Special Ops: Getting the Best Out of Alliance Teams

Posted By: Michael Burke ASAP Publications, ASAP Webinar, Member Resources,

One of the nagging questions that plagues alliance and partnering professionals everywhere is: “How do I keep up with everything?” From the tiniest administrative details to the nuances of managing relationships on up to the highest-altitude strategic thinking and planning—how do you stay on top of it all and get it done? Or do you? How do you prioritize which things to do while leaving other, nice-to-have items by the wayside?

There are no easy answers, unfortunately. One emerging solution: Find yourself a really good alliance operations manager. Caveats up front: 1) It has to be the right person; 2) You may need to design and create the role and its job description from scratch, to meet the specific needs of your organization; and 3) You’ll probably have to sell, justify, and defend the creation and continuing existence of this role to your senior leadership. Best of luck!

The good news: People are doing it. And it’s making a difference.

Role Players

Three such people—including a real live alliance operations manager herself—appeared on a recent ASAP Webinar to tell their stories, highlight their journeys, and explain a bit about the role. This distinguished trio was made up of Jeff Mattan, vice president of global channel operations at BeyondTrust; Katherine Kendrick, CSAP, executive director and head of alliance management at Jazz Pharmaceuticals; and Kendrick’s very own alliance operations manager, Lauren Griffey, CA-AM, who was recently promoted to associate director of alliance management at Jazz.

The webinar, titled “Fully Operational: The Rise of the Alliance Operations Manager,” took place last week and was moderated by my esteemed colleague Jon Lavietes, ASAP staff writer and now our in-house expert on the role, having authored two articles on the topic prior to this webinar (“Smooth Operators,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q4 2023, and “Operationally, It’s a Great Fit,” Strategic Alliance Monthly, November 2023).

In addition, both Kendrick and Griffey attended last fall’s ASAP BioPharma Conference in Boston, where the first half of that conference’s Leadership Forum was dedicated to the alliance operations role and its many benefits. As someone who was in the room for that discussion, I can say that it generated plenty of interest—as well as a good bit of green-with-envy salivating among those who don’t yet have such a role in their organizations.

Ditto with last week’s webinar, which once again saw the chat and Q&A functions light up with questions and comments from the very engaged ASAP audience.

But what is the alliance operations manager role, and where and how does it fit within the organization? As with many things in the alliance world, the answer is “it depends.”

No Crying in Alliance Operations

At BeyondTrust, which operates in the cybersecurity/access and identity management space, Mattan said there’s actually two roles: 1) an alliance operations manager, “who as the name implies, manages all the operations for the alliance partners, and helps make alliance managers successful” working on approximately 200 different alliances; and 2) three partner operations managers who are working with partner managers to engage with some 1,400 “transacting partners.”

“They have different roles but they support each other,” said Mattan. “They came about to make our alliances and our partnerships, and the people who support them, a lot more efficient by just handling all the back-office process, contracts, and systems for them.”

Kendrick noted both similarities and differences between tech and pharma and between BeyondTrust and Jazz in “both the role and the strategy around the role.” One commonality is growth in the number of alliances and overall workload, leading to a crying need for such an ops position.

“Jazz has had significant portfolio growth,” she said, with the company now celebrating its 20th year in pharma—although she acknowledged that the number of Jazz partnerships is “smaller than 200!”

Kendrick herself created the alliance operations manager role about two and a half years ago, with Griffey becoming Jazz’s “inaugural alliance operations manager.” Kendrick termed the role “a very broad and supportive position to all of those alliance managers.” The objective? To “optimize the alliance management capacity, infrastructure, and contribution to pharma,” she summarized.

Evolution of a Revolution

“The role has definitely evolved over time,” Griffey commented. “In a nutshell, I support the alliance managers in their day-to-day business. I try to ensure consistency across all the best practices by collaborating with them.”

