“Who is your executive sponsor for this alliance?” I asked the alliance manager. “I’m not sure,” she replied. This alliance manager had already been looking after the particular alliance we were discussing for two years. Her response, that she was unsure about who the executive sponsor was, then went further downhill!  In fact it turned out that she didn’t even know  if there was an executive sponsor at all. It wasn’t really her fault that she was unaware, it turned out that her organisation was missing a true collaborative mindset. Every layer in the organisation wanted to be in control and was shielding the management layer above from being involved.

From many perspectives this alliance was destined not to reach its full potential. Aside from the missing collaborative culture, the fact that an executive sponsor was also  missing was a clear red flag. 

The role of an executive sponsor is critical to the success of alliance relationships. When we discuss this role in our Alliance Masterclass (for which, by the way registration has just opened again) Anoop Nathwani and I always emphasise that without an executive sponsor, an alliance can never be strategic. For an alliance to be of strategic importance to an organisation, top management needs to be involved and be the champion by providing clear direction, ensuring resources are available and by being accessible as an escalation point when necessary.  

Furthermore, Brian Tjemkes c.s. describes the criticality of the executive sponsor role in the book “Strategic Alliance Management”: “Without sponsorship, top management sends an internal signal indicating a lack of importance and commitment, which will undermine value creation. Escalation of conflicts continues without executive involvement and resolution.

Selecting an executive sponsor is an important task. You need an executive with sufficient clout and seniority, who is ideally part of the organisation’s c-suite, or reports into the c-suite. In practice, I see two ways of selecting an executive sponsor. One way is to select the most senior executive in line to be the sponsor. This could, for instance, be a divisional CEO. The advantage of this choice is that the executive will have a stake in the alliance as the results of the alliance will consolidate into their overall results. The other way is to choose a sponsor with sufficient seniority in the general company’s management. To ensure sufficient attention from this sponsor for the alliance, its results or progress can be made part of the executive’s personal goals.

Whatever approach works best for your organisation will depend on your company’s culture. It is, however, up to the alliance manager to ensure that a sponsor is assigned, ideally early on in the alliance formation process. Similarly, when a sponsor is not allocated, as in the example mentioned above, it is the alliance manager’s responsibility to work the internal system and to get a sponsor on-board as soon as possible. This not only benefits the company, but also the alliance and last but not least, the alliance manager themself.

Read more about executive sponsorship in this article.  

What Have I Been Reading: Strategic Alliance Management” *  by Brian Tjemkes, Pepijn Vos, and Koen Burgers. 

Why Is It Relevant? The title already says enough about its relevance to alliance management. Now in its third edition, this book is one of the most comprehensive books on alliance management I know of. The theory is academically grounded and illustrated with real-life alliance cases, making it all together an excellent reference work!