The memos advising B2B companies that partner ecosystems will drive a $60 trillion economy by 2025 and be the main disruptor to current business models aren’t getting the attention they deserve from many C-Suite executives. When a survey this summer asked business professionals who have knowledge of the partnerships or channel function at their organization to identify the biggest blocker to improved partner operations, “executive buy-in” made the top three.
“Executives who aren’t fully bought in on partnerships can create strategic priorities that make aligning with other departments extremely difficult if not impossible,” noted a report based on the survey. “They can also refuse to allocate budget and headcount to implement successful partner operations.”
One community striving to boost the number of partner ecosystem professionals in the C-Suite is Partnership Leaders. Its mission statement says it all. “Despite the huge impact Partnerships teams have at tech companies, it’s still rare to see a Partnerships or Business Development leaders on the executive leadership team. We’re on a mission to change that.”
Channel program professionals are ready for the change, said Asher Mathew, a Partnership Leaders co-founder and VP, GTM – Data & Sales Intelligence Cloud at Demandbase. Working with organizations such as Partnership Leaders, channel professionals are making investments in their skills, striving “to become seasoned operators of partnerships, the same way you would have seasoned operators of sales and marketing,” he said. Equally important, they are becoming more vocal about the roles they play, impressing upon their managers the importance of supporting a robust partner ecosystem. Partner professionals are saying they “actually do belong here, and we’re going to make it known,” said Mathew.
Companies are taking notice. “We’re definitely celebrating moments where we see companies bringing management of their partner ecosystems into the C-Suite,” said Chris Samila, a Co-Founder and Chief Partnership Officer at Partnership Leaders. “It’s not at the velocity I think we all wish it was. But we do see this happening.”
Without a doubt, there are significant exceptions to the rule. For example, Vena, a provider of a finance-focused planning platform, recently elevated responsibility for its ecosystem program to a C-Suite office. Allison Munro, previously the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, was given expanded cross-functional responsibility to connect Vena’s partner network, services, lines of business, intellectual property and community advocacy to extend the value of the Vena platform.
In a press release announcing Munro’s new title of Chief Marketing and Ecosystem Officer, Vena’s CEO Hunter Madely was unambivalent in his recognition of the value partners bring to the table. “Vena partners are an indispensable part of our business as they extend our brand and platform value and support our mission to transform how businesses plan to grow with their deep product and solutions expertise.”
Channel program professionals are taking steps to ensure that more companies follow firms like Vena, said Mathew. As a community, Partnership Leaders is tracking achievements by channel leaders striving to support an educational journey for the CEO. “We want them to understand if you tuck your channel team, under your VP of sales, or your CRO, they may be relegated to not actually serving the entire business across product, customer success, marketing, etc.”
As more departments in companies begin to engage teams at other firms, having dedicated executive oversight is inevitable, said Mathew. “As the market has evolved, the term ‘channel’ actually evolved to the word partnerships. And as more companies started to explore partnerships, product teams actually started taking on some of the responsibility for part of indirect growth. So now you have the sales team that understood channel, you have a marketing team that understood channel marketing, and now you have the product team that started to understand how to partner on integrations.”
As more teams engage in partnerships, CEOs tend to take notice, said Mathew. “And their natural response is “Can I actually appoint a person who keeps all of these functions coordinated?”
Partnership Leaders is striving to groom professionals for those positions. Originally formed as a free community, memberships are now fee-based. The investment is attracting professionals interested in making both a financial and personal investment in their careers, said Mathew.
The community offers exclusive educational content and resources, programs to empower members and their partner programs, and access to partnership experts and professionals.
Partnership professionals comprise the largest segment of Partnership Leaders’ 1,200 members. “But we are also seeing many people in customer success and sales and marketing roles, for instance, signing up,” said Samila. “They’re trying to figure out how to make a transition into partnerships, because there is a still somewhat largely undefined future for the space. People feel like they can build things in a way, that’s not maybe the same for other disciplines.”
They may also be able to fast-track their career in a partnership role. “We’re attracting professionals looking at the upward mobility of their careers,” said Samila, adding that partnerships may offer professionals a faster track to a VP title than sales or marketing, if only because there’s a lack of talent in the marketplace.
Some of the demand for partnership professionals can be attributed to the number of startups being told by venture capitalists to go build a partner program, said Samila. Indeed, the opportunity to rise up in the ranks is reflected in the mobility of Partnership Leaders members. Samila estimated that about a third of the group’s members changed roles, “and a lot of them were actually taking a higher position at a new company.”
Partnership Leaders is striving to ensure that members ultimately land in the right roles. Samila acknowledged that the accelerated adoption of partnership programs at some companies has resulted in mismatched hiring. “We need to train CEOs, why they should be invested in these programs, help them hire for the right people, and then resource programs effectively.” For members, the community wants to help partnership professionals successfully matchmake their skill sets appropriately for the types of companies they’re interested in joining.
Many of those conversations will be taking place at the community’s second annual Catalyst event. Following the a highly successful launch of its conference for partnerships, ecosystems and business development teams earlier this year, Partnership Leaders is hosting Catalyst 23 in Denver, CO, August 21-23, 2023, with the goal of “enabling the partnerships industry to move up in the go-to-market food chain.”