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Levels of Engagement: Strategy, Sun Tzu, and Alliance Success

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/10/2013

What do plastics, garbage, health care, and Sun Tzu have in common? All of these were components of a presentation given on the final day of the 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, entitled “Laying a Solid Foundation: Building an Internal Support Structure for Alliance Success.” In it A. J. Novak, strategic business director for Waste Management, Inc., discussed a multiparty alliance in which his company was involved, augmented by strategic selling advice from LaVon Koerner, CEO of Revenue Storm.

Novak said that in moving from a “demand capture” to a “demand creation” strategy, Waste Management asked, What do customers need to be successful in their marketplace? Looking at health care, Waste Management saw an industry trying to become more green and eco-friendly. So the company contacted 10 suppliers to the health care industry and got them together for a meeting, trying to devise more sustainable plastics and better solutions for the environment. Many of those companies were competitors—which made for “some very cautious discussions in that room,” according to Novak.

At this point, Koerner interjected a quotation from the ancient Chinese writer Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War: “The key to victory is not defeating your enemy, but defeating his strategy; therein lies his vulnerability.” Koerner said that in the heady rush to go to market, partners sometimes neglect their sales strategy—a fatal error. “It contains the DNA or genetic blueprint on what we’re going to do day-to-day in the field,” he said. “That’s dictated by the strategy, so if you’re unclear on the strategy level, you’re going to be unclear on the behavior level.”

“We did not have a strategy early on,” Novak acknowledged. “We thought we did. It was difficult to measure the success of the team, because we weren’t aligned to a strategy, not only in sales but in marketing and elsewhere.”

Koerner outlined four options, or levels, of engagement which are key to understanding one’s own—and one’s competitors’—strategy. Level 1 is transactional—like going through the drive-up window at McDonald’s or Burger King. Level 2 has a process focus, usually oriented around some known need, such as selling integrated solutions. Level 3 is a business focus—such as a “business improvement value proposition.” Finally, level 4 is a partner focus—where what is being sold to the customer is actually a partnership. Although Koerner cautioned, “Just because you use the word ‘partner’ doesn’t mean you’re at this level 4.”

What does this look like in practice? “We created a level 3 value proposition around sustainability in plastics in the health care industry,” Novak explained. “By aligning to that strategy, [sales teams and partners] were aligning to a level 3 strategy. It allowed us to accomplish an awful lot in five months.”

Koerner noted that in researching the Web sites of various companies on the list of Global Summit attendees, he found that most of their messaging related to levels 1 and 2 selling, with very little pertaining to levels 3 and 4. Whatever the strategy is, the messaging needs to support it. Koerner also cautioned against incomplete alignment—just trying to align sales and marketing, for example. “Everyone has to be aligned to the strategy, then by default they’re aligned to each other,” he concluded.

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“Bond. James Bond. Alliance Manager”

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/10/2013

Daniel Craig couldn’t make it, and John le Carré and Gary Oldman were also regrettably no-shows, but one of the final presentations at the 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit was nonetheless a very different way of looking at an increasingly common phenomenon: collaborations involving coopetition.

Using a number of stills from the recent James Bond movies to illustrate their points, as well as an engaging paper-airplane building, marketing, and buying activity to start things off, Helen Morin, global alliances director at SAS, and Scott Van Valkenburgh, senior director of global alliances at SAS, presented a number of concepts that should help alliance professionals more safely and successfully work their way through the often cloak-and-dagger world of coopetition alliances in their presentation, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Coopetition Alliances in Business, History, and Today’s Global Marketplace.”

While this presentation might have been more Quantum of Strategy than Tinker, Tailor, it got off to a great interactive start with an exercise in which a number of tables were designated “manufacturers” and given the materials (in sealed manila envelopes) to build paper airplanes. Each table group then had five minutes to open their envelope, come up with a design, and then build as many airplanes as possible, before time was up and several designated “buyers” came around to inspect their products and see if they wanted to buy.

Our table, for example, made quite a number of what we thought were very serviceable, well-designed blue paper airplanes. However, it turned out that the buyers sent to our table had been given specs that didn’t match those of our planes: they needed pink aircraft with dots on them—available at the table next to ours. Our “sales rep” bravely tried to form an alliance with that next table, only to find she had been beaten to the punch; the pink-dot planes were themselves the product of an alliance between two nearby tables, and we were out of luck, stuck with an inventory the market didn’t want.

