Transformation through Agile Leadership

Transformation through Agile Leadership


Dominique Côté

  The idea of executive engagement implies
an accountable and engaged member of the account team, rather than a distant back- room player.

In our organization’s work, we see much confusion and lack of clarity on executive sponsorship,  even when it is in place. Clarifying the executive sponsor role, behaviors (internally and externally)  and expectations is critical to leverage the role as an accelerator and create executive accountability within the account team.

In the first article of this series on critical success factors for accelerating the SAM journey, we discussed the importance of establishing a SAM Center of Excellence (COE) to enable the SAM journey evolution, sustainability and agility. As a sequel, we would like to address the critical role of executive sponsorship, how it can impact the success of your strategic partnership when done well and, most importantly, best practices for doing so.

I remember being an executive sponsor myself in the corporate environment. During those years of leading SAM journeys, I was often frustrated by the lack of engagement among some of my fellow executive sponsor colleagues. For many of them, it was their belief that being an executive sponsor amounted to being a name on a slide and a lifeline when a critical issue or problem arose. We too often confuse strategic account sponsorship with corporate project sponsorship, where sponsorship is a way to escalate issues or decision-making when in need.

When done right, strategic account sponsorship begs to have a very different definition. I find it valuable to rebrand the concept from executive sponsorship to executive engagement. This name implies buy-in from the executive and the “be-in” mindset. The idea of executive engagement implies an accountable and engaged member of the account team, rather than a distant backroom player.

Strategic account management is a team sport and requires cross-functional, vertical level engagement and strong accountability. Executive sponsorship is undoubtedly critical to the team and is a key internal and customer account role. It must be part of the SAM structure that is put in place to enable, support and execute the SAM vision and strategy, enabling customer partnership,  account revenue generation and achievement of objectives.

Below are the four key components that we see the best companies placing at the forefront of their efforts to accelerate executive sponsorship. 

  1. Leading the organizational customer-centric culture  
  2. Clearly defining the executive sponsor role 
  3. Adapting corporate behaviors when  working in the account
  4. Matching the right sponsor to each  account

Let us take a deep dive into these four components.​


1. Leading the organizational customer-centric culture

The executive sponsor has a role in creating and building the customer-centric culture for strategic account management.  Customer-centricity doesn’t require a new business model but rather a new mindset. The executive sponsor has a critical role in creating and driving the needed shift in mindset and being accountable for its deployment and execution through employee and voice-of-customer feedback. 

It is said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and is key to talent retention. Thus, influencing the organizational culture to become centered around the customer is one of the most critical roles of the executive sponsor. If we are asking our SAMs to bring their customers the best of what our entire enterprise has to offer, then we need the entire company to understand and be aligned around the customer. The SAM should be able to count on the help of the executive sponsor in amplifying the voice of the customer throughout the organization, particularly at the executive level. 

It is challenging to get even simple things done in a complex,  matrixed environment, and navigating our own organizations is one of the biggest barriers our customers say they face when working on establishing a strategic account management journey. Considering this, we note the natural tendency for SAMs to adopt a “do-it-yourself” way of working. One role of the executive sponsor, then, is to balance that can-do attitude – i.e.,  the ability to respond to continuous change – with the collaboration and alignment needed to create the value offer. Strategic account management is a team sport, and the sponsor needs to help to facilitate this team mindset.


2. Clearly defining the executive sponsor role

Recently, a client, who is a corporate executive, mentioned to me that he could sponsor eight to 10 accounts. We had worked with him throughout his company’s SAM journey and transformation. He said, “I already do it, so it should still be fine.” A flag went up immediately. It was clear that we needed to further define the executive sponsorship role and elaborate on its responsibilities. We also needed to make sure senior leaders are aware of these responsibilities to optimize their speed and impact.
A colleague from the SAMA Board of Directors, Noel Capon, recently wrote an article in Harvard Business Review, “When CEOs Make Sales Calls,”¹ in which he describes the impact of top management’s involvement in the customer relationship. He draws a parallel between executives and seagulls: “They fly in, make much noise, leave a mess and fly off.” Such behaviors can damage the customer relationship, the account’s share of wallet and the work’s success.
A good executive sponsor will not only open doors and initiate interactions but also will forge strong, trust-based relationships and will positively impact customers’ strategic objectives and growth. To be successful, the executive spon- sor needs to be matched with the appropriate account, understand his or her role and be open to feedback from the SAM on the role he or she should play. Executive sponsors need to leave their corporate behaviors behind and pivot to customer-facing behaviors.


