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It’s Time for the Other CEO: Chief Ecosystem Officer

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Have you caught wind of the latest C-suite role? The other “CEO” is your partner program’s best friend.

A Chief Ecosystem Officer, sometimes also known as a “Chief Partnerships Officer,” is responsible for growing a company’s partner program and ecosystem while ensuring they’re investing in the right partnerships with the biggest business impact. And maybe, just maybe, they’re becoming more of a thing. 

MediaMath, Altium, AppsFlyer, Sendoso, and Reputation all have partnership leaders at the C-level. 

“We’re starting a trend,” says Brent Nixon, Chief Ecosystem Officer at Reputation.

Nixon joined the experience management platform in August of 2021. In his first few weeks, he has established a plan to expand Reputation’s positioning in the ecosystem and has led the company’s channel and tech partnerships teams in driving revenue growth and product “stickiness.” In other words, as a Chief Ecosystem Officer, Nixon’s steering the entire company towards success with partners. 

An org chart reflects a company’s priorities. As ecosystems and partnerships play an increasingly large role in the success of technology companies, savvy companies are placing partnership leaders higher up in the org chart — sometimes as high as the C-suite.

“As you’re working with analysts and potential investors, one of the things that they’re going to look for is, as a company is growing, ‘Are the bigger partners in the industry working with you?’” says Nixon. “And that’s a validation of your message and value proposition. So, if you can get the Accenture’s and the Deloitte’s and the IBM’s to embrace your story, it tells the market that it’s a very complete story.”

He adds, “The fact that [Reputation] put [this role] at the C-suite level meant that they were serious.”

We spoke with partnership professionals from Reputation, Introhive, and Firebolt to hear five reasons why hiring a partnerships leader at the C-level is integral to a partner program’s success. Here’s what they said:

1. Your Partnerships Org Bolsters All of Your Internal Teams

brent nixon

“[A good ecosystem team] has to be tied in with all areas of the company, including product, sales, marketing, and customer experience. It’s easier at the C-suite, because you’re connected to the CMO, the CRO, and the leaders of the Product and CX organizations,” says Nixon. “When [partnerships] sit at the C-suite, it’s tightly integrated into the overall strategy.”

When the entire C-suite is invested in your partnerships strategy, each of them can roll the appropriate key performance indicators (KPIs), behavioral changes, and resources and education up to their team. For instance: The Chief Ecosystem Officer and Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) may discuss how to drive more sales with partners. Together, they decide to establish a partnerships-related goal for the sales team to close a specific number of deals with partners during the next quarter. 

The Chief Ecosystem Officer plays an integral role in aligning partnership responsibilities and objectives with the entire organization and driving company-wide results — and they can do it faster than a partnerships leader reporting to sales or marketing could. 

Skip the part where your sales team asks, “What’s an ecosystem, and why should I care?” And fast-forward to the part where your sales team:

  • Achieves a 50% faster time to close, like Freshworks does through strategic co-selling with tech partners 
  • Gets more qualified opportunities from partners, like Airship does through its custom-built Partner Impact Score Methodology 
  • Boosts its close rate by 24%, like Hatch does by incentivizing its partner’s reps to co-sell
  • Closes deals 28 days faster, like Sendoso does through a multi-step sales enablement system

Now that Reputation has a Chief Ecosystem Officer, the partnerships org has a seat at the table for all go-to-market strategies from day one. Nixon says that when launching a new initiative, the leadership team discusses, “What does marketing think? What does sales think? Same thing [for partnerships]. How do we leverage the ecosystem? What does this do to impact the ecosystem?” 

2. You Get the Headcount and Resources Needed to Scale Faster 

jen kalant

Dang, your tech ecosystem is growing fast. Now, you need more headcount on the partnerships team. But if your first partnerships role sits in the sales org, hiring a new member of the partnerships team could end up on the back burner. After all, your SVP of Sales has an entire sales team to manage and sales roles to hire for. Every day that you don’t get more headcount for the partnerships team is a day of missed deals, delayed integrations, and lost revenue.

When Nixon joined Reputation, the company was continuing its months-long search for a Head of Technology Partnerships. 

“We had interviewed several candidates over the course of the last few months,” says Jen Kalant, Head of Strategic Partnerships. “[The Chief Ecosystem Officer] came on board a few weeks ago, and we have extended an offer. Offer accepted, signed, sealed, and the person starts in two weeks.” 

