How Do You Build the Partner Executive of the Future?
The rapid pace of change over the past few months has had everyone scrambling to keep up and adjust to whatever the “next normal” is—if it even makes sense to talk about “normal” at all these days. This has been true in every industry, but perhaps nowhere more so than in information technology, where the disruptions and changes were seemingly constant even before the coronavirus pandemic hit and the beat goes on accordingly.
As part of the on-demand content available to those registered for the just-concluded ASAP Global Alliance Summit, a panel was convened to discuss just how today’s technology alliance and partnering leaders can weather these frequent storms, be proactive in responding to partnering trends, act strategically, and think multiple steps ahead as they face so many uncertainties every day.
Moderated by Norma Watenpaugh, CSAP, CEO and founding principal of Phoenix Consulting Group, the panel—“The Strategic Partner Executive of the Future and the Skills Needed for Success”—also featured:
- Rafael Contreras, area vice president, global operations, strategy and chief of staff at ServiceNow
- Jim Chow, enterprise cloud solution evangelist and strategic partnerships/channel executive at Google
- Greg Fox, CSAP, formerly general manager of networking and communications/vice president of alliances at WorkSpan
Watenpaugh began by outlining a list, put out by Pearson Learning and the Society of Human Resource Managers, of what makes a “star partner/alliance manager.” They must be:
- Able to lead and influence
- Willing to take initiative with little or no oversight
- Strategic and global thinkers seeking and creating opportunities
- Dynamic, creative, independent thinkers
- People-oriented with high empathy
- Highly cooperative, preferring to work in teams
- Effective at networking across organizational boundaries
- Able to flex rules to get things done
- Capable of dealing with high levels of ambiguity
About the last quality, Watenpaugh commented: “In particular, in today’s business climate, especially in the last three to five months, we’ve had to use this muscle a lot, because it is a very disruptive, uncertain market, and being able to navigate through it is key.”
And that’s a lot. But that may not be the half of it.
Being a “Connector” Is No Longer Enough
Jim Chow of Google spoke of what he called some of the “more traditional mindsets and skills of alliance leaders, [versus] mindsets and attributes of what I believe is the partner of the future.” Among these necessary changes in attitude were going from a “built to last” mindset to “built to adapt,” “walking the talk” on digital transformation, and having alliance managers go from just being a “people person” to acting as the “CEO or general manager of the alliance,” someone who can think and operate strategically and also bridge generational and other divides. And as much as anything else, they need to embrace change.
“How do I think about change differently?” Chow asked. “Not just, ‘It’s going to come up and I’ll have to deal with it,’ but actually build change into the process. The market is moving faster now than anything I’ve seen in technology in the last 10 years.”
Chow was emphatic about the kind of mind shift alliance managers need to embrace and own if they want to succeed in tomorrow’s world. “In the past,” he said, you’d hear “‘I’m an alliance manager, I’m just a connector.’ That is no longer enough. You need to be owning the business, driving the business, helping partners as an executive, directing them to realize the value of the partnership, guiding them and telling them where to go.”
He also advocated for “evangelizing solutions” with more of a launch-iterate–fail fast approach, which he said has worked for Google, Amazon, and other high-tech heavyweights. “You’re not going to get it perfect coming out of the gate,” he advised. “You don’t know what you don’t know, and there’s not time to find out to make it perfect. So you do your best to launch what makes sense quickly, rapidly and aggressively get feedback from your customers and partners, and iterate and launch until you get it right.”
It’s All Ecosystems Now
Greg Fox, formerly of WorkSpan, said that alliance managers—including prospective ones—need to understand the shift from traditional one-to-one alliance models to ecosystems of multiple partners. He cited research from IDC, Accenture, and Forrester showing the importance and disruptive power of ecosystems, including that companies in ecosystems are growing 50 percent faster than those that are not part of one.
He also said that alliance and partnering managers need to be able to orient themselves around build-with, market-with, and sell-with frameworks, and to connect with all tiers of an ecosystem; to emphasize creating a great partner experience as much as a great customer experience; and to adopt digital tools to drive collaborative business relationships, since traditional tools are no longer enough given an ecosystems context.
Fox stressed that much of what he and the others were discussing, from business trends and speed of change to the capabilities needed by those who seek to manage partnerships and ecosystems, goes beyond the usual realms of IT and biopharma and extends into other industries, from insurance to agribusiness to retail and more.
From Legacy Leftovers to Listening Channels
Rafael Contreras of ServiceNow proposed another idea that cuts across many industries and verticals: not allowing “comfortable legacy ideas to dictate your strategy.” And given that change and evolution are continuous, as he put it, “A lot of things that have worked before need to take that step forward.”
Time horizons in many cases also need to change. “We’ve challenged a lot of our alliance managers to think beyond the 12-month range of commissions and quotas,” Contreras said, “and really start to focus on that long-term business objective.”
Another golden piece of advice Contreras provided was “never build in a vacuum.” He urged, “You need the feedback from the ecosystem, from the alliance managers, you need the business to share its feedback to you as well.” At his company, this is done via “listening channels,” councils, trainings, surveys, and other means. All of it helps in understanding partners’ and customers’ pain points, problems, and requirements, and what would constitute success for them.
Where Do Alliances Fit?
Acknowledging that partnering and alliance management are not always recognized or understood in organizations, and may report to numerous divisions ranging from marketing to sales to even human resources, Watenpaugh asked the panelists to suggest where in an enterprise alliances might best fit.
Chow took the first run at the question. “I think the best place in the organization—as long as the executive team views alliances and partners and channels as critical—is as a direct report to the CEO or general manager of the business. Then the partnerships or alliances team has a seat at the table for all the highest-level strategy in the organization. That’s ideal.” This is not always the reality, of course, and as he said, it can be dictated by “power dynamics or who’s running the show.”
“Regardless of where it reports,” Fox chimed in, “it has to look at how outcomes can best be achieved—whether revenue, or customer success, or accelerating times to market.”
Said Contreras, “It comes down to the objectives desired: What kind of experience are you trying to have with partners?”
Lucky to Be on a Wild and Crazy Ride
Toward the end of the panel presentation, Watenpaugh commenced a “lightning round” in which she asked the panelists what advice they would give to someone who says they want to be an alliance manager.
Fox: “Excellent! Welcome to the profession. Now, get ready for a wild and crazy ride!”
Chow encouraged asking why—if they want to have an impact on strategic alliances, then “great.” They’ll need energy, patience, and persistence, because it’s a difficult job in which “you don’t control a lot,” so often all you have at your disposal is “influence.” But if they say they’re a “people person” and they think it would be cool to work with partners, then “find something else to do.”
Contreras said that he had actually hired some budding partner managers right out of school, and felt that they were very “lucky” given the kind of exposure they get right off the bat.
“You’re not going to get this in almost any other department,” he explained. “You’re talking to entrepreneurs, founders, people who have taken the risk and the leap to start new businesses—and their business model depends on your alignment with them and their business objectives.”
So the partner leader of the future had better buckle in, put the strategic thinking hat on, wear the ecosystem pants, and get ready for a wild and crazy ride. Because the future gets here fast these days.