A strategic account executive sponsor should:

  • Serve as the voice of the customer internally and champion/advocate for the strategic account manager
  • Eliminate internal barriers and advocate for resources to be allocated towards the portfolio of opportunities
  • Stay informed on the account through an established strategic account process
  • Contribute to, and have accountability for, the account plan
  • Challenge account strategy and tactics
  • Coach SAMs on business matters
  • Participate in internal leadership and customer account meetings – and not only when “the house is on fire”

The executive sponsor should be familiar with the account and help expand the customer mapping, engagement and relationship. Their account interactions should be based on the account needs and plans, aligned with the SAM /orchestrator of the account in order to be additive when in front of the customer and bring value to the engagement and plans.


Sponsors are critical in these uncertain and transforma- tive times. To lead effectively, they must embrace change through agile leadership. Let us define what we mean by agile leadership:

1. VISION: Creating a vision is a way of aligning to a common direction. It is about having the ability to see a future that others do not see; creating and communicating a clear vision, mission and, most importantly, purpose; and having an optimistic, yet pragmatic, outlook that is solution oriented. Leaders need to be able to see the solution and the path to success ahead.

2. RESILIENCY: More and more, we hear about resiliency, i.e., the ability to bounce back and learn from adversity. In our current reality, this leadership skill is necessary to survive.

3. CHARACTER: Having character is the ability to do the right thing, to take a stand for ethics and values and think for the good of something bigger. It is about taking risks and staying on course, having the courage to continue the oath and being willing and accountable for mistakes.

4. EMPATHY; Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your employees, colleagues and customers. It is about deeply and intentionally listening without judgment, really listening to the other’s perspective. Leaders must be able to care for the team member who is doing the job. Empathy can be used to listen as well as communicate. Caring must be embedded in both.

With these skills, agile leaders can help their teams thrive and stay focused on what is essential, while continuously monitoring the changing environment to transform their organization.

3. Adapting corporate behaviors when working in the account

Figure 2 shows the behaviors we need to consider when we take on the executive sponsor role.

The first behavior is acting with arrogance. Let’s be honest: To thrive in corporate politics, we climb the corporate ladder by being assertive. This can lead to arrogance and often an inflated ego. Although such behaviors may serve us well in the corporate environment, we need to pivot and leverage our humility while interacting with the customer. It is not the time to share everything we or the company has achieved. We need to focus on understanding the customer and helping the SAM deep dive in the customer environment and gain the insight and knowledge needed to deliver broader customer value.

Managing departments and people and leading strategies require strong decision-making and an authoritative presence. Leaders have different styles, but with increased seniority comes greater responsibility and accountability. When working with the account as an executive sponsor, we need to pivot to serving mode by helping the SAM see the fit between the customer needs and what we have, without over-committing. We must remain realistic and accountable and help the account team see the broader picture. We also must help them execute by removing roadblocks.

As executives working in our corporate environments, we are trained to solve problems. We are often the lifeline that guides the implementation teams and offers solutions to problems and issues. While this problem-solving role stays true internally, when we are in front of the customer, we need to suspend solving and focus on listening to understand deeper and better.

The world moves faster and faster, and with this, our impatience as executives has grown. How many projects never see the light of day due to lack of quick outcomes or a change in strategy? As an executive sponsor, we need to adapt to the customer’s pace and build opportunities and value offerings based on the customer’s speed, not ours. We need to align the project management, timelines and deliverables with the customer’s. The executive sponsor needs to represent this internally as well. Creating strategic customer value and building trust requires time. Strategic account management is mid-to-long-term focused. Creating strategic customer value and building trust requires time.

