Above the Parapet: A Senior Leader’s Place in Change

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These days, all change programmes have a senior sponsor – in theory, the person who provides the upward ‘pull’ to drive change throughout the organisation without getting lost in the weeds of delivering the change themselves. But what does it really mean to be a sponsor and show sponsorship of change, and why are sponsors so important?

In writing this article, I sought out the proper definition of sponsorship:

Sponsorship:     (noun) The position of being a sponsor. From the Latin spondere, to promise solemnly.  Synonyms: backing, promotion, aegis

So, promising solemnly to back and promote a project. Sounds about right.

Amazingly, when searching on the web, amongst all of the front-page definitions of sponsorship and sponsor there was not a single one referencing a business context for a change programme. And yet, ‘active and visible executive sponsorship’ has topped research firm Prosci’s list of contributors to change programme success every year for nearly twenty years. This lack of a definition seems to be causing a problem:

“I feel like having a sponsor for a project can sometimes be a bit of a box-ticking exercise”, says Joe (not his real name), an experienced consultant. “Sometimes the senior guys at the client wanted to get their names on a project, and we needed that too, but they didn’t realise what was actually going to be asked of them.”

In fact, in 2016 Prosci found that despite executives in general being keen to be involved, 50% of their research respondents reported that their sponsors did not have an adequate understanding of the role of a sponsor.

Of course, the detail of a sponsor’s role will be different for every business, every change and every group of people involved. Some leaders may want to be hands-on from the start; others prefer to come on board once the framework for the change has been worked out. But we believe there are some guiding principles for effective sponsorship that can always be applied, starting with the sponsor’s relationship to the change team and the change itself, then looking out to their relationship with the wider business.

To the change team

  • Sponsorship requires time. Time to understand the change (and challenge it where necessary!), and time to support it and empower the people driving it. This commitment needs to be understood and agreed to at the outset.
  • Any potential sponsors (and the change team) need to be honest with themselves and each other – is that person the right sponsor? Do they have skin in the game? Do they have the time and headspace to support the change? Asking all of these at the start ensures the right people are on board to get the best results.

To the wider business

  • Two of the key synonyms for sponsorship that we saw earlier are ‘backing’ and ‘promotion’ – essentially, being a visible advocate for the changes.
  • Backing the project:
    1. This involves lending weight when it comes up against obstacles, and ‘fighting the corner’ of the changes when necessary. It also means creating the ‘headspace’ needed for themselves and others to deliver the change – doing things differently requires effort and time, at all levels of the business.
    2. Backing also means leading by example; behaving and acting in ways that support the key principles or overall aim / ethos of the change. This takes a willingness to take some element of personal risk and go out on a limb; being ready to adapt for the sake of the change.
  • Promoting the project:
    1. This can be on the small scale (taking updates to exec or board meetings, raising issues at higher level sessions) or the large scale (being the voice of powerful, personal comms out to the business committing to the change – through all appropriate channels).

Behind all this is a level of proactivity and engagement, which is strongly affected by the relationship between the sponsor and the change team.

Sometimes, however, all these good intentions for effective sponsorship can go awry:

“Our sponsor started as the ‘saviour’ in everyone’s eyes, and everyone thought she’d really turn things around.” says Alex, a leading change consultant, of one of her company’s largest projects from the last three years. “But she totally misunderstood the seismic challenges involved. She did some of the right things but was totally overwhelmed, so she ended up being too much of a dictator and losing people who were key to the change journey. It’s a shame, because people got disengaged and the change was less far-reaching than it could have been”

In these situations, what can you (as the sponsor or the change team) do? In our view, this is where that sponsor-change team relationship plays a key role. If you can, be honest; raise concerns, talk openly. If it’s appropriate, it could be that having the conversation about changing sponsor might be necessary. Another great solution is to build a ‘coalition’ of sponsors, bringing in other senior leaders to support.

As most people writing about change love to say, ‘change is hard’ (for our views on why this statement is pretty unhelpful, stay tuned for a future edition of Converse!). One of the things that can make it less hard (both for those driving it and those living it) is having an effective sponsor.

We’d love to hear your stories – what examples of great (or not so great) sponsorship have you experienced? What really made the difference? Leave us a comment or get in touch at [email protected].

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