She adds, “That’s the power of having a C-suite [partnerships leader].” 

Prior to the Chief Ecosystem Officer joining, Kalant reported to the Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) in the sales org, and the technology partnerships team reported to the Head of Product.

3. You Build Integrations Faster and Make Your Product Indispensable 

john smit

At revenue acceleration platform Introhive, Diana Sapienza is the Global Head of Strategic Alliances and Partnerships. John Smit, Channel Sales Manager, says that because Sapienza is at the leadership level, she is able to champion partnerships throughout the org and get buy-in for developing new integrations that have a faster than normal turnaround time. For context, the product team typically plans its product and integration roadmap 12-18 months out.

In one instance, Sapienza knew Introhive’s team needed to manage the development of a particularly high-priority integration — and fast. Within just a week, Sapienza held a meeting with Introhive’s product team to determine a solution for building the integration that wouldn’t disrupt the product team’s normal workflow. 

Just one month after the initial conversation with the potential tech partner, Introhive’s team had the wireframe and proof of concept ready. Only two weeks later, Introhive launched the integration with its tech partner.

“It’s really about the speed of those decisions,” says Smit. “It may have been three months or more down the line [otherwise], depending on the product roadmap.” 

Develop the integrations that your customers find indispensable faster (and before your competitor beats you to it).

4. You Prioritize Partnerships With a Bigger Business Impact 

The nature of Reputation’s business involves strategic integrations with hundreds of business listings and reviews sites to support customers in the management of their brand across the internet. Jen Kalant says it’s easy to get caught up in building all of the integrations Reputation needs in order to manage and respond to all of the critical websites — and not be able to focus on the larger scale integrations. 

“To meet our customers’ needs, we have to have integrations with all the listing sites, all the review sites, and all of the social platforms,” says Kalant. “With higher level new hires within our partner ecosystem team, we’ve been able to elevate those integration partnerships as well as focus on integrations with our strategic alliance partners.”

“When you bring somebody in for [the Chief Ecosystem Officer] role like mine, you’re moving from a reactive to a proactive [strategy]. What I’ve been working on the past few weeks is our proactive strategy,” says Nixon.

Nixon says he’s been identifying areas where Reputation should build out new strategic partnerships and evaluating existing partnerships to determine the extent of their business impact. 

(Psst! If you’re in the process of evaluating your existing partnerships, check out how Allocadia evaluated its system integrator (SI) partnerships and how Introhive evaluated its channel partnerships.)

Nouras Haddad, VP of Alliances and Channels at data warehouse Firebolt, says he reported to the VP of Alliances in his previous role at business intelligence platform Looker. That VP of Alliances reported directly to the CEO at first. 

Haddad says it was important for the partnerships leader to report to the CEO early on since Looker needed to establish the foundational Ecosystem Ops and expectations for integration development, co-marketing, and co-selling across its internal teams. 

“Once you have that ecosystem that’s mature and you know who your partners are — your leaderboard of partners is set — Now it’s about growing the revenue attached to each one and growing their influence on your business,” says Haddad.

He adds, “This early on, [the partnerships role] wants to be plugged into the CEO or COO at the highest level because you’re not just there to drive sales but you’re informing the product strategy as much as you are sales and the marketing strategy.”

5. Your Strategic Partners Take You Seriously

Just as hiring a partnerships role at the C-level sends a signal to your internal teams, it also sends a signal to your partners. 

“It sends a message that we’re very serious about building our channel and that there will be the level of investment needed by the company,” says Nixon.

Typically, small companies in SaaS target partnerships with larger companies in order to access otherwise unattainable enterprise customers. 

Let’s say you work at a small company called “Widgeto” with just 50 employees, and you’d like to partner with “Hextall & Co.,” a company with 100K employees. Your company will benefit from partnering with Hextall & Co. because you’ll gain access to all of Hextall & Co.’s existing customers. But if your company isn’t able to invest in developing an integration with Hextall & Co. quickly, a couple of things could happen: 

  1. Hextall & Co. says they’ll manage the integration development, but they’ll do so months down the line (it’s not as big of a priority for them). 
  2. Your competitor develops an integration with Hextall & Co. before you do, gaining access to Hextall & Co.’s customers. 
  3. Hextall & Co. ghosts you because they noticed a few red flags during the initial partnership call (like your partnerships team saying the product and engineering teams will get the integration up and running but not being able to answer Hextall & Co.’s technical questions or connecting them with the stakeholders who can).