The lesson here? “You can’t do it all alone,” said Morin. “In some cases it’s the customer who’s telling us whom to partner with.”

Other lessons included: Engage executives—some things will happen at the grassroots level, but you can’t get traction in an alliance if you don’t get senior leadership involved; align goals and expectations so that compensation will drive behavior; lay out a strategy and align everyone around it; and perhaps most important in situations involving coopetition, segment the business—define where the “ring fence” is, and where are the barriers not to cross. As Morin put it, “Yes, we’re going to compete there, but we’re going to work together in these other areas.” She used the example of Netflix and Amazon, which vigorously compete in the movie streaming/rental business, but Netflix runs its entire operation on Amazon’s platform.

As in any collaboration, Van Valkenburgh urged those involved in coopetition alliances to resolve issues quickly, because “bad news does not get better with time. If you don’t resolve issues up front, a cancerous growth appears underneath, and it will undermine and collapse the growth of the partnership.” Diffusing emotion, and establishing strong governance grounded in “principle-based decision-making,” à la the character “M” in the Bond movies, will also help when having “those uncomfortable conversations,” he said.

Finally, Morin and Van Valkenburgh had just a couple more words of wisdom from the murky world of coopetition. “When you have transparency, trust builds,” Van Valkenburgh said. And: “If you spend your time fighting over the breadcrumbs instead of opening the bakery, you’re not going to have a lot to eat.”

As of this writing, we could neither confirm nor deny that the presenters’ next ASAP talk will be entitled “Skyfall: The Spy Who Allied with Me.”

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Dancing with the Alliance Stars

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/9/2013

The 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit is over, but the impressions it left us with are many—from the Alliance Excellence Awards Dinner to the evening receptions to the breakfast roundtables to the many great speakers and presenters. Thursday, March 7, the last day of the Summit, saw some outstanding presentations, including “What Alliance Pros Can Learn from Dancing with the Stars: How Trust, Alignment, and Some Nimble Footwork Can Help Your Career Performance,” a novel multimedia extravaganza led by Robert Porter Lynch, CEO of The Warren Company and ASAP founding chairman, and Patricia Garcia, formerly associate director at Sanofi and a former competitive ballroom dancer.

Using clips from The King and I, Dancing with the Stars, ice dancing, and pro wrestling, Lynch and Garcia looked at the commonalities between alliances and various forms of dance: the concepts of synergy, synchronicity, and symphony—or as Lynch put it, referring back to those words’ Greek roots, “We’re going to tell you how to ‘syn.’”

It all comes down to alignment: alliance partners, like dance partners, must be in synch. And the creative potential inherent in alliances must be harnessed in some way, yoked to a series of agreed-on “steps” that keep the partners together in rhythm.

“Alliances can be a creative engagement,” Garcia explained. “But how do we access the creativity? Alliances reveal the heart and soul of a company. Dance reveals the heart and soul of civilizations; they’re measured by their art. When you come together with someone else who has their own culture, it gives you an opportunity. You have to have the desire to interact, but also the desire and the will to be acted upon. That is sometimes the tougher side of things, to have your heart and soul be entered by someone else.”

In order for that to happen, there has to be trust. Lynch demonstrated this idea graphically with his Ladder of Trust diagram, with the various trusting behaviors on top and a number of alliance-busting, distrusting behaviors lying “below the belt.” Without trust, on which Lynch has written extensively, the alliance’s foundation will break down, and what could have been a promising collaboration falls victim to “the tornado of distrust,” as Lynch termed it.

The clip from Dancing with the Stars, like the others used, was fascinating, and showed the transformation of the amateur of the pair, a female pro wrestler, from using her “assets” to attack and defend in the wrestling ring, to using her newly acquired abilities to collaborate and get into beautiful alignment with her professional male dancing partner.

This showed, said Garcia, that “depending on how you set the stage, you can drive people up the ladder [of trust] or down, bring out the worst or the best in people, in any human being.”

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Crossing the "Great Divide" of Culture

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/9/2013

“We don’t really notice our own culture; we kind of take it for granted. When you enter another culture, you’re looking for things you’re not used to seeing,” said Andrew Masland, senior manager for NEC Corporation of America, at this past week’s 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, in a discussion entitled “Across the Great Divide: Managing Alliances for Success Given Cultural Differences,” given with copresenter Judy Mirkin, director of global alliance and business development for Riverbed Technology.

