What does an Alliance Manager do?

Alliance managers are a critical component of how an increasing number of biopharma organizations manage their R&D and commercial partnerships. But many participants in collaborative projects or ventures do not fully comprehend nor appreciate their role. Having led a workshop last month at the very stimulating Strategic Alliance Management for Pharma conference in Barcelona, it struck me once again how varied the understanding of this important role is even amongst practitioners. Not that this variation matters of course as long as the role adds value, especially given the diversity of the underlying alliances. Nevertheless, I thought it might be useful to at least summarize in one article all the important potential elements of the role.

When we refer to alliance managers, we mean those people who ensure that the partnerships they look after proceed to their goals efficiently, effectively, and harmoniously and in a timely fashion. The raison d’être of an alliance manager is to create synergy from the differences between the two parties, thus enabling the partnership to deliver on its goals. Everyone involved in the partnership has a part to play in making this happen, but alliance managers lead these efforts.

Alliance managers do not need to be formally designated as such, nor do they need to be engaged in alliance management full-time. The role can be played by more than one individual—in a smaller organization especially, there may not be dedicated alliance managers, the role for each partnership that organization is engaged in being played part-time by a combination of the project leader and a member of the governance committee. The crucial thing is that at least one person from each party is playing this role.

While the specifics and priorities differ from one company to another, and from one partnership to another, the roles and responsibilities of an alliance manager usually cover seven areas:

  1. Contract management: Managing contractual obligations, such as milestone payments; advising collaboration participants on how the partnership contract should be implemented; and if necessary, negotiating with the partner regarding the interpretation of the contract in the event of a difference of opinion between the two sides.
  2. Progress monitoring: Tracking progress, including coordinating the definition and reporting of the KPIs, as well as leading periodic health checks.
  3. Process management: Establishing and ensuring smooth operation of the collaboration ground rules, such as the protocol for formal governance meetings and procedures for decision making, project team meetings, data exchange, and other kinds of interactions.
  4. Brand management: Managing how the company as a whole is perceived by the partner, and how the partnership is perceived by people in one’s own company.
  5. Alignment and relationship building: Leading efforts to increase alignment, mutual understanding, and trust between collaboration participants, including activities such as the kickoff event and periodic collaboration team events.
  6. Strategic value and risk management: Identifying the important value drivers and key risks, ensuring those involved do not lose focus on strategic aspects, and leading efforts to mitigate risks and accelerate value creation; may also include looking for win-win opportunities to extend the relationship by expanding the existing partnership or creating additional spin-off collaborations.
  7. Change management: Anticipating upcoming changes in project stages or collaboration participants, managing transitions smoothly, and serving as the partnership’s memory, as well as facilitating complex discussions with the partner to map a way forward when unanticipated situations or corporate decisions in either party trigger the need for change.

An important aspect of an alliance manager’s working day, some would say the most important, is engaging people. As many alliance managers have mentioned to me, “You have to know the individuals and what drives them.” Counter to intuition, the majority of this communication is internally-facing, with empirical estimates from the alliance managers I have talked to ranging from at least 50% to as high as 80%, the latter in particular when the organization is new to working closely with external parties. Sensitizing one’s own organization to the partner’s differences, explaining how the collaboration operates differently to a fully in-house project and selling the benefits of the collaboration internally are critical to fulfilling the alliance manager’s mission.

Alliance managers often operate in the “white space” of issues that no one else owns, especially as regards topics that would not even arise if the project were an in-house one. While some part of alliance managers’ daily work involves recurring processes and tasks, where they can really add the most value is as trouble shooters when complex or difficult situations arise, as one experienced alliance manager said to me:

“If it goes well, it’s no thanks to the alliance manager, but if it does not, then we are the ones who are supposed to fix it!”