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Increasingly the role of a leader has become more complex as they manage internal and external resources and develop new skills and behaviors. Twenty years ago or so, I wrote a thesis on the “critical success factors involved in strategic alliances” using pharmaceutical research and development as the example. At that time I identified, through interviewing people involved in such alliances, many factors that were critical to success that stood in the way. I categorized these factors as task-related (hardware) and relationship-based (software) elements.

The task-related elements included reasons for entering an alliance, identification of the right partner, potential synergies between the collaborators, driving to outcomes and deliverables, and putting in place a structure for planning, governance and decision-making.  The relationship-based elements included organization cultures, chemistry between partners, working together to collaborate, leadership, communication and building trust.

At that time, I also identified a number of barriers to successful collaborations and alliances including the size and nature of the collaborators, motivation and different agendas of all the partners, differences in speed decision-making, organizational politics, legal complexity and the inability to resolve conflict. These barriers could have a negative impact on relationship building and building of trust. In addition there are also barriers that come from the virtual distance between the partners whether it be physical and geographical distance or operational distance.

Since I wrote the thesis, three major trends and opportunities have occurred that should now be considered. First, the formation of co-creative, decentralized, complex networks. Second, technology overcoming distance barriers and finally, opportunities associated with new social networks and social circles.

Co-creative, decentralized complex networks are a natural evolution of the Coasean framework- as technology has lowered transaction costs and made it easier to do business across boundaries. In the pharmaceutical industry there is an increasing reliance on licensing deals with biotechnology companies and collaborations with academic organizations to provide innovative drugs. This has led to a decreased internal capability in a number of companies and a reliance on co-creation of innovative science in collaboration with a number of partners. In addition, there is a reliance on contract research organizations (CROs) to develop drugs. Both of these situations has led to the need for leaders to change their behavior from the use of authorative power in hierarchical structures to the need to influence others in de-centralized matrices.

Advances in technology, particularly in the areas of communication and collaborative tools, have enabled organizations to become global by reducing virtual distance, but also enable collaborations to be carried in complex networks with multiple external partners. To make the most of this situation, leaders need to develop skills and behaviors that take advantage of these tools and can help them build relationships and trust without meeting face to face.

Finally, new social networks and circles can be formed driven by social media technology. This has broadened the opportunity to collaborate with “strangers” across geographical and organizational boundaries. Social networks allow people to meet with others with a diversity of knowledge and skills who they may not have even met before. There is less reliance on building relationships with individuals within a firm or in a local neighborhood. Leaders in this environment need to exhibit behaviors that are not necessarily natural to them in forming trusting relationships with people they do not know. The ability to connect with people and to make connections between people in a network is a key skill.

The nature of leadership in co-creative, decentralized complex networks relies upon a leader’s ability to be connective across boundaries, build and manage relationships and trust, be influential, in addition to being impactful and making things happen.


Charles Dormer – an Executive Coach with AIIR Consulting, brings over 30 years of corporate healthcare and pharmaceutical research & development experience to his coaching work at AIIR. To learn more about Charles, read his full bio here