How to “Lead from Any Chair”

Posted By: Michael Burke Global Alliance Summit, Member Resources,

Funny how accidental or seemingly random many of our career moves (or is it our whole lives?) can be.

Kicking off the final day of the 2024 ASAP Global Alliance Summit in Cape Coral, Fla., ASAP board chair David Thompson, CSAP, vice president and global head of alliance management at BeiGene, recalled that earlier in his career journey, “when they asked me to be an alliance manager, I thought my career had ended. A senior vice president said to me, ‘They’ve given you the poisoned chalice.’ But I found that I was quickly surrounded by friends who helped me.”

How did they help? With the same “Three P’s” that Thompson said he finds at ASAP conferences: People, Process, and Predictability.

“Alliance management is like shoveling smoke,” he said. “How do you do it? How do you create structure when things are changing so quickly? People can help.”

And the predictability? It’s not what you think. It’s more like the boxes of Cracker Jacks Thompson remembered from his childhood (and I do too): Inside every box is that sweet, predictable treat—and a surprise.

Partnering Tears of Joy

Similarly, Joy Wilder Lybeer was in a Delta sky lounge when she got the call to run alliance management at Equifax.

“I cried,” she admitted. “Alliances were intimidating.”

Wilder Lybeer was until recently chief revenue officer and senior vice president of global partnerships at Equifax, and her keynote, “Tales of an Accidental Expert: How the Power of Partnerships Will Change Everything,” told the story of her journey.

From Would-Be Sally Field to Attentive Alliance Student

“I never intended to become an alliance expert,” Wilder Lybeer explained. She went to a small liberal arts college in South Carolina and was most interested in music, literature, and theater—or, in her words, she was “a Sally Field wannabe.”

Her career path took her away from the arts and into business, first at SunTrust (now Truist), and eventually at Equifax. But her creativity never waned, and she applied it to a series of roles.

“I learned that those [alliance] competencies are the superpowers,” she said. “Partnerships will change everything if you let them.”

When Wilder Lybeer first assumed an alliance management role, she accordingly set out to surround herself with everyone who knew something that could help her.

“I became a student,” she said. “I turned alliance management into a classroom. And I learned more in that one year than at any time in my career.”

Learning the Hard Way

Some of this learning of course occurred on the field, in the school of hard knocks. Like learning that you and your partner are not, in fact—as you supposed—aligned on your strategic priorities, sales strategy, product roadmap, and other areas. In one case she recalled a partnership where there was no “common set of values”—among other things.

“We had different success metrics,” she said. “I learned that the hard way.”

In the end, Wilder Lybeer said, it all comes down to the why (reasons the parties are working together), the what (the alliance operating model), and the how (governance, conflict resolution) of partnerships—and to driving performance and results. In other words, creating value.

“On paper I was a partnering expert,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be. I was focusing on delivering value.”

As the CRO Flies

Once she became CRO at Equifax, uniting all the company’s verticals and routes to market “under one roof,” she sought to leverage what she’d learned from partnering to help the entire organization—and she gave that out as free advice to those assembled.

"Deploy partnering competencies against the entire business,” she said. “Partnering is not just what we do, it’s who we are.”

What helps? Several concepts Wilder Lybeer listed:

  • Counterintuitive thinking
  • What’s invented can be reinvented
  • Asking: Why, Why, Why?
  • Partnering must become the culture, DNA, and muscle of the organization
  • Embrace the “saboteur”
  • “Show me the money”

Alliance management, she said, can’t just be done ad hoc or at the drop of a hat. It takes training, continuous education, and practice. And then a willingness to question, to show results, to embed the partnering capability throughout the organization, to accept and embrace the “saboteurs” and naysayers who may actually just want to be part of a winning team, and to spread the word about value creation successes.

She had more advice for alliance and partnering professionals as well.

“Do not allow your organization to put you to the side and just have a ‘hobby’ job,” she urged. And since good alliance practice requires constant training, she said, “When budgets get tight, burn the furniture before you let go of that line item.”

Orchestra Leaders

Wilder Lybeer ended with a musical analogy—specifically from the orchestra world, where “the conductor is the authority, even when they’re wrong.” She said that the English conductor Benjamin Zander, musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, liked to test this premise by giving over the conductor’s stand to various musicians in the orchestra. He called the idea “Lead from Any Chair.”

When she was passed over for a promotion at Equifax, Wilder Lybeer said she was initially “crushed,” but then realized she was being “asked to lead from the second chair.” She recently left the company, and now “I’m leading from no chair!” But she continues to contribute by advising fintechs, working with academia, and appearing at conferences like the ASAP Global Alliance Summit.

Which is lucky for all the alliance leaders out there, actual or aspiring, who get to soak in the learning.

“You can make a difference for the enterprise,” she concluded. “They will see it. And if they don’t, you will see it and you will still make an impact.”

Keep checking back for more coverage of the 2024 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, which just concluded May 1 in Cape Coral, Fla.