What that means is that at Jazz, Griffey:

  • Is the “main point person” for all contract and procurement details for nonalliance vendors
  • Manages the budget on the back end
  • Functions as the “super user” for the allianceboard platform to track and measure the alliance portfolio
  • Provides support in creating and customizing slide decks for alliance kickoffs
  • Helps to initiate trainings for alliance teams and others who touch on alliances
  • Acts as a “listening ear” for alliance managers

“Sometimes this can be a catchall role,” Griffey cautioned, “so if you’re looking to implement this role, allow for some flexibility in how you build it, and also be very clear [about it].”

For Mattan, the role involves setting up systems and processes so that alliance, partnership, and sales personnel can do their primary jobs “without us having to help, laying the framework and the checklist to do this. And they also own the partner portal, which is the way that any type of partner engages with us. There’s also a lot of other stuff with systems, contracts, [and] reporting.”

One of the many benefits of the role, according to Kendrick, is that it keeps alliance managers “functioning at their very highest level of strategic management, stakeholder engagement, and enterprise execution.” Thus they can spend less time on “what are very important and very critical tasks but also very operational tasks within an alliance.”

Simply the Best

While it frees up alliance managers to “focus on the strategic,” as Lavietes put it, the ops role is anything but administrative, according to Kendrick. “This is a collaborative cocreation relationship,” she said. “You’re actually getting the best skills and support—and results and value—from the different roles on the team.”

For Mattan, it’s about “improving efficiency, accuracy, and scalability, so our alliance managers and partner managers can be at their best at the strategic things.” It’s all part of “how they make other people valuable.”

“We’re always reevaluating,” said Griffey, giving the example of migrating risk data from a spreadsheet to the allianceboard platform. “The alliance managers aren’t sitting in it every day thinking about how to maximize the platform.”

“I think that’s a huge benefit,” Mattan chimed in. “The skills Lauren has, the alliance managers might not. She has to piece these things together, and that’s what I see with the operations people we have as well—they can switch from tech to strategy to admin and connect those dots in a way we can’t. That’s a hugely valuable strategic part of the job that goes under the radar.”

As to whether the alliance ops role is a precursor to being an alliance manager, the answer at BeyondTrust is “it depends.” At Jazz, meanwhile, Kendrick wanted to create the role as “an internal pathway” to alliance management, which was preferable to the challenges of hiring externally. This has resulted in Griffey’s now taking on an alliance to manage herself and getting her CA-AM certification through ASAP.

Sales Job

But what about pitching upper management on the role? Was that hard or easy?

“For us, we have so much need,” said Mattan. “What we really are doing is looking at how much time are people wasting doing things they shouldn’t. Can someone else do that?”

“I frankly had to sell it,” Kendrick admitted. “It wasn’t necessarily easy. I couldn’t look around at all the other companies in ASAP and say, ‘They’ve got one. Here’s a bunch of examples.’” So she pitched it in terms of the greater productivity that could be achieved by lifting tasks off the shoulders of the alliance managers and shifting them to the ops role. “I had to define it, and quantify it up front, and then I actually had to defend it in an environment where it didn’t exist. One of the facets that helped me sell it was the career path.”

And while both Kendrick and Mattan said there were no clear KPIs to define the success of the role, Kendrick added, “That question kind of stopped because it became obvious.”

Success Is the Residue of Design—and Talent

Requirements for the role include being curious, a self-starter, questioning, having a high EQ, and being able to drive things effectively in a challenging, and constantly changing, collaborative environment.

Or as Griffey put it, “If you want to be left alone, this is not really the job for you.”

In the end, said Kendrick, “There’s an element of design for your company, in your business, in alliance management, that is important when you consider this role. Our success at Jazz has been getting the right talent into the role as much as designing the role.”

“You have to have people who like helping others do their job better and seeing others improve,” added Mattan. “If you can find that with a technical aptitude, people who know process and systems, just talk to them.”

And if you happen upon the right person who can do all that? You’re setting your alliance operation up for success.