Will an alliance without executive sponsorship ever be successful?

Does an alliance that is established without executive sponsorship in your organization have any chance to be successful?
When establishing strategic alliances, you want to have the right resources in your organization involved and you want to ensure an executive sponsor. For an alliance to be successful, executives in both organizations on a similar level or role need to build a relationship and need work together and build trust.

The role of an executive sponsor is broader than just building a relationship and trust.
The sponsor will be your executive champion evangelizing the alliance to other executives. He or she will provide strategic guidance and will assist in organizational navigation when barriers need to be overcome. From the same perspective the executive sponsor will be the escalation point when you, as alliance manager, hit elements that you on your level can not overcome.

In the end of the day, the executive sponsor will be overall responsible for the performance of your alliance.
In the daily practice it will most likely mean a delegated responsibility to you, the alliance manager. The executive will remain on the background maintaining oversight and you will be held responsible for the daily results. But it also means that you will need to build a close working relation with your sponsor. They should be on constant information flow of the alliance progress, without overloading them and without under-informing them.

The executive sponsor has an essential role in an alliance.
So, how do you select a sponsor? It is important to think about the value of the alliance to their business area. On the other hand it is important to have a look at the executive’s cloud and longevity in the organization. What can he/she really accomplish? From this perspective I have seen two completely opposite examples:

– One client always chose the most senior in line to be the sponsor. The advantage of this choice is that the executive will have a stake in the alliance, the results of the alliance will consolidate into his overall results. The downside is that this client was a typical large company where job rotation was on average once every 3 to 4 years. It also meant changing the sponsor every 3 to 4 years. In doing an alliance with a company that was still being led by the founders after 10’s of years, this resulted in a complaint about “frequent changing of executives” at the client.

– In another situation at an other client, they generally choose a sponsor with sufficient seniority in general management of the company. Here I experienced that an executive sponsor moved from overall global responsibility for one product line to overall global responsibility for another product line. In both cases the executive remained sponsor for the partnership and was personally measured for the overall results of the partnership.

Choosing the sponsor will in the end also depend on the culture of the company. What in the second example worked, would not have worked in the first example.

Can a strategic alliance survive without executive sponsorship?
When an alliance is of strategic importance to your organization, the chances it can flourish without executive sponsorship are minimal. The alliance may grow in the early stages, while still under the radar screen. But in fact, then you already started of in the wrong mode. Executive sponsorship needs to be ensured early on, already before moving into partner selection. Otherwise an alliance is doomed to fail or at least make a false start.