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Twenty five years ago Stephen R Covey wrote a seminal book on the essential characteristics of effective people. He called his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

Twenty five years later the principles hold good for effective alliances.

Habit Number 1 – Be Proactive Habit number one is based on the concept of proactivity. About actually DOING something to improve the alliance relationship. The key thought here is: ‘Relationships don’t manage themselves’. It takes time and effort to manage alliance relationships. Many business executives misjudge the effort involved. They think that when the alliance deal is signed that’s it – money will magically flow. It doesn’t work like that. It takes people to manage alliances and if the alliance is an important one it needs dedicated resources. That means a person dedicated to the day to day management of the alliance.

Habit Number 2 – Begin with the End in Mind If you work in an alliance have you ever asked yourself (or your colleagues) ‘What is the Vision of this alliance?’ ‘What is it designed to achieve strategically?’ If you haven’t asked this question then maybe its time to try it! I have asked this question of many hundreds of alliance executives over the last 12 years as part of a formal benchmarking process and it turns out that less than 20% can answer the question effectively. If you don’t know what you are trying to build (the end in mind) how can you possibly organise yourself to succeed?

Habit Number 3 – Put First Things First Let me share with you a regular dialogue I have with Alliance Vice Presidents. It goes like this:

  1. First of all the VP claims that all she or he does is firefighting. ‘I never seem to have any time to plan anything with regard to my alliances, I’m always having to react to opportunities, bids, RFPs or escalations. I just wish that I had time to sit and strategies about my alliances!’.
  2. I then organise an Alliance Thought Leaders Meeting (conference, seminar, networking event or just plain get-together) and invite the executive. He or she is delighted. ‘At last I’ll be able to share insights and experiences with peers outside of my immediate sector and gain great alliance insights!’
  3. The day before the event the same executive rings me up and cancels their attendance. When I ask why they say: ‘Oh, sorry Mike I have a: bid, RFP, escalation, etc. that I absolutely must manage myself. Maybe next time?!’

The problem is of course that there is no next time because the executive has failed to understand the difference between ‘Important’ and ‘Urgent’.

Habit Number 4 – Think Win-Win This one should be self explanatory from the outset, but do you know what? its not often the case. When I ask alliance executives what they would like to get out of their alliance they are fulsome in their descriptions of the additional products or services that their partner can sell for them. But when I reverse the question and ask ‘What does your partner hope to get out of this alliance?’ There is a deathly pause and generally the person changes the subject!

Habit Number 5 – Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood People often ask me ‘What are the key qualities that great collaborators have?’ I always start with the same one – empathetic listening. In other words truly trying to understand what the partner wants from the relationship first before turning their attention to what they can get out of it. Not surprisingly the number of people who are successful in doing this are few and far between.

Habit Number 6 – Synergize Alliances which combine the strengths of both parties are far more successful than ones which simply ‘bolt on’ the aspects of the other. Let me give you a tangible example to explain: one of the questions we ask in our benchmarking exercises is about ‘cultural alignment’. We ask both parties ‘How do you leverage the obvious differences in your partner’s organisation and individual behaviours to the benefit of the alliance?’ Not surprisingly most alliance executives can’t answer this question. Either they haven’t thought about it or they just don’t care. Simply working with the partner is hard enough without concerning themselves with the concept of 1 + 1 = 3. If any of them do think about it they tend to answer negatively with comments like: ‘Yes you are right our partner’s attitude to risk is holding us back.’ or ‘Our partner is too command and control obsessed they should have a flatter management structure like us.’ In neither of these cases is partner 1 using the obvious differences in organisational culture in partner 2 to best effect.

Habit Number 7 – Sharpen the Saw This is probably the most abused habit of them all! When I talk to alliance people and ask them whether they are aware that their alliance has gone through (and is going through) substantial change they all agree. But then none of them (or very, very few of them) allow themselves the time to benchmark or health-check the alliance to track these changes and react to them. They don’t practice their partnering skills and they certainly don’t take part in any formal alliance or partnering training on a regular basis. If they did they would see substantial. improvements ion performance!

Stephen R Covey is no longer with us unfortunately, but his son Stephen M Covey carries on his work and builds on the solid foundations that his father laid. And do you know what is interesting? His most successful book so far is called ‘The Speed of Trust : The ONE Thing that Changes EVERYTHING’ Interesting eh?