This Way to the C-Suite: Summit Fireside Chat Explores Alliance Managers’ Path to Senior Leadership

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Global Alliance Summit ,

If you have spent a fair amount of time in the ASAP community, there’s a decent chance you have heard more than one person assert that the alliance management skill set is an almost ideal approximation of the competencies one would need to take residence in the C-suite. Well, we’re now getting a chance to test that theory out as experts in collaboration have begun to move to the top of the chain in smaller startups, particularly in biopharma. During “A CEO Fireside Chat” at the 2022 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, two career alliance managers and longtime ASAP members who are now “Chiefs” in their respective organizations shared their perspectives on how ambitious alliance professionals can blaze a similar path.

“Today, we can learn how these folks did it,” said the Fireside Chat’s moderator Brooke Paige, CSAP, digital alliance leader at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, at the outset of the discussion.

Network Effect: Today’s Partner Could Be Your Gateway to Tomorrow’s New Role

Krishnan Viswanadhan, president and chief operating officer at cell therapy company Be BioPharma, was appointed to his position by Joanne Smith-Farrell, a former joint steering committee member on an alliance he ran at Celgene (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) who is now Be BioPharma’s CEO. Viswanadhan advised Summit attendees to be “willing to take risks, be willing to adapt” because change is constant. Every person you work with on an alliance and every colleague you meet at a conference like the ASAP Global Alliance Summit helps build out a network of people who one day may present you with an opportunity to move another rung up the ladder. 

“That person could [be] in a C-suite role [at a] different company, and you can’t take that for granted,” said Viswanadhan. “Part of [my career path] has been luck, and part of it has been the reality of relationships that has gotten me to the roles I’ve gotten to." 

Andy Eibling, CSAP, president and CEO of GeniPhys, echoed many of these sentiments. After spending 30 years at Eli Lilly and serving stints at drug development services company

Covance and drug delivery startup Enable Injections, Eibling reflected on how hard it is to map out an ideal career trajectory.  

“Career planning is a bit of an ironic statement,” he quipped. “The opportunities may come when you least expect it.”

Still, networking is one thing you can control, and Eibling, too, stressed that every interaction is a chance to make a great impression on someone who might be in a position to give you the chance of a lifetime somewhere down the road.

“I think we can all probably point to opportunities where we have interfaced in an alliance partnership with somebody on the other side who later in your career has been somewhere else and said, ‘Hey we worked together when you were in that role, and you were really good at it. I’d like to talk to you about an opportunity,’” said Eibling.

“Collaboration on Steroids”  

And, yes, both Viswanadhan and Eibling can confirm from their view from the top that all of this talk about alliance management proficiencies transferring neatly into C-suite roles isn’t just hollow rhetoric. For example, risk mitigation is a core part of both the alliance manager’s and the CEO’s life, arguably more so than in positions in other departments. 

“One of the things good alliance management does is anticipate problems and proactively address them. Frankly, that’s what we’re all doing in the C-suite: always thinking about what can go wrong. How do we mitigate those risks as we go forward? What are things we should be doing now to manage those risks?” said Viswanadhan. “It’s very similar in the C-suite. It’s always thinking about what can fundamentally go wrong and trying to proactively address some of those elements.” 

One would think that as a company’s supreme boss, the CEO wouldn’t need to influence people without authority as much as alliance managers do. Viswanadhan quickly dispelled that notion. 

“We’re constantly influencing our teams, partners, boards, and investors,” he said. In fact, “the number of collaborations and relationships you need to manage across both internally and externally becomes so much larger.” Viswanadhan went so far as to summarize the CEO role as “collaboration on steroids.”

No Place to Hide

Eibling cited the alliance manager’s ability “to flex to the needs of the minute” as an area of déjà vu in the life of a CEO. “You never knew what would come up the next day,” he said. Eibling recalled dealing with issues related to finance, regulatory, manufacturing, and other parts of the business during his time as an alliance professional. This experience is serving him well now, because today he has “to be able to flex across all of the different functions and understand the kinds of challenges they’re facing.”

There is one huge difference between being an alliance manager and CEO, however. Where the alliance professional is often orchestrating partnership activities behind the scenes, as a CEO “there is no hiding. You are out front—all the time,” said Eibling. “It takes a little bit of an adjustment to get used to being in that kind of role.”