The Global Account Manager as Political-Entrepreneur

Part 1

by Kevin Wilson, Ph. D. and A. F. Millman


Our early work in Key Account Management (KAM) led to the development of a Relationship Development Model that provided the basis for much of the work of other researchers in the field of KAM. More recently we have turned our attention to the emerging management task of Global Account Management (GAM).

A major concern of our GAM studies has been the nature of the role of the global account manager and we have developed a number of models that explore the notion of the global account manager as Political Entrepreneur.

The aim of this paper is to introduce a Contextual Model of Political-Entrepreneurial Behaviour and to integrate this with our previously published work on the Political Entrepreneur, the Model of Global Account Manager Boundary Spanning Behaviour and the Relationship Development Model.

1. Introduction

A recurring question emerging from our research, consultancy, and management training workshops on global account management (GAM), is: What is the nature of the role performed by global account managers?

Global account managers are normally recruited/promoted from within multinational selling companies, typically from the pool of national account/sales managers, on the assumption that thorough knowledge and experience of the company's organisation and products/services is an essential prerequisite. They perform a boundary-spanning role across two important organisational interfaces: first, the internal interface between global and national account management, which is often embedded in a headquarters/subsidiary relationship; and second, the external interface between the selling company and the dispersed activities of its global accounts. Were the role only concerned with boundary spanning, then it would be little different, although with added degrees of complexity, from the role performed by general line sales people. Its obvious complexity and developing strategic importance suggests that we may be witnessing the emergence of a fundamentally new managerial position. In recognition of the need to navigate sensitive commercial/political aspects of these interface relationships, we have dubbed the global account manager as performing the role of political entrepreneur.

In an earlier paper (Millman and Wilson 2000) we have explored the boundary-spanning roles that may be played by the global account manager in terms of the degree of identification they might display towards their own organisation and that of the global account. In this paper we will build upon that discussion and introduce a model that explores the degree to which the application of political and entrepreneurial skills may be impacted upon by contextual factors, and how the application of these skills may be related to stages of relational development.

The nature of the global account manager role and how it is performed has significant implications for companies seeking to recruit, develop and retain global account managers. Further, an understanding of the contextual factors that impact upon the role will influence the way they are deployed and how effectively they perform the role to enhance the quality and profitability of relational interaction.

Our paper commences with a critical review of the literature on boundary-spanning roles and goes on to explore recent thinking around the relationship skills that are required for strategic account management in a global context (Wilson et al 2000). Our recent exploratory research on GAM interface relationships is then interpreted using two conceptual models. The first revisits our previous work (Millman and Wilson 2000) and emphasises global account manager dilemmas and transitions at the external interface and the second examines the application of political and entrepreneurial skills within the context of developing relationships. These capture the essence of the global account manager as political entrepreneur, giving due consideration to contextual factors such as organisational complexity, cultural diversity and industrial setting.

2. An Overview of the Literature

2.1 Boundary–spanning Roles

The notion of "boundary-spanning" has its origins in open systems approaches to strategic management and marketing, typically centring on the process of internal organisational adaptation to external environmental change. People occupying the role of boundary-spanner have been variously described as "linking pins", "information brokers", "gate keepers" providing "human bridges", and the organisation's "antenna in the external business environment".

Our current focus is the boundary-spanning role performed by global account managers, though we recognise that there are many other people whose primary role involves face-to-face interaction with customers (e.g. senior marketing/sales executives, project managers, sales staff, customer service/support staff, applications development engineers, public relations officers). There are also internally-based staff who, perhaps, have less face-to-face contact, but occupy an important relationship-building role nevertheless (e.g. in sales administration, distribution, credit control). Most of the early literature, however, resides within sales management and explores the well-worn track of role conflict and ambiguity (see Belasco, 1966; Blake and Mouton, 1970; Walker et al, 1995; Aldrich and Herker, 1977; Singh and Rhoads, 1991; Singh, 1993). These writers raise a number of pertinent issues which may be translated to the role of global account managers:

    " reason why the sales person is susceptible to high levels of role conflict and ambiguity is that he occupies a boundary position in his firm and, therefore, has a large and diverse role set, i.e. people in related positions, both within and outside his company, who depend on his performance in some fashion... and are rewarded by it or require it to perform their own tasks" (Walker et al, 1975, p33).

    "Boundary roles involved with maintaining or improving the political legitimacy or hegemony of the organization not only represent the organization but also mediate between it and important outside organizations" (Aldrich and Herker, 1997, p220).

    " comparison with role conflict, role ambiguity is more amenable to managerial intervention" (Singh and Rhoades, 1991, p329).

    "...whether boundary spanners can discriminate empirically among what researchers see as conceptually distinct facets of role ambiguity is unknown" (Singh and Rhoads, 1991, p329).

    "Because of the nature and complexity of boundary-spanning roles it is probably futile and perhaps counterproductive to expend resources on programs that eliminate role ambiguity... managers may find it rewarding to put their efforts behind programs that reduce and/or help boundary spanners to cope with ambiguity in specific facets of their role", e.g. targeting boss and company-related ambiguities or designing jobs with greater autonomy (Singh, 1993, p27).

The potential for role ambiguity and conflict is increased in the boundary-spanning role performed by global account managers because of the complexity of the co-ordinating function they perform. Not only are they expected to co-ordinate the activities of their own organisation in delivering the global promise, but very often those of their customer and with little direct authority over those charged with the local implementation of global strategy.

