We have had the privilege of working with some amazing change leaders over our careers. While trying to grasp the essence of what makes a great change management sponsor can be difficult, we have found that there is a common set of skills and traits that make great sponsors.
Research over the last 30 years has shown that that these skills and traits can be learned; this week we will look at how to develop great change management sponsorship in your organization.
The role of the sponsor in change
If you recall from last week, there are three change management leadership roles: the sponsor, the change agent and the influencer.
Sponsors are accountable for the successful implementation of change in their area of responsibility. It is up to these people to ensure that the benefits of change are fully realized. Rather than pointing to one specific role in the project, we use this term to mean all the people who have the accountability to make change happen.
In large change implementations, there are usually a number of sponsors, each with the accountability to make change happen in their area. And in successful change implementations, sponsors work together in a network to spearhead, and cascade, change down through the organization.
The importance of ongoing visibility cannot be overstated
The role of a change sponsor is to be visible throughout the whole change lifecycle. Too often we have seen change sponsors declare early victory and disappear. Leaving the middle and front line managers the task of trying to bed down the changes, as well as taking on some of the sponsor responsibilities.
In fact, where senior sponsorship is not visible, many employees conclude the change is not a priority for the executive team, and therefore not important to them. This is where we see compliance towards the change, at best.
The traits of an effective change sponsor
Through our research we have identified 12 key change sponsor attributes, all of which are needed at various stages of the change project lifecycle.
From our experience, we have found that the best change sponsors have the following traits; they:
- lead by doing; providing visible, active support of the change
- communicate consistently and congruently about the change
- are actively interested in the project, and are tracking milestones and progress
- are open to feedback
- relish debating with people about the change
- see objections as an opportunity to resell the change message
- present as passionate and resolute about the change
- create a strong network of sponsors throughout the organization.
The role of the change agent in developing strong sponsors
Not everyone is perfect, and just because a person is in a senior management position doesn’t make them an effective sponsor. Sponsors may need training or coaching to develop their skills. Sponsors also may need help to be consistent, to be disciplined and not to backtrack without realizing it. This is a key role of the change agent.
A useful tool is the Sponsor Assessment, which provides a quick and easy assessment of sponsors against the 12 attributes shown above. This assessment provides practical insights and tactics to develop effective sponsor behavior during major organizational change.
It can also be used for assessing an individual’s performance during a particular change. Allowing a, potentially sensitive, discussion to be opened with a senior person about focus areas for them at different stages of a change project.
A good change agent also realizes that their sponsor(s) are likely to be busy, with many other initiatives and day-to-day issues taking their focus and time. Ensuring your sponsor is engaged throughout the change lifecycle can make the difference between change success or failure.
In our article, Do you have a passive sponsor? we talk about how change agents can ensure early and ongoing engagement of their sponsors:
- Ensure your sponsors clearly understand their role upfront
- Ask some hard-hitting questions, and ensure their preparedness
- Give examples of what their involvement will entail
- Make their life easy
- Explain the importance of their visible support.
Plan your change sponsorship upfront
Creating effective change management sponsorship is more than just assigning the role of an executive sponsor. Plan ahead, and do the upfront work of identifying, assessing and filling the training/coaching needs of your sponsor network. Follow this through with ongoing support of your sponsors during the project lifecycle. With this approach, you can develop effective change management sponsorship in your organization.
Read more about effective change leadership and the role of the sponsor in our book: Successful Change.
Assess the success of your change sponsorship with Roadmap Pro
If your organisation could benefit from tools like the Sponsor Assessment, you might be interested in Roadmap Pro, our innovative change management platform.
It offers a full suite of 9 planning, assessment and tracking tools, as well as a step-by-step change planner, “in-context” learning and powerful data analysis capabilities.