Finally, we should not assume that successful engagement between an executive sponsor and customer requires a fit at the title level. Matching the right executive to the right account requires finesse and the SAM’s input as the owner of the account relationship.

4. Matching the executive sponsor with the right account

The following are a few good practices to consider in matching the right executive sponsor to the right strategic account to drive revenue growth, provide agility, increase awareness for the strategic accounts and deepen the relationship.

1. You need to ensure that you have the sponsor’s time commitment. This needs to be a priority. We estimate a minimum of 10 to 12 hours per year. Obviously, this estimate can vary greatly depending on the scale, business, project and complexity of the strategic account. In addition, a monthly touchpoint with the SAM is important to coach them, stay abreast of the account and prepare for customer meetings.

2. The SAM needs to be part of the executive sponsor selection and be comfortable with the selected sponsor.

I suggest expanding your search beyond title and role, beyond commercial leaders. Procurement leaders, chief financial officers and other senior leaders can be great sponsors if the fit is right. We need to consider the person’s willingness and personality fit with the customer account. Variables such as culture, background, interests and hobbies can all be used to connect the best sponsor with the account.

We are fully aware that we often do not have all this information before matching. The point is that we need to leverage available information and go beyond conventional approaches based on roles and titles. The more you know about your strategic accounts, the better you can align your executive sponsor.

3. We need to think about the tenure of the executive sponsor. Strategic account management is about building trusted relationships. The executive sponsor can help expand these relationships, so a certain assignment length and continuity in the sponsorship commitment from the executive sponsor helps in the mid-to-long-term growth and penetration of the account, especially when co-creation is one of the relationship objectives.

Figure 3: Matching the right executive sponsor

Availability: Time commitment
Willingness: Desire to do this
Fit: Beyond title
Tenure: Commit to mid- to long term

What’s next?

Beyond creating a COE and rethinking executive sponsorship, it is time to bring back Marketing in a co-orchestrator role as account-based marketing (ABM) to help accelerate the strategic account management journey. Our third and final article in this series will define ABM and dive into its role as co-orchestrator of the value offering, the importance of Marketing to the SAM journey and the need to shift Marketing’s mindset from inside-out to outside-in. Look for it in an upcoming issue of Velocity. n

1 Noel Capon, When CEOs Make Sales Calls, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2021.


Dominique Côté brings 30 years of experience as an executive leader of commercial teams in global pharmaceutical and biotech organizations. Her consultancy work is focused on commercial excellence; executive leadership and coaching; KAM/SAM roadmaps and journeys; skills and process; and account-based marketing. She is the owner and founder of Cosawi and also a Principal at The Summit Group. She can be reached at [email protected] or through

Download the Article HERE

About the Author

Dominique Côté brings  30 years of experience leading commercial teams in global pharmaceutical and biotech organizations.  Her consultancy work is focused on Commercial Excellence, Executive coaching &  leadership, KAM/SAM roadmaps & journeys, as well as Account based Marketing.

She is an accomplished international business leader, recognized as a chief architect of global account program journeys, leading corporate changes and cultural shifts for customer-centric innovation and patient value.

Dominique is  a panelist and keynote speaker in Europe and the U.S. in the areas of commercial  Excellence and Customer centricity. She writes and is published in journals like Journal of Sales Transformation, Velocity, and others on these topics.

Recent Posts

Transformation through Agile Leadership

Transformation through Agile Leadership

  The idea of executive engagement impliesan accountable and engaged member of the account team, rather than a distant back- room player. In our organization's work, we see much confusion and lack of clarity on executive sponsorship,  even when it is in place....

read more

Thinking Globally and acting local

Thinking Globally and acting local

Thinking Globally and Acting Local



The COE creates the fine balance by driving the corporate shift, aligning the vision and mindset and providing an aligned communication and business process while enabling the local groups to focus on customer intimacy and relevant value

In addition to everything we’ve covered above, the global COE is also responsible for connecting global groups within the company to the local affiliates. They are accountable for aligning the organization to the business and strategic account planning processes, as well as connecting and aligning how the strategic accounts engage with the rest of the commercial teams in the markets and local affiliates.