2.2 Role of the Global Account Manager

    "A Global Account is one that is of strategic importance to the achievement of the supplier's corporate objectives, pursues integrated and co-ordinated strategies on a world wide basis and demands a globally integrated product/service offering". Wilson et al (2000).

The role and competencies required of the global account manager have received our increasing attention in recent years (see Millman, 1996, 1999; Millman and Wilson, 1996, 1998, 1999; Wilson et al, 2000). While we can claim to have achieved modest success in teasing out and prioritising lists of desirable personal attributes/traits and skills/competencies, we have also been drawn irresistibly towards some of the softer, higher order meta-skills/competencies that separate out the few highly effective global account managers from the mediocre. As the title of our paper suggests, this has led us to those particular meta-skills/competencies that underpin the role of the global account manager as political entrepreneur.

The following extracts capture our earlier thoughts on what this role entails:

Millman and Wilson (1999) suggest that global account managers require "... finely tuned political instincts that enable them to navigate the corridors of power, to reconcile conflicting interests, and to enlist the support of people at all levels".

Millman (2000) alludes to the "... political/cultural milieu" at the buyer/seller interface and coping with the unrelenting pressures of different time zones".

Wilson, Croom, Millman and Weilbaker (2000) envisage the global account manager as "... knowing the people to speak to, the buttons to press and the strings to pull, both in their own organisation and that of the customer".

As we, and our fellow researchers, proceeded with qualitative research, a tentative typology of global account managers began to emerge which enabled us to present a clearer picture of what we mean by political entrepreneur (Croom et al, 1999). These three manager types were labelled Analyst, Politician, and Entrepreneurial Strategist. The skill sets associated with these types were seen as being both hierarchical and cumulative. Hierarchical in the sense that Analysts tend to be relatively new to GAM and are primarily sales oriented, while Politicians and Entrepreneurial Strategists tend to possess broader business experience, together with higher levels of managerial/commercial know-how and sophistication. The cumulative component is important in that the Entrepreneurial Strategist must also develop analytical and political skills.

Analysts tend to be team-orientated trouble-shooters typically possessing outstanding knowledge of products/services, technologies, and customer industries. Many Analysts perceive themselves primarily as international sales managers focusing on global sales targets, sales from regional/national territories, share of customer spend, rather than upon opportunities for enhancing levels of value creation and customer profitability.

Politicians combine diplomatic and linguistic skills with cultural empathy and knowledge of global business trends/opportunities. They engage their senior managers in the GAM process where appropriate and are adept at achieving objectives via influence/persuasion.

Entrepreneurial Strategists operate with a fair degree of autonomy. They display high levels of business acumen and look beyond the confines of exchange relationships for business opportunities. They seek out synergistic potential through combining core competencies of their own organisation with those of their global account, even if this requires the formation of new ways of working and organisational entities

To these three typographies we would add the function of global co-ordinator. At a basic level, where business/account objectives may be concerned with increasing global sales volume, the global account managers' role is concerned with coordinating the operational capabilities (manufacturing, logistics, billing, packaging etc) of the supplier organisation to ensure that the customer receives a global offering that also conforms to local demand within a uniform pricing structure.

As the complexity and strategic importance of the role develops, co-ordination encompasses the realisation of synergies between individual, team and organisational competencies. Synergistic value and leverage is created through the co-ordination of these competencies to address operational and strategic orders of problem resolution that create cost savings, innovative ways of managing the value creation process, and the realisation of entrepreneurial opportunity. The main elements of this model and its contextual complexity are represented in Exhibit 1 below.

The role of the political entrepreneur in this typology is clearly a boundary-spanning role, performed at both the internal interface between global and local account management (embedded in the headquarters/subsidiary relationship) and at the external interface between the selling company and the dispersed activities of its global account. Our concern in this paper is to explore this role at both these interfaces. The internal interface is where much of the global account managers' ability to manage potential conflict/ambiguity depends on positive or negative perceptions of his/her mediating role and thus where political skills may be of primary importance. The external interface provides the forum within which both political and entrepreneurial skills may be applied.

Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1 identifies some of the diverse elements that the global account manager must deal with in order to manage the evolution of the relationship with the global customer. In achieving the level of integration and co-ordination necessary to realise the relationship's value potential the global account manager must exhibit high levels of both political and entrepreneurial skill. The degree to which these skills are, or can be applied, will depend upon a number of factors:

  • The global capability of both buyer and supplier.
  • The willingness of buyer and seller to collaborate in some form of partnership.
  • The degree of organisational complexity and cultural diversity which surrounds the relationship.
  • The state of relational interdependence and entanglement (relational stage).
  • The boundary spanning behaviour adopted by the global account manager.

The interplay of the last three factors will provide the focus for discussion in this paper. Two conceptual models will be presented in an attempt to extend our understanding of the global account manager role and these will be linked to the Relational Development Model (Millman and Wilson 1995). The first is a summary of our previous work on boundary spanning roles (Millman and Wilson 2000), the second is our model of political-entrepreneurial behaviour, which explores the behavioural constraints imposed by the extent of relational intensity and organisational/cultural complexity.

Read Part 2 of this article

© 2000 Kevin Wilson, Ph. D. and A. F. Millman all rights reserved

About the Authors
Dr Kevin Wilson
The Sales Research Trust Ltd
751 Portswood Road
Southampton SO17 3SU
United Kingdom

Tel:+44(0) 2380 677416
A. F. (Tony) Millman
University of Buckingham School of Business
United Kingdom