How to Make the Great Leap Upward into Alliance Leadership

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, ASAP Roundtables,

At ASAP, professional advancement is a topic that we will likely cover in perpetuity. It’s one of the foundational reasons this and any other professional association exists: to help members not only move up the career ladder, but grow and expand their professional horizons. (See, for example, “Endless Progression,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q4 2022, for one of our more in-depth forays into this topic.) 

The latest ASAP roundtable brought new perspectives, as breakout groups led by five very accomplished alliance professionals dissected what it takes to become a head of partnerships as part of the aptly named event, “From Alliance Management to Alliance Leadership: Preparing for the Great Leap Upward.”

A Contributing Voice Articulating Alliance Management Value, Shaping Company Vision 

Many facets of alliance management naturally prepare alliance professionals for leadership roles. In a job where “you’re 100 percent accountable with zero percent authority,” as Tracy Blois, PhD, head of alliance management and executive director of business development at Amgen, put it, partner managers develop the quintessential leadership skill of influencing key stakeholders inside and outside of their organization. 

“To influence, you have to have the respect and credibility,” Blois explained, in summarizing her group’s analysis. To earn that from colleagues, alliance managers need a firm grasp “of the actual program and platform so that you can be a contributing voice in discussions.”

A breakout session led by Ameriga Fanigliulo, CA-AM, director of global alliance management at Sandoz, concluded that the alliance manager’s aptitude for building trust with a variety of stakeholders and representing the partner’s interests aids their companies on a broader level. They are “able to articulate the value and the impact alliances and alliance management bring to the organization in alignment with the strategic objectives of our organization,” said Fanigliulo. 

“As an alliance leader you are shaping the vision of the company,” added Abbas Sura, senior alliance ecosystem manager at Nutanix, who led another group. Sura’s unit found that in “moving from a transactional to a strategic leadership role,” alliance leaders “take learnings from managing a single alliance” and “extrapolate that to a broader alliance [portfolio]. How do you make companies better through that leadership, through those learnings?”

Being a Good Listener Is Cross-Functional

Alliance managers excel at bringing value across the rest of the organization, too. 

“We are alliance leaders when we are able to build bridges and break silos within our organization, which entails a lot of cross-functional alignment behind the scene,” Fanigliulo added. 

Sura’s group concurred. “Collaboration with different functional heads is very important,” he noted.

In that same vein, an individual in the group led by Samuel Gosselin, senior director of alliance management at Marinus Pharmaceuticals, remarked on the alliance manager’s “entrepreneurial mindset”; just as entrepreneurs convince stakeholders to invest money and resources in their vision, alliance managers rally people around the collaboration’s North Star. 

One person in Gosselin’s group noted that good alliance leaders are open-minded, curious, and good listeners, not to mention patient with those same internal stakeholders who can sometimes be “emotionally attached” to internal programs around discovery-stage molecules or internally built products. 

“They need to be flexible and listen to the counterparts, and translate messages and be that person in between… who can translate communications and things that need to be further aligned for a common solution,” said another breakout group facilitator, Eyal Golan, MBA, PMP, director of operations, Integrated Project Management, Inc. (IPM).

Leading Questions: Alliance Leaders Solve Problems, Bring Competitive Knowledge 

Of course, more skilled alliance managers who go above and beyond their core duties tend to wind up in leadership roles. For instance, Gosselin’s group agreed that forward-thinking alliance managers do more than just facilitate group discussions; they also “resolve problems” and “bring more value to the collaboration,” Gosselin recapped. 

At another juncture in Gosselin’s conversation, one individual asserted that alliance leaders who have a solid understanding of their industry’s competitive landscape tend to bring more value to their companies, particularly when they can “communicate [that competitive knowledge] to alliance team members.” Another added that technical knowledge also goes a long way in preparing for an alliance leadership role.

The Appropriate Time to Talk Risk

Couple that with extensive experience, and an alliance professional will be negotiating timelines like a leader.

“There was a lot of discussion around proactivity in terms of anticipating risks and inflection points on all time horizons—in the near, medium, and long terms—being that visionary for the alliance because no one else is going to do it,” said Blois. 

The topic of risk came up in other groups as well. Golan’s group concluded that “highlighting the risks and keeping the stakeholders aligned” is a core alliance management skill that translates well in leadership roles. 

This Must Be the Place: Taking a Seat at the Big Table 

Success as an alliance leader also depends on their relationship with the C-suite. It was the opinion of Sura’s group that “alliance leadership needs to be groomed by senior leadership.” 

In addition, if senior company management truly values the partner function, it will be reflected in where the partner organization appears on the org chart.  

“Where does alliances sit in the hierarchy of a company?” asked Sura. “Alliances could report directly to the CEO, it could be part of another group, but it should be in such a place where it can actually influence decisions.”

Once in the position, it is incumbent on alliance leaders to have a presence in “every table of discussion so we can drive that clarity and the decisions that need to be taken by those who need to make the decisions,” added Golan.  

Keep in Touch: People Skills for Alliance Management and Beyond

Finally, people skills and networking abilities will serve aspiring partner leaders well both on the job—“[having] regular touchpoints, not just when there aren’t issues, so that you’re maintaining strong relationships, then leveraging those strong relationships when you have to resolve things,” said Blois, citing one example—and beyond the day-to-day, too. A story was told in Golan’s group of a project manager who worked their way into a head of R&D position at another company; that individual was recruited to the new organization by an old coworker. 

“[This shows] the importance of managing those relationships and cultivating those beyond the immediate alliance,” said Golan. “It’s good to keep in mind that you never know who you are going to work with.”