By providing this central leadership and process, they are using the Pareto principles of 80/20% by providing the 80% to enable the local affiliates to customize to their local needs but saving them from having to start from scratch and duplicate efforts. The COE can provide capability and training development as well and help them established their customized Strategic account management roadmap aligned with the global strategy.

In return, local teams can look at their market environments and, from them, prioritize their local roadmaps. The more the marketplace is integrated and features complex customers, the more they will need to move from a transactional sales model to a strategic account management business model. It is by helping the local teams – who are focused on their market and customer understanding, customer journey and decision making – that the Global COE can support localization of the roadmap and prioritise the help and support needed to preserve and enhance local customer intimacy while being the guardian of the “one voice” at the corporate level.


The Global COE can also help foster the creation of communities of practice to exchange on best practice and scale them. These communities help accelerating the SAM journey, connectivity and dissemination of ideas. they can be the anchor point for business case creation, communication and scaling opportunities across the organization. 


With one of our clients, a company with a well-established COE we recently helped them customize their role, impact and support investment to the needs of their local affiliate by creating a framework that adapts to the status of the affiliate and focuses on providing a step approach to go from this starting point. This enabled this COE group to clarify and enhance its role while customizing its support to the affiliate market status, needs and capabilities. 


Having worked with many organizations in this cultural shift and business transformation, our experience is that without a COE, we find the project and transformation are at significant risks of being derailed by lack of resources, lack of focus or lack of leadership needed to instill the required change.


We have also seen that, in this acceleration of adapting how we do business and how we engage with customer in our new reality, some pillars of the COEs are taking on a front-line role. For example, learning and development investment is increasing in these times when SAMs are working from home and the skills needed in this new environment are shifting. 




Finally, when creating your SAM Center of Excellence in line with these critical success factors, your will end up with a COE that spans across the organization, breaking silos and driving the SAM roadmap and journey today and for the future. 

It can bring expertise for more customer value and differentiation, which will result in your customer remembering that you care about their success. The COE helps the SAM build trusted partnerships by supporting their processes and needs, focusing on what is important to your customers and enabling customer -facing teams to show up as one organization in a coordinated manner. In short, the COE helps the SAM elevate his and her game.

View the Full PDF Article Here

Recent Posts

Transformation through Agile Leadership

Transformation through Agile Leadership

  The idea of executive engagement impliesan accountable and engaged member of the account team, rather than a distant back- room player. In our organization's work, we see much confusion and lack of clarity on executive sponsorship,  even when it is in place....

read more

Creating customer-centric curricula

Creating customer-centric curricula

Creating Customer-centric Curricula


Simplicity and sustainability are created when we move from role competencies and curriculum to customer centric curriculums

When looking at SAM’s competencies and skillset, many of our clients struggle to integrate and connect with the diverse competency models used by the different commercial or customer facing teams. Each role often has its own curriculum, and the complexity it creates divides the customer-facing groups in the way they engage.

Having the Learning & Development function represented in the COE enables three things. 

  • Ensuring resources and efforts to support the strategic account managers’ development in their account management skills set and personal learning journey to elevate their interactions with their most important customers. 


  • Taking a curriculum developed for SAM to engage and plan with their complex accounts and using the same core principles to align the overall communication and ways of engaging throughout the organization. 


  • Building the curriculum as a customer-centric curriculum – a curriculum that serves all commercial facing teams. Shifting from the role curriculum to create a common engagement model and account planning competency model aligned with the complexity or strategic level of the account. This helps creating alignment on how we engage and communicate. 


  • Collecting performance metrics & measures on the SAM role and impact of training investment. As this is a mid to long term evolution; having a way to measure the behaviours and performance impact of the SAM on the Revenue and growth is critical in sustaining the organization’s attention and focus on driving this business transformation.  


