Until we get clearer about this role, value-creating alliances will continue to fail and mediocrity will abound.
What is a strategic alliance manager? Who do we think we are?
One of the biggest challenges in the management of strategic alliances is role confusion. Businesses can easily confuse this role with more traditional jobs. These strategically important positions can be staffed with people who were very successful in their prior work, but who are ill-suited for value-creation. They can end up doing more harm than good; inadvertently they end up stiffing value-creation. Significant untapped value will remain dormant in that business relationship.
The role of strategic alliance manager is extraordinarily unique. There is nothing else like it in the world of business.
What is a Strategic Alliance?
Before we can define what a strategic alliance manager is we need to define a strategic alliance.
A strategic alliance is a long-term value-creating relationship.
If a business relationship is not primarily about the creation of incremental value (e.g., collaboratively developing technologies, products or highly-valued solutions) then it is not a strategic alliance. If it is not a long-term relationship (e.g., expected to last at least 3-5 years) then it is not a strategic alliance.
This definition may seem extreme and limiting. After all, lots of businesses and professional organizations have broad and expansive definitions (e.g., whenever two companies work together). Why do I suggest a definition so maniacally focused on value-creation, to the exclusion of value-exchange and value-extraction relationships? I do so because it is the most demanding form of inter-company relationship and figuring things out in our most challenging relationships helps us in our other relationships. Challenges force us to clarify.
Trying to get highly-competitive companies to collaboratively develop something together is incredibly challenging. It is arguably impossible.
With this focus we gain clarity in terms of this role. This can then be softened, expanded and applied to value-exchange and value-extraction relationships. If those relationships managers have what it takes to be a strategic alliance manager, they can more easily succeed in value-exchange and value-extraction relationships.
Compared to Traditional Business Roles
Here is a summary of the general differences between traditional roles in business and how they compare to that of a strategic alliance manager. This is an admittedly gross generalization. There are countless examples where individuals from these traditional areas have succeeded as alliance managers. Their success is often due more to their personal attributes than to management’s ability to staff this position correctly. Or their success may be due to the business relationship not really being a “strategic alliance” as defined previously. E.g., if the relationship is basically a channel sales position then a sales rep can be successful and that staffing decision is appropriate. Remember we’re talking about long-term value-creating relationships, not just value-exchange.
Account Management (sales or procurement)
- This is similar to strategic alliance management in that both deal with external relationships.
- This is different in that sales and procurement type relationships are typically about value-exchange with a focus on near-term results. Account managers may also lack experience in spanning all functional areas of an organization and up to the CEO level.
- The results can be that long-term value-creation opportunities get overlooked or missed, and the relationship becomes more tactical than strategic.
Business Development Management (BDM)
- This is similar to strategic alliance management in that both are oriented toward value.
- This is different in that BDMs can tend to be weak in collaborative skills, and their work is more about time-bound projects or activities (rather than long-term relationships) focused on tangible near-term results. BDMs may also lack experience in spanning an entire organization, at all levels.
- The results can be that long-term value-creation is weak in these relationships, and the relationship becomes more tactical than strategic.
- This is similar to strategic alliance management in that both can tend to span the entire business.
- This is different in that program managers tend to have a limited scope – they are focused on a program that is not long-term or one that is limited to a specific area of the business (organizationally-bound). And program managers can have limited experience with external relationships.
- This results can be the loss of long-term (3-5 year) perspective, missed value-creation opportunities, weakened collaboration and the relationship becomes more tactical than strategic.
When a strategic alliance seems to be under-performing, senior management may decide that the alliance manager be someone who is aggressively focused on near-term results – sales revenue. If that business relationship is really about long-term value-creation, this staffing decision may have some near-term benefit at the expense of long-term results. Value-creation will continue being mediocre as the long-term perspective is overlooked and intangible forms of value (like trust, open communications and climate) are ignored.
If not that, what are we?
If a strategic alliance manager (for a long-term value-creating relationship) is not an account manager, business development manager or program manager, what are we?
One thing we are, one very important aspect of our work is to be a great negotiator. We are always negotiating, meaning we’re always engaged in important discussions where we are trying to influence others. We’re trying to take the alliance in a specific direction. Therefore we are always negotiating.
Based on the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law / MIT and Tufts Universities (30 years of research) we can learn something about important attributes of a strategic alliance manager:
- Be extraordinarily trustworthy and as open as possible.
- Be tough on issues and soft on people – be confrontational, co-face difficult issues in relationships.
- Have great interpersonal or people-to-people skills – be high-trust rapport builders.
- Be great listeners and great communicators – in that order – listening is communicating.
