Success Begins at the Top: ASAP Webinar Explores the Value of Executive Sponsorship

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, Collaborative Connections,

It’s not being overly dramatic to say that senior leadership backing and engagement can make or break an alliance.

“Partners often succeed or fail based on the strength of their executive sponsorship,” said Norma Watenpaugh, CSAP, founding partner of Phoenix Consulting Group. 

Watenpaugh made this observation in her introduction to the latest Collaborative Connection Monthly webinar and roundtable, “Success Begins at the Top: The Importance of Partner Executive Sponsorship.” It’s a topic that often dominates discussions at ASAP events because few, if any, alliances can achieve success without it. 

How do you identify, recruit, and maintain executive sponsors? The job of answering that question was left to Neil Blecherman, a Wharton School–educated, recently minted CSAP who has spent the better part of the last two decades garnering senior-level support for alliances at Intel, Supermicro, and now in his current role as partner program director for Nutanix’s technology alliances. Blecherman agreed with Watenpaugh, citing a past ASAP survey that concluded that strong executive support is the number one determining factor of alliance success. 

Top-Down View Helps Spot New Ways to Make Bread

Since the pandemic, Blecherman has put a lot of effort outside of work into raising his three-point field goal percentage and baking tasty treats, albeit with mixed results—“I’ve tried my hand at baking, and I appreciate my family’s tolerance for what should be bread but what really came out as pretzels,” he quipped. At the office, however, Blecherman’s alliances rarely miss, and they make his employer plenty of bread—in part because he is able to match alliance initiatives with the right senior executive with clout.

That senior support boosts alliances, and the company as a whole, in three main ways, two of which are well known: leaders can convince key stakeholders throughout the organization that a collaboration is a priority, and they can secure the funds needed to bring partnerships to fruition. The third element isn’t always acknowledged in discussions about executive sponsorship: vision.

 “A good exec sponsor can see opportunities for the partnership at a higher level than we can in the trenches in the alliance. They know what’s going on in the boardroom. They understand the long-term values the company is trying to aspire to,” he said.

It’s Personal

How do you select the right sponsor? The obvious answer is to understand how the alliance meets corporate objectives, and maybe those of a sponsor’s department, as well. However, Blecherman urged listeners not to overlook personal motivations, either. He spoke of one partnership in which he couldn’t understand initially why the executive sponsor was so eager to engage deeply. Over time, however, Blecherman noticed that the sponsor’s private conversations were becoming more deep and strategic in nature.

“[The alliance] actually provided him personally with market insight that helped him execute his job more appropriately,” he recalled. “So I have grown to try to look for exec sponsors who can not only benefit the partnership but also have some kind of an agenda themselves that could be satisfied through [it].”

Off to the Races: What Revs Your Executive Sponsor’s Engine?

The personal element is critical on many levels. When prepping for a meeting with your or the partner’s executive sponsor, it’s not enough to discuss the finances, business model, value proposition, and strategic fit related to the alliance. Although those things are indeed important, a personal connection is also key in establishing chemistry between the senior parties.

One particular meeting between an executive sponsor and a potential champion at the partner company has stuck with Blecherman over the years. After the meeting, this senior executive told Blecherman that his thorough preparation on the aforementioned company-centric partnership metrics wasn’t as thorough as he thought.

“I asked, ‘How did it go?’ and the first thing he said was, ‘What kind of a car does he drive?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, you should know. There are pictures all over his office [of his car]. Anyone at the company could have told you what his hobbies are.’ It ends up that the executives drove the same model sports car competitively at tracks, and they bonded instantly over that,” he recounted. “They were off to the races.” Literally.

You Can Do Magic—If You Give Execs What They Desire

If things are going well, certain signs will start to crop up indicating that your executive sponsor is engaged. If there is little delay in the senior leader allocating resources—budget and personnel—chances are it is because the alliance is important to them. If a collaboration is meeting or exceeding its key performance indicators (KPIs)—revenue, new solution development, integrations, market penetration, etc.—senior executives will continue to make it a high priority. And, of course, if sponsors are promoting the alliance in their communications or informally around the office, that is arguably the best sign of all.

“I would see the notes taken by my exec sponsor and sent out to peers and the CEO. When I saw that kind of an email—and I was happy to be copied on it—I knew some magic was happening,” said Blecherman, who added that even positive comments in the cafeteria or via Slack message are great signs for your collaboration.

“Arm Candy”: Show Your Slides and Look Pretty

Sometimes an executive sponsor doesn’t have to do much more than show up in order to make things happen in an alliance. Blecherman told the story of an alliance that involved a partner that had operations in Japan. Blecherman’s partner contact asked him to serve as the executive sponsor for his employer and present some slides in English at the beginning of each of their meetings with the partner company’s senior executives. After Blecherman showed his slides in the first few minutes of three separate gatherings, he watched as the participants continued the respective meetings in Japanese from there. During a lunch break, a befuddled Blecherman asked his partner counterpart, “Why am I here? I don’t speak Japanese.” His partner’s response connected all of the dots. 

“You are the executive sponsor. The way my culture works, I work with this gentleman, and I can’t get his boss in a room unless I have a senior person. You are the guest senior person,” Blecherman remembered his partner saying. “You are what you refer to in your country as ‘arm candy.’ You’re the person whose job is to look pretty.”

The Collaborative Connection Monthly series continues next month with “Benchmarking Your Partnering Capability for Competitive Advantage,” featuring Mike Ursini, cloud partner manager at Intel, and Ann Trampas, CSAP, professional development practice lead at Phoenix Consulting Group and a senior lecturer at the University of Illinois–Chicago. Register for the event today!