The core principles used in complex accounts can certainly be used in more transactional one-on-one interactions. Principles like understanding your customer, being focused on their needs, being authentic and providing value, to name a few, are done at a different level of depth and details – but are universally useful.

It creates simplicity and focus in people’s development, continuity in the career pathing and facility of personalised learning journeys.

View the Full PDF Article Here

Recent Posts

Transformation through Agile Leadership

Transformation through Agile Leadership

  The idea of executive engagement impliesan accountable and engaged member of the account team, rather than a distant back- room player. In our organization's work, we see much confusion and lack of clarity on executive sponsorship,  even when it is in place....

read more

Developing and enabling the cultural shift

Developing and enabling the cultural shift

Developing and enabling the cultural shift needed in the new SAM business model

The COEs an emerging best practice and critical success factors that can be the catalyst to create the right mindset process and skillset while ensuring evolution and sustainability.

Disruption, although most times unwelcome, gives way to innovation. Could the mother of creativity and innovation be, in fact, disruption? 

This last year has certainly proven this saying in our customer-centric aspirations.

1: Having one! Making the decision and investment to have a dedicated Center of Excellence 

2: Having the COE reports directly to the executive team to ensure strategic impact 

3: Developing and enabling the cultural shift needed in the new SAM business model 

4: Customer centric curriculums 

5: Thinking globally and acting locally for enhanced customer intimacy


You can find an illustration of these critical success factors below: 


1: Having a dedicated Global Center of Excellence 

Each year, the Strategic Account Management Association (“SAMA”) issues awards for “Outstanding SAM Program of the Year.” Looking at the past 10 years winners, we see at least one thing nearly every winning company has in common: a dedicated COE. 

Is this a coincidence?  We think not. 

Establishing a COE is the number one most critical success factor for implementing an effective strategic account management business model. Despite this fact, only 10 percent of SAMA member companies have a COE, let alone an effective one. 

When I started my career as a commercial and SAM roadmap leader, you always had the commercial team and enabling functions working together to collaborate  in their day to day customer engagement. 

When we see the investment that some companies are making in pivoting their engagement model to be more strategic, customer-centric and value enabling; we are always surprised to see the enabling functions still being focused on supporting the more transactional model where the number of interactions is the metric -what we use to call in the pharma world the share-of-voice model. We continue to see the difficulty in shifting this  enabling structure to support to the SAM journey instead.


Establishing a COE is a step approach, and the structure needs to grow as the strategic account managers and strategic accounts are also growing in numbers and needs. Starting slow and evolving at the pace of our customer landscape changes is critical. 

Below we illustrate how a COE can be structured with a combination of full-time dedicated roles and part times roles that report back in their respective department.

The lighter boxes illustrate part time or connection to the department versus dedicated support. The above is an evolution and can be planned on a year-on-year evolution and aims at illustrating options. 


To be successful, people that compose the COE need to understand what strategic account management is and align on the fact that it is a business model, not a sale model and requires change management. One common role that the COE colleagues have is being a change agent and a champion for the journey. This should be part of every member role profile and mindset requirement in selecting the people to drive the COE structure, strategy and work.

It takes alignment for strategic account management to be successful and the COE is the guardian of this alignment.

2: Having the COE reporting to the executive team 

There is more than one way of doing this. Some organizations start this journey by creating a COE to support the SAM organization as a separate unit with a remit to test, iterate and pilot for speed. They then integrate this with the rest of the commercial group. Others will start with an already commercially integrated COE working across their business units. 

In both models, shifting the corporate focus from short-term goals and objectives to mid and long-term partnership is not an easy task. The corporate world has for generations been trained for generations to think inside out and sell products or services. In executing SAM transformations, we ask organizations to think outside-in, build trust and long-term objectives and focus on the customer objectives first in order  to generate growth and revenue for the customer and the organisation .  Although we know from the SAMA research that a strategic account will generate 2x the revenue of a regular account1, we also see that it does require our corporate minds to think differently by providing value beyond products and services, aligning to what matters to our customer (as opposed to our own internal organization)and providing value offerings that are customized to the accounts and customer needs. This has shown, time and time again, to be the best avenue for sustainable revenue generation.


