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Allison Watson, Microsoft’s longtime global channel leader, will hand over the reins to the massive partner program to Jon Roskill at next month’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, D.C.

In a surprise announcement made this afternoon, Microsoft said Watson was assuming a new role, corporate vice president of Business & Marketing Organization in the U.S., the post current held by Roskill.

Effective July 1, Roskill will assume the channel leadership role – corporate vice president of Microsoft WorldWide Partner group – that Watson has held for the last eight years.

“Microsoft is focused on building and maintaining a strong and dynamic management team,” said Microsoft COO Kevin Turner in a statement. “A key part of that focus is being deliberate about how we move talent across the company and making sure we offer a diverse set of experiences for our executives. Both Allison and Jon have a long history working in multiple divisions throughout Microsoft, and I’m excited that they have both agreed to tackle and take on new challenges in their new roles.”

It’s been rumored for some time that Watson was being groomed for elevation within the Microsoft leadership. Her eight-year tenure at the helm of the partner organization is unusually long by Microsoft and industry standards.

In a conversation with Channel Insider, Watson said, “Since [Kevin Turner] came on three or four years ago, we’ve had conversations about where my career would go and what new role I would take, and I wasn’t willing to move to a new role until we had a strong successor candidate.”

The switch between Watson and Roskill has been in the works for months, and timed to coincide with the end of Microsoft’s fiscal year and the annual gathering of partners. Watson says Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference – July 9 through July 12 in Washington, D.C. – will be cohosted by herself and Roskill.

“It will be my last partner conference and his first. It will be a natural, orderly transition,” she says.

Roskill is a Microsoft veteran, having worked at the company since 1993 in various capacities. In current role, he is responsible for marketing for all of Microsoft’s commercial products except Xbox and MSN.  He also has served as general manager of Developer and .NET  Enterprise Server marketing, overseeing the marketing and product management team SQL Server databases, server products and development tools.  For the last two years, Roskill and Watson have partnered in the development and execution of Microsoft’s cloud computing strategy.

In her new role, Watson will be responsible for the development and execution of U.S. marketing initiatives to end users. As she describes it, she will remain closely involved with partner activities, paving the way to opportunities with the customer community.

Partners are just learning of Watson’s new role, but are express support for the change.

“Allison Watson has done about everything you can do as the Worldwide Head of Partners. She leaves a legacy of achievement including two revisions of the Microsoft Partner Program. Allison brought stability to the role and had significant impact upon Partner success across the globe. She will be dearly missed. I am sure that Jon Roskill will be a super replacement and look forward to working with him,” said Andrew Vabulas, CEO of Georgia-based Microsoft Gold Partner IBIS.