Interview with an Expert: Mike Harkey on Company Pivots, Narratives, and Honesty
We sit down with partnerships expert Mike Harkey and discuss the impact pivoting can have on a partnership team.
“Your stakeholders may not understand the enormity of the impact a company pivot could have on the ecosystem” - Mike Harkey
Mike Harkey is a partnerships leader’s leader. He’s been working in the field for over 20 years with some of the biggest names in the business, and he’s taken his teams through the highs of eight-figure deals to the scramble of total resets in the ecosystem.
Whether it’s generating the perfect narrative for the moment, or simply sitting down with a partner and giving it to them straight, Mike will show you the way through the partnerships forest.
Sarah: Tell us a bit about your career in partnerships.
Mike: I started with eBay after business school and then led teams at startups like Foursquare. For the last five years, I worked in product partnerships at Google.
Sarah: What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Mike: With each one of those companies I experienced a major company pivot. In tech this is quite common, and certainly happening all over the place right now. In the last year or so, many companies had to pivot to prioritize revenue over growth. What do these shifts mean for key strategic partners and the ecosystem? That’s a big challenge for partnerships teams to sort out.
Sarah: Can you explain what a company pivot is?
Mike: As a partnership team leader, I think it’s important to define pivoting in the broadest possible sense because of the impact it can have on us. A pivot can be a change in a company’s business strategy, but it can also take many other forms, like moving into a new market, or a change in products and services. At the extreme, of course, it’s a total reset.
Sarah: How do pivots affect partnership teams?
Mike: After a big pivot, BD teams should go back to the basic building blocks of their work. You’ll need to interrogate the first principles of your team, including your mission and strategy. When those pieces are in place, you can begin to refine your external narratives.
When I was with eBay it was still an auction-only platform. That was a great business model for the time, but eventually the decision was made to launch a “buy it now” feature. Our first job on the partnerships side was to find new partners to build supply for site listings.
However, what we discovered is that a lot of companies we were courting looked at the “buy it now” option and said “you look a lot more like us, and we’re afraid you’re dipping your toes into our business.” It made them reluctant to partner with us.
Sarah: So, a partnership team might only discover something like that after the decision has been made.
Mike: Exactly. We quickly realized we were going to have to start thinking creatively about how to get the inventory people were looking to find on eBay. Initially, some retailers took a cautious approach after the product change, so we started looking to wholesalers, distributors, and manufacturers. And in those arenas, It became clear that, in certain ways, we didn’t have the tools necessary to work with them.
Sarah: What was your solution?
Mike: Actually—you’ll love this—we acquired a company that was better suited to the challenge. But once we started talking to the wholesalers and distributors, we found out our pricing structure was all wrong for them. So we had to make even more adjustments to the plan.
Finally, after we were able to secure credible inventory coverage, we were able to create a new narrative based on actual insights and data to show the retailers the kind of momentum they could generate if they partnered with us.
Sarah: Was it difficult to get buy-in and continued support from leadership?
Mike: We had to develop internal narratives to communicate what we were planning to do and the resources we’d need. Educating and communicating is always a big part of your job as a partnership team, and this was no different.
Sarah: What were the lessons you learned from the experience?
Mike: You’ve got to be aligned internally on the narratives, as well as when and how you’re going to communicate things like basic reporting and analytics. You don’t want to have to unwind anything down the road. Also, your stakeholders might not understand the enormity of the impact a pivot could have on the ecosystem. Sit down face-to-face with your partners, talk it through, and bring that back to the people on your side of the aisle.
Sarah: It must be difficult to manage all the relationships. How do you keep up morale so you don’t lose good people?
Mike: Pivots are hard, and they can strain relationships with partners and stakeholders alike as the reality of the situation unfolds. Of course, they can also unlock new superpowers on your team. When your world’s turned upside down, the urgency will instill you with focus and discipline.
However, when it’s all said and done, individuals are motivated by achieving their OKRs and a company pivot can blow up your team’s ability to hit their goals. So you have to work with your leadership team to establish protocols for OKR resets.
Sarah: What, if anything, can make pivoting less stressful?
Mike: It’s always good to be thoughtful with your timing. Save communicating until you’ve got a meaningful update so you don’t spook the ecosystem.
And in the end, I think you should just be as honest with your partners as you possibly can.
Obviously there are things that are internal and confidential, but you should strive to develop narratives that allow you to look your partner in the eye and maintain integrity and trust.
We all know things change and sometimes that’s hard to hear, but the fastest path is actually one where you've crafted the clearest and most truthful narrative about whatever change your company may be going through. What you may find is that your partner is undergoing a big change too.
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