Moving an organisation from a go-to-market strategy based on products and services to an outside-in thinking based on the customer’s customers unmet needs and what they care about requires to be part of the senior level agenda.  Creating customised solutions to respond to its customers’ and customers’ customers unmet needs require a cultural shift and mindset change. To drive a business transformation and cultural shift of this magnitude, two things must be present: This evolution must be among the company’s strategic imperatives and the COE must sit at the right organisational level. 

Reporting at the executive level enables the COE to having a broader view of the organization including its imperatives, goals, strategies and capabilities – as well as being peer to peer with business leaders who are necessary to the execution of the SAM roadmap.


3: Developing and enabling the cultural shift needed in the new SAM business model 

The COE is an essential unit for driving the cultural shift mentioned above. To do this they need to be the expert in the strategic account management world and dedicated to driving this journey. They are part of the strategy and lead the operational steps from outlining the vision/ mission to creating business processes, building the structure, outlining the desired competencies and equipping the SAMs. 

They should be instrumental in selecting the account team and extended teams as well as the departmental point of contact. These points of contact are technical expert providing part time support for specific topics. The COE team is the one responsible for identifying champions who understand the SAM journey and purpose and who have the right mindset and willingness to be part of the transformation. Being SAM experts, it is critical for members of the COE to work with groups like human resources and line managers to define role profile, competencies and traits needed to be successful in the role. Finding those individuals with the right mindset, passion, and the resiliency to drive change will be a catalyst for the Strategic account organization’s success. For strategic account management success, mindset, talent and traits are more important than past roles experience. It is a combination of mindsets, experience and skills that create the right SAM. 


Clients tell us that, in most cases, their internal organizations are more challenging to navigate than their customer organizations and often present sthe most significant barriers to action and partnership with strategic accounts. 

The COE can certainly help and be accountable to break these internal silos by providing an aligned business process and communication. They need to drive the Passion/resilience to think outside-in for revenue generation. Being a centralized expert group, they can work across units to align matrix and complex organizations to the strategic accounts that have been identified in providing change management, business process and strategic account toolbox for an aligned way of working.

In leading the cultural shift, the COE can then establish the mid to long term roadmap and next steps of the journey. They can prioritize what needs to be done, from aligning business leaders, upskilling the strategic account managers to providing an aligned integrated business process.  

Recent Posts

Transformation through Agile Leadership

Transformation through Agile Leadership

  The idea of executive engagement impliesan accountable and engaged member of the account team, rather than a distant back- room player. In our organization's work, we see much confusion and lack of clarity on executive sponsorship,  even when it is in place....

read more

Center of Excellence

Center of Excellence

Center of Excellence: A Critical Lighthouse to Provide Successful Journey Direction & Leadership

So, what is a COE?

One could argue that in today’s environment that COEs (Center of Excellence) is overused. Whether you call it COE or “SAM program office”,the message is the same: These enabling units are critical to your SAM roadmap’s success. 

As we work with organizations on their SAM journeys, we see the impact of setting up a SAM commercial enablement structure can have on the SAM roadmap’s success and sustainability. A COE serves to accelerate and ensure the needed transformation, evolution and sustainability plans.

By COE, we mean a centralized group of SAM experts and people who “get it” and who should be leveraged as the catalyst for instilling the mindset, processes and skillsets for distinctive go-to-market and customer-centric engagement models. 


These are the people responsible for the day-to-day global strategies and operational execution of the SAM roadmap and “Sherpas” of its future evolution as it grows and adapt to the customer changes.

Recent Posts

Transformation through Agile Leadership

Transformation through Agile Leadership

  The idea of executive engagement impliesan accountable and engaged member of the account team, rather than a distant back- room player. In our organization's work, we see much confusion and lack of clarity on executive sponsorship,  even when it is in place....

read more