So Who’s Your Partnering Expert?

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

We know that alliance leaders are all about leading their teams and their alliances and portfolios and doing their best to create value and minimize risk on the road to success. But they could use a little help—from their leaders.

Meanwhile, we’ve been hearing for some years now—thank you Jay McBain—that every company in every industry is fast becoming a “tech company,” and that we’re living and working in the Age of the Ecosystem. OK, cool story. But what about those ecosystems?

If Nothing Is Broken, Then What’s This Mess?

“They’re a hot mess,” said Janet Schijns, cofounder and CEO of JSG, which consults with and advises companies on that very thing: how to operate successfully in an ecosystem context. She made this and other observations during Monday’s ASAP Executive Leadership Forum, one of the pre-conference events at the 2024 ASAP Global Alliance Summit in Cape Coral, Fla. The discussion, titled “Standing on the Precipice: Embracing Ecosystem-Led Growth,” was moderated by Vince Menzione, CEO of Ultimate Partner and a recognized tech industry podcaster.

Schijns said that looking historically, we’ve seen about a hundred years dominated by product companies, followed by about 20 years in which tech companies held sway.

“You’re now entering the age of the ecosystem,” she said, which will be led by “partner companies” that successfully leverage partnering, alliances, and ecosystems. She’s often called in to consult with members of a company’s C-suite—which is not always a great thing. Why? Because they’ve done an end-around on their partnering teams and decided that “something is broken. Actually nothing is broken,” she said—except the company culture. That is, they don’t actually know how to partner or work collaboratively.

Which is where partnering and alliance professionals come in—or should. But while IT spend has gone from single to double digits, spending on partnering has often been reduced and partnering and alliances have been subject to a “put the baby in the corner” mentality, according to Schijns. Meanwhile, weirdly, we’ve seen the rise of the chief partnering officer in some companies, as they try to “figure out the hairy labyrinth that is partnering.”

Is Anybody Listening?

One problem is language, according to one of Schijns’s fellow panelists.

"We’re all huge egomaniacs who want to talk and don’t want to listen,” said Chris Jones, assistant vice president of partner solutions/alliance channel and ACC business at AT&T. “We all use words and we assume everyone knows what we’re talking about. No one asks questions and we’re arrogant.”

That can include the use of the word “partner,” which means many things to many people. And where companies now often routinely have security experts and advisors on their boards, Schijns said that she asks, “Who’s your partnering expert?” To which the answer, sadly, is often “Nobody.”

Co-panelist Lynn Richard, CSAP, vice president and chief alliance officer for GE Healthcare, and an ASAP board member talked about the ways technology alliances are boosting healthcare.

"Healthcare addressed many challenges of COVID with remote solutions that were best delivered on the cloud, and [those solutions] have continued to grow since then. Further, AI is now a big part of that growth," he said after the event in summary of the observations he shared with the other participants.

“The chief partnering officer comes from this room,” Schijns said to the assembled alliance leaders. “The true genius of partnering has always been the alliance managers. This great work that you do—the work that’s sometimes ripped the guts out of your throat—is often so disregarded in the rest of the company that it’s never operationalized. My mission is to change that. And that’s an opportunity for ASAP.”

Hard Dollars Win Out over Soft Cost Centers

The second part of the Executive Leadership Forum was led by Sally Wang, group vice president of global alliances and partnerships at International SOS, and Cindy Warren, vice president of business development, neuroscience, at Johnson & Johnson Innovative Medicine. (Both Wang and Warren are also ASAP board members.) This more interactive conversation was titled “The Critical Success Factor: Elevating the Role of Alliance Leadership.”

It’s a hardy perennial topic in ASAP circles.

“How do we get the C-suite to embed the strategy and accept that partnering is important?” Warren asked. “Not just something to think about.”

And not just a focus on transactions and “the deal,” those sexy staples of the business press. In many organizations, Wang noted, the good news is that “You have a seat at the table as ‘a supporting function.’ But are you a cost center or a revenue generator, or a core business unit?”

One thing you are not and should never be seen as, according to one participant, is “a soft skill.”

“It’s all about people and dollars,” he argued. “If you can increase people or dollars, that shows you’re being effective. What you’re doing is working.”

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense

Wang, who was born in China before coming to the United States, mentioned that in Chinese, the characters for “strategic alliance,” when literally translated, actually mean “war-based coalition.” The takeaway? Put on your armor and get ready to go to battle—not with your partners, but the battle for the mindshare and understanding of your senior leadership and internal functions.

“You need a defensive and offensive strategy for every alliance,” she said.

Yes, you heard it here first: Alliance and partnering leadership is not for the faint of heart!

Stay tuned to the ASAP Blog for more news and notes from the wide world of alliances, partnerships, and ecosystems as the 2024 ASAP Global Alliance Summit concludes this week! We'll have more in the weeks to come as well!