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The ‘Boundary Bridger’: How Leadership Style Drives Alliance Team Performance

Posted By John W. DeWitt , Tuesday, March 12, 2019

“The alignment challenge is not unique to strategic alliances,” commented veteran alliance manager Timothy B. Steele, president of ARM Partners in Leesburg, Virginia, as he kicked off the closed-door, invitation-only ASAP Leadership Forum on Monday, March 11—opening day of the 2019 ASAP Global Alliance Summit in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Indeed, leadership teams typically are aligned only 17 percent on any given topic, according to research by SchellingPoint that builds upon the work of Thomas Schelling, the late behavioral economist who (with Robert J. Aumann) received the 2005 Nobel Prize in economic sciences “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.”

SchellingPoint’s “analysis of 230 collaborations uncovered that teams are aligned on only 17 percent of their peer’s views of their collaboration,” according to Michael Taylor, SchellingPoint’s chief executive. Research further indicates that about 60 percent of senior leaders’ time is spent securing alignment across the leadership team.

Steele and his co-facilitator, Loyola University Maryland professor Dave Luvison, CSAP, PhD, described this aspect of leadership as “a boundary-bridging role.” Alternating between presentation and robust discussion with the group of veteran alliance leaders, Steele and Luvison presented leadership models and emerging research identifying the critical role of boundary bridging and other key leadership behaviors.

“When we look at the job of alliance leadership, we talk a lot about focus on the customer, Steele said, “but if you don’t have this boundary-bridging role,” instead of being a chief alliance officer (CAO) with a seat at the CXO table, you might end up on the menu. Your alliance skills might make you able to cope with ambiguity, but “don’t be ambiguous about having clear mission and mandate, because [building alignment] is one area of alliances where you don’t want to deal with ambiguity. Get it crisp and clear—the less ambiguity you have the better off you are.”

Research into leadership styles of product management teams—according to Luvison, an excellent analog for alliance management—supports the notion that you should “push alliance metrics to the CXO suite [so that it is] leveraged across the business,” Steele continued, adding that that boundary bridgers integrate the alliance agenda into annual corporate planning and involve business P&L owners into key partnering dynamics and decisions.

The science indicates that boundary bridger CAOs establish a “North Star” to guide their teams, a concept advanced by The Rhythm of Business and McKinsey, Steele noted. Furthermore, boundary bridgers demonstrate high emotional intelligence and are able to “feel the headwinds and tailwinds happening in your business,” Steele said. “Think about being up on the balcony, watching yourself dance, anticipating what your partner’s next move is.”

Fundamentally, Luvison said, boundary bridgers understand that just doing a good job does not alone drive success. Research exploring how particular leadership styles improve performance of teams has identified three types of leaders. The first type of leadership style describes leaders primarily engaged in task-focused behavior, “managing and driving the team to perform, making sure every executional aspect of the alliance is done properly. The second type are scouts, who see themselves as responsible for bringing resources to the team. The third type are ambassadors focused on dialoguing with superiors and other stakeholders, proactively putting themselves on the agenda of their leaders, and managing behaviors.”

According to preliminary research findings, Luvison said, “ambassador-led teams outperformed [the two others], especially when combined with task behaviors.” Interestingly, he continued, “Frequency of communications was less important than the nature of the boundary-bridging activities. Ambassadors created the opportunity to promote the team, secure resources, and protect it from interference.”

In other words, successful boundary bridgers also demonstrated traits of the other two types of leaders.

The facilitators then asked the two-dozen or so senior alliance execs in the room how they would describe their leadership style and how much time they spend on boundary bridging. General consensus in the room: 50 percent, if not more, of their time is spent on internal alignment across boundaries.

“It’s a full-time challenge to do this. It’s not just something you can do and be done,” commented one pharmaceutical alliance leader.

“I find I have to be task-oriented even when being ambassador,” said another senior pharma business development and alliance leader.

A leader in a large high-tech company with an immature alliance practice commented that, “since it’s a new alliance management function at our company, the ratio is much higher. We have to do the WIFM—‘what’s in it for me?’—lots of meetings, lots of time spent,” the exec explained. Her boss “spends 90 percent of his time as ambassador and is more networked than most senior leaders at company,” she continued, adding, “But we do split duty—you can evangelize, but you can’t deliver the goods if you’re not executing.”

Another leader commented that “it’s a fallacy that software will solve the problem, that [you can]manage by software, manage by milestones, and forget about alignment. Then you are managing instead of leading. And if leaders are not leading, managers default to tactical.”

Stay tuned for more of ASAP Media’s coverage of the Leadership Forum and other seminal leadership discussions at the 2019 ASAP Global Alliance Summit.

Tags:  ARM Partners  boundary bridgers  communication  Dave Luvison  McKinsey  stakeholders  strategic alliances  The Rhythm of Business  Timothy B. Steele 

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