Your Chief Ecosystem Officer can: 

  • Show your potential partner that you take your ecosystem seriously and are ready to invest (after all, you invested in a Chief Ecosystem Officer!). 
  • Prioritize the integration’s development by making the case for the integration in leadership meetings and delineating responsibilities to cross-functional teams.

You need to make a good impression with your strategic partners in order to be first-to-market with them. Otherwise, you’ll be passing the opportunity along to your competitors.

3 Considerations Before You Hire a Chief Ecosystem Officer 

So, You’re Considering Hiring a Chief Ecosystem Officer? As enticing as it may be, be sure to have these three tasks completed first — and set your org up for partnership success.

#1: Establish KPIs for your Chief Ecosystem Officer and cross-functional teams

Your Chief Ecosystem Officer’s KPIs should align with your overall business goals. If your biggest priority is product “stickiness,” a top priority for your Chief Ecosystem Officer should be developing new tech partnerships and investing in the resources and headcount to grow your tech partner program. 

At Reputation, Brent Nixon’s KPIs are: 

  • Number of new partners sourced and onboarded (including channel and tech partners) 
  • Percentage of new and upsell annual recurring revenue (ARR) influenced by partners
  • Percentage of new and upsell ARR sourced by partners
  • Average selling price (ASP) for partner influenced deals
  • Win-rate for partner influenced deals

Part of the benefit of having a Chief Ecosystem Officer is having them in the room at leadership meetings. Their positioning enables them to establish partnership-related KPIs and OKRs among the cross-functional teams that align with the partnerships strategy and overall business strategy. 

For example, consider implementing: 

  • A goal for the sales team to close a specific number of deals with partners each quarter. 
  • A goal for the marketing team to co-host webinars with key partners. These partners will validate your brand and value proposition to your mutual prospects while helping you to generate ecosystem qualified leads (EQLs).
  • A goal for the product team to develop a specific number of integrations or high-priority integrations 
  • A goal for the customer success team to drive a specific number of integration adoptions per customer 

These goals influence your entire team to work together to grow your business through your partner ecosystem. Each quarter, establish new goals that will help you exceed the results you achieved the previous quarter. 

#2: Make sure the entire C-suite is on board with the decision

If the rest of the C-suite doesn’t feel that the company is ready for the Chief Ecosystem Officer role, neither will their reports — and then you’ll find that your internal teams are actually working against each other. 

“Make sure that there’s full commitment from the rest of the C-suite,” says Nixon. “It’ll only work if it’s a truly collaborative approach.”

In some cases, your professional services team may be wary of working with your agency partners over concerns that they’ll take risks and steer the customer down a path that could negatively affect the customer and hinder your company’s reputation. Hire a Chief Ecosystem Officer with knowledge of channel conflict so they can enforce more detailed partnership agreements with key partners, implement recurring partner check-ins to touch base with your partners’ leadership and client services teams, and establish other processes that will lay down the ground rules. 

Some resources to help you get ahead of potential hesitancy from the C-suite:: 

#3: Make sure you’re at the right stage of growth to develop your partner ecosystem

Is there truly an opportunity for your company to build an ecosystem right now? 

Some question to answer before you hire:

  • Do you have the resources and headcount to invest in the type of partnership initiatives you need?
  • Do you have buy-in from early partners that will help you or have helped you establish your positioning in the ecosystem?
  • Do you have the headcount across your internal teams to carry forward co-selling motions, co-marketing campaigns, and integration development?
  • Is the type of technology you’re selling well-suited for building an ecosystem? 

Your Chief Ecosystem Officer needs the preliminary headcount and resources in place to build your partnership strategy. If you can’t answer the above, you may be hiring a bit too early.

Want to get an idea of what the top partnership leaders in the industry are doing to give their companies a competitive advantage? Grab a copy of the Partner Playbook, and you’ll find a lot of exciting co-marketing, co-selling, and strategic partnership strategies to chat about with your new partnership hires.

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