When experienced CEOs and their executive teams choose strategic alliances to achieve growth, they implement a supporting structure, take steps to avoid legal and accounting pitfalls and create appropriate measures of success. But, for a strategic alliance to be successful, it requires the ongoing commitment and support of employees who may be several layers from the C-suite. Gaining employee buy-in is complicated because alliances are often viewed with considerable skepticism, antagonism or fear.
Engage the middle. To effectively engage middle managers, begin by acknowledging their goals and challenges. Ambitious managers seek promotions by achieving their business units’ revenue goals, lowering costs or reducing risk. They need to see that the proposed alliance is actively supported by senior management. Otherwise, middle managers will limit their energies to those initiatives that are championed by their supervisors and help them achieve their career aspirations.
Steven Leo, Director of IBM Global Services, says, “At IBM senior executives regularly brief managers on the progress of alliances. That shows employees the importance of the alliance and sends a strong message: buy-in of all IBM managers is truly valued and critical to ensure the alliance succeeds.” Providing tangible ways that managers can contribute their insights to the alliance also dramatically increases their engagement. Finally, middle managers find their roles and responsibilities are often altered to accommodate an alliance. These managers should be trained on the unique communications and negotiations skills required to support alliances.
Devote resources to build strong teams. All too often, working effectively in a team is considered a soft skill. Appropriate metrics are not identified nor are resources allocated to monitoring or enhancing these skills. However, establishing an alliance demands high-performing teams throughout the partnering companies. Bram Belzberg, KEV Group’s CEO, says, “Throughout the life-cycle of any alliance, teams are expected to deliver faster and better results than they ever have before. However, alliances often cause companies to reconfigure existing teams as well as create new ones. That places extraordinary pressures on employees.” Belzberg adds that “only when employees have been provided with the time, the skills, the support and the opportunity to work effectively as teams can an alliance succeed”. For example, members of cross-functional teams — whether within one partner or across the alliance partners — need to spend time together to get acquainted and tackle shared goals. Process facilitators can play a vital role by helping teams understand how their communications styles or decision-making affects their ability to perform.
Establish an alliance agenda. Once an alliance is established, it can take months or years before its full potential is realized. So, executives and the “alliance champions” need to share with employees the good, the bad and the ugly that emerges from the alliance. Early in the process, the chosen alliance champions along with the executives, need to openly discuss the goals of the alliance and proposed alliance strategy with employees. During such discussions, executives should provide managers with details about the processes for anticipating, warding off and resolving conflicts. This gives managers confidence that concrete steps have been taken to avoid unnecessary conflicts. At the same time, the executives need to share the proposed management structure and introduce leaders of modified cross-functional teams or newly created cross-partner teams.
Integrate alliance lessons into day-to-day processes. To further leverage strategic alliances, the news of key lessons and successes emerging from the partnering should be integrated into established processes — across functions. Simon Brightman, Co-founder of the Toronto-based incubator The Product Accelerators comments, “Alliances are often formed to spur product innovation or to speed up the entry of products into new markets. That news can be very compelling for attracting new investment, engaging new partners or recruiting new employees”. He continues, “The positive feeling created by a thriving and successful alliance also helps existing employees feel good about working at a company that is breaking new ground”.
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