- Be comfortable being highly-assertive and very task-oriented.
- Have a value-based orientation and a principle-based perspective.
- Be uncompromising – don’t simply accept the average of each side’s positions.
- Strive for outcomes beyond mere win/win results.
- Be comfortable staying in between; between companies, between people and between ideas.
- By being driven by value-creating principles see the most creative teaming scenarios that address both side’s fundamental business objectives as well as key underlying interests.
- Be a passionate value-creating visionary.
Being a great negotiator is necessary but insufficient. It does not sufficiently describe the holistic nature of our work and the need to create long-term value.
In many ways it is helpful to think of our job as being like a CEO. We are the CEO of our alliance. We are responsible for its overall health and its value creation. There are, however, subtle but significant differences. Perhaps the differences below are described too starkly, especially as they relate to a CEO’s perspective on long-term and intangible forms of value; but these stark contrasts helps us emphasize the importance of time and the intangibles in an alliance. The differences regarding an alliance manager’s limitations in budget, resource, decision-making and power are true in most alliances.
- A CEO is similar to a strategic alliance manager in that both of them span the entire lifecycle of a product or service from R&D-to-Sales, plus Legal and Finance.
- Both are oriented toward the creation of value for the business.
- They are different in that a CEO has control over a substantial budget and significant people resources. A strategic alliance manager typically has insufficient budget and resource.
- They are different in that a CEO tends to be more focused on near-term tangible forms of value. A strategic alliance managers has to consider both near-term and long-term value, as well as both tangible and intangible forms of value (e.g., collaborative atmosphere, high-trust, open communications).
- They are different in that a CEO has direct decision-making authority and a strategic alliance manager has limited decision-making authority, mostly they influence decisions.
- They are different in that a CEO has significant formal power. A strategic alliance manager has mostly informal power, relying on subtle persuasion.
A strategic alliance manager can feel frustrated when comparing their role to the power, authority and resources available to a CEO. And by comparing ourselves to that of a CEO we actually limit our thinking by focusing more on what we lack rather than on what we have. We miss out on our real opportunity to embrace the non-traditional nature of our role. We miss out on the importance of focusing on the importance of our own attitude & mindset in order to deepen relationships. We miss out on the true power that can come to us via transformational practices, especially the empowering practice of Self-Obsolescence.
Don’t limit yourself by thinking you are the CEO of your alliance.
Who do we really think we are?
Agents of Change
Much like thinking of ourselves as being negotiators it is helpful to think of ourselves as change agents. There is a range of change agents from being fact-based to authority-based to relationship-based and finally being transformational. Each of these types of agents of change plays a role at various times in an alliance.
Transformational Strategic Alliance Manager
We really start tapping into the creative and mystical aspects of our role when we really reflect upon what it means to be a transformational strategic alliance manager. I strongly recommend that you take the time to read the 18-page whitepaper Transform Your Alliance: accomplish extraordinary results to broaden and deepen your perspective on the extraordinary potential in this role.
Consider what it would be like if Mahatma Gandhi were a strategic alliance manager.
Okay, now for the grand punch line: Would it be helpful for us to think about our role as like being the god of our alliance? We are not the Creator but a creator. We are a creator of value.
Think about it. We want our alliance to be about creating value. It needs to create value for a very long time; with business’s near-term planning horizons, a few years can feel like eternity. A sense of timelessness can bring a richer more persistent perspective. As alliance managers we are concerned about the overall climate in our alliance, a climate grounded in abundance and even a sense of love (in the grandest sense of that word). The ability to change the climate and be forever value-creative sounds god-like to me.
We may not be all-powerful (omnipotent) nor ever-present (omnipresent) but we are expected to be all-knowing. We can benefit by embracing the omniscient attribute of deity.
By focusing on the omniscient aspect of our role and by being all-sharing with our wisdom and insights, we gain huge informal power and a strong virtual presence. These dynamics are expounded on in the article on Self-Obsolescence: the most impactful practice an alliance manager can embody.
You are the value creator of your alliance:
Doing the impossible with nothing in the eye of a hurricane.
As the value creator of our alliances we are expected to get highly-competitive corporations to collaborate in the creation of incremental value; this is nearly impossible. We do this with insufficient resource, in the midst of overwhelming complexity and dysfunctional drama. That’s why we love our jobs!
Also read to the 32-page whitepaper Strategic Alliance Manager (Identity): a unique, holistic and empowering perspective for more discussion on our extraordinarily unique role, including exploring how we can at times be our own worst enemy, inadvertently limiting value-creation. This paper also explores nontraditional, counter-intuitive and transformational practices we might consider, as we explore the mystical or divine nature of our work.