It becomes critical to do this looking across boundaries when entering into alliances with companies and individuals from other cultures. But “culture” may in fact be a broader term than it might at first appear. Cultural divides can occur across geographies, such as North America, Europe, Japan, Asia Pacific, South America, and Africa; across companies from different industries such as IT, education, and health care; and even within one company, where dividing lines can arise between different product groups, business groups, and geographies.

National culture and language differences may be the most obvious “great divides,” however. Whatever culture your alliance takes you into, Mirkin advised alliance professionals to be aware of and sensitive to the very real divergences in behavior and thinking that may mean the difference between success and failure in an alliance. “Take the time to learn [that culture], and then embrace the differences,” she urged. “And just because you don’t speak the language, don’t stop listening.”

Examples of cultural differences that Masland and Mirkin mentioned run the gamut from eating dinner at nine o’clock (Spain), to not answering emails in preference to oral communication (Arab countries), to what may seem to Americans like rather abrupt and frank discussions (Germany), to an emphasis on doing business via mobile phones (western and central Africa, where Western-style infrastructure is often lacking).

Learning foreign languages is great—even mastering a simple phrase like “thank you” is a plus, and shows your alliance partners that you have taken some time to learn at least a little of their culture—but even in situations where interpreters are relied upon, Mirkin pointed out some things to be aware of. She encouraged getting some time with them first so they understand what is going on and are thoroughly briefed.

“Invite them in and make them as much a part of your meeting as you can,” she said. “Ask, ‘Did I miss anything? Was anything lost?’ Document the meeting and confirm so everyone leaves with the same marching orders and understanding.” Also, even when using an interpreter, you still want to look the person you’re talking to in the eye and speak to them directly—they may know some of your language, so it’s a bad idea to say to the interpreter, “Tell him that…,” Mirkin noted. Awareness of nonverbal communication such as body language is also key: “When language lets you down, look for the cues.”

In short, dealing with other cultures in alliance work is a matter of learning as much as you can, being aware of potential issues, and being sensitive to differences that may cause misunderstandings if not handled skillfully, according to both Masland and Mirkin. Flexibility and openness are critical, and it’s best if potential issues can be handled ahead of time and up front.

“The important thing is, what will work?” said Mirkin.

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What Does It Take to Be a Collaborative Leader?

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/9/2013

They’re often referred to as “soft skills”—those sometimes intangible qualities that good to great alliance managers have and which they deploy so skillfully to bring diverse stakeholders together, shepherd complex alliances to the next milestone and the one after that, resolve difficult problems, and drive collaborations through to success.

But there’s nothing soft about these rare and important qualities—in fact they’re the very necessary components that make up not only today’s alliance professionals, but tomorrow’s collaborative leaders, according to Chris Elliott, director of Australia-based strategic relationship consultancy PeopleForce Pty Ltd. Elliott’s presentation at the just-concluded 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, “The Collaborative Leader: New Leadership Skills for a Connected and Collaborative Future,” laid out some of the skills that great alliance managers have, as well as those that will be required as the future grows increasingly connected and collaborative.

These skills include what Elliott called “presencing,” a way of learning that not only reflects on the experiences of the past, but senses the future as it emerges, being open to it and learning from it. Alliance professionals also practice a type of leadership that spans organizational and cultural boundaries, crossing or strengthening those boundaries as dictated by the needs of any particular alliance. Furthermore, Elliott highlighted six particular skills—three pairs, actually—that are essential to the collaborative leader of the rapidly oncoming future: buffering and reflecting; connecting and creating shared identity; and weaving and transforming. These kinds of skills, in Elliott’s view, are “unique gifts” that differentiate and elevate the role of the alliance manager.

Even the questions for reflection that Elliott left Summit attendees with were thought-provoking:
  1. If I were a clairvoyant, and you could ask me three questions about what will happen in your alliance over the next 18 months, what would those three questions be?
  2. As a collaborative leader, what is the transformational impact you are committed to have on the future of your alliance or collaboration? Describe your commitment: “I am committed to…”
  3. Within the next two to three weeks, what is the action or conversation you must have, and with whom, to bring about the transformational shift in your collaboration or alliance?
  4. What are the “unique gifts” that you bring to this collaborative leadership opportunity?
Elliott encouraged alliance managers to view themselves as forward thinkers, able to see a couple steps ahead of senior leadership, as well as change agents who have the power to transform organizations and individuals. He also urged alliance pros to get more involved in ASAP.

“It’s a platform, and the more involved you are, the more we can make this revolution,” Elliott said. “You are bridge builders. You are connected.”

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