It’s quite appropriate that I sit in Chicago Airport taking notes for what will become a blog about sponsorship and specifically what makes a great project. Increasingly over time airports have become associated in my mind with travelling to visit clients and are a gateway to the many interesting projects I’ve worked on over the years. It’s in places like this that I regularly get in the right mindset to work with different sponsors and so today it’s a useful place to be as I think about what makes a great sponsor and try to articulate it in a blog.
The Sponsorship Spine
The role of managers, supervisors, executives, indeed leaders of any stripe in change management is critical. Regardless of how effective the rest of the change program is an ineffective sponsor or group of sponsors can derail the whole process. People want to hear messages about change from two sources: firstly, the man or woman they speak to every day, the person they go to for support with their daily challenges, the person who most regularly provides direction and guidance i.e. their direct supervisor; secondly, the person at the top of the tree, ‘the boss’, ‘the chief’, ‘the head honcho’, the guy who pulls the strings and drives the bus. What’s critical is that those two people are in alignment and no blog dealing with the impact either has on change management would be complete without stressing that point. Some change theories talk about having a ‘sponsorship spine’ which can be traced from an individual’s immediate supervisor or sponsor up through the organization to the executive sponsor at the top. What a term like ‘sponsorship spine’ is describing is basically the fact that vertically within an organization going through change there must be a consistent approach and a consistent message cascaded from tier to tier.
There’s a real risk of misalignment, resistance and quite destructive patterns of behaviour if individuals receive conflicting messages regarding change from their immediate supervisor and from the senior leaders. Receiving mixed messages in any scenario is a cause of anxiety, coupled with the uncertainty of significant change then the risk of that anxiety manifesting in ways which can be harmful to the success of a project is significant. One of the most critical responsibilities of a great sponsor is therefore to ensure that there is consistency in messages about change as they are cascaded down throughout the organization.
The impact of an individual’s direct supervisor on the change process is a blog in and of itself, today though I am going to focus on the impact of the executive sponsor, the senior leader who is ultimately responsible for delivering the change. I’ve been fortunate to work with some fantastic leaders over the years who’ve each in their own way shaped my vision of what a great sponsor is when it comes to delivering large and complex projects. As a matter of fact I’m blessed with the opportunity to work with a couple of great sponsors at the moment who embody many of the characteristics that I would suggest a great sponsor needs and no doubt the experience of working with those individuals will continue to shape my views on this subject.
A Case In Point
Earlier in my career I was lucky enough to work with a gentleman who probably more than any other individual has demonstrated how to effectively sponsor a large change initiative. These days I think of him as the ‘uber-sponsor’ and that experience provides me with a very high benchmark indeed to judge the effectiveness of project sponsorship. For the purposes of this blog I’m going to call him Henrik, although of course all names have been changed to protect the innocent!
So what made Henrik’s approach so special and stick at the forefront of my mind many years later? I could write a laundry list of all the behaviours he exhibited and the activities that he undertook which would make for some pretty dry reading but would include all of the typical things you would expect from the senior leader on a project. He procured resources, removed roadblocks, ensured his management team was aligned and if necessary moved out those who would not adjust. He set out a clear vision and could relate the strategic goals to very practical objectives that employees at all levels could relate to.
However, the one thing he did better than any other sponsor I have ever worked with was simply to ensure that he was a very visible advocate throughout every single step of the process.
Active Involvement Is Key
I’m not just talking about the fact that he was a willing participant when the project team wheeled him out for the ubiquitous launch briefing or update roadshows which can so often be the only visibility people get of their executive sponsor, although of course he did that! I am talking about being a constant reassuring presence reinforcing his belief that the change the business was going through was necessary and the right thing to do. Henrik actively looked to get involved at all levels so he could reinforce his message about change and would encourage his management team to do the same. What he created through setting a great example was an environment where the employees had direct access to the change leaders on a frequent basis. Questions could be asked, information and reassurance provided and perhaps most importantly, people developed a sense that this was something that we were all involved in together and not something that was being inflicted on them from above.
Make Supporting Change A Priority
There are no secret tricks to making this approach happen, although I am sure that Henrik’s admin at the time played a very valuable role in ensuring he had the time in his calendar to devote to supporting the project, it really all came down to a personal choice about what was important. He decided that this project was important to the business and that ensuring his people coped with the change was important to delivering the project, consequentially he chose to play a very active and supportive role. The fact that he was a very natural and engaging individual who could relate to people easily surely played to his advantage but there’s no real trick to that either, we’ve all been on the courses and read the books, just be honest, sincere and make plenty of eye contact!
I have no doubt that with the many other pressures of his role it cost Henrik a great deal of effort and energy to be so visible and accessible but he had decided that the change the business was going through was important and that if it was important then it deserved the appropriate level of focus. As a matter of fact the change was important, it was a major transformation initiative which touched nearly every aspect of the business and having such a visibly engaged executive sponsor was no doubt a major contributor to its success.
What the experience demonstrated to me is that whilst the role of senior leaders in steering projects, providing guidance and oversight is important you can’t underestimate their personal impact when they engage with employees regularly on a more personal level. I think the same applies to all leadership levels when dealing with a major change initiative, you have to make a choice about whether the change is important to you and if it is then you have to choose how you’re going to support it. My advice is to be like Henrik!