline key takeaways—risks, opportunities, advantages, etc.—concisely.
Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make
Predictably, any discussion of communication these days will eventually encompass virtual meetings and conflict. To the former, hybrid meetings have been particularly challenging, as people on screen often struggle to elbow their way into conversations between people who are face to face with each other. Taylor urged alliance managers to pay close attention to the body language of those on camera—you can see when people are about to draw breath to speak, for example.
“That’s a really important aspect of making sure that we have inclusive discussions that are not completely dominated by those around the table,” she said.
Lismonde recommended obtaining “incremental agreement” at short intervals throughout a virtual or hybrid meeting to “make sure that the ones you are talking to heard the same things you [intended] to say.”
Assume Good Intent, Avoid the Three P’s, and Rely on Feedback, Not the Contract
When a conflict arises, either in person or in a virtual setting, Neary said one of the biggest mistakes people make is to respond too quickly when emotions are running hot rather than taking the time to thoughtfully put together an answer that considers all parties’ feelings and interests. Oftentimes, there are a lot of issues that need to be untangled. If you move to immediately push an agenda rather than holding a constructive dialogue, you might inadvertently douse the conflagration with gasoline. Neary counseled listeners to assume good intent and make sure to take ample time to get to the bottom of a disagreement or quarrel rather than acting rashly.
“Understand, here’s what they might have meant, here’s what we can clarify instead of reacting,” she said, before adding, “People want to know that their problem has been heard and understood.”
Lismonde advised attendees to “mind the ‘three Ps’”: power, personality, and politics. “Between those three areas, there’s a lot that can go wrong.”
She brought up a common observation among alliance managers: during a conflict, parties commonly refer to the contract to settle disputes, oftentimes to everybody’s detriment. She felt that people skills are often a better fire retardant than any legal agreement. Take your time and gather each relevant stakeholder’s perspective painstakingly.
“Ask for feedback, and give feedback. There’s a lot more possibility to use feedback and to ask for feedback again and again,” she said.
Meanwhile, although it is easier said than done at times, Taylor urged alliance professionals to refrain from getting sucked into the emotion of the moment and examine more deeply why the partner is raising objections.
“It may be easier to brainstorm a constructive path forward that gets the partner where they need to be and does not disadvantage your company in any way, or at least minimizes it. Coming back to, ‘Why are you asking? Why is this important? Can you help me understand where this is coming from?’ Questions like that will open the conversation instead of coming into it like, ‘No, that’s not what we agreed on before!’ Engaging with questions is a helpful tool to try to deescalate where there’s perceived friction or conflict,” she said.
Just the Facts, Hold the Fries
In any event, each of the panelists agreed that alliance managers can build trust and credibility by delivering facts, whether in the form of good news or bad. No alliance has ever avoided choppy waters, so it would be quite suspicious—and ultimately unproductive—if you were constantly serving up “Happy Meals to executives,” according to Neary.
Over time, if you have built a track record of giving it to people straight, then you can have unvarnished conversations with senior management in a relationship of mutual trust.
“They may not like it, and they may not agree with my conclusions, but they’ll hear me out,” said the moderator, our own Michael J. Burke, ASAP’s senior editorial consultant and editor in chief.
Or as Burke put it more broadly and succinctly, “Communication is the whole job. What you do is not possible if you don’t understand some of these nuances, and you’re not able to both speak and listen with this understanding.”
ASAP members can view “Listen Up!: An Alliance Professionals' Fireside Chat on Communication” in its entirety in ASAP’s Content Hub. Find out how Lismonde uses Lego blocks to help her clients improve their communication!