It is often said that if your executive sponsor is not engaged, you have three options: get the sponsor engaged, get a new sponsor, or get a new job because your change program is about to fail.

In this blog post, we review the purpose of the executive sponsor role, as well as how an executive sponsor can make or break the success of your next change initiative.

“Good in Theory”

Before joining the Ignite Consulting team, I was a victim of a large organizational change initiative that lacked the necessary management needed to succeed. The idea behind the initiative was to develop leaders from the ground up. The organization hired undergraduate and graduate students with the hope that the students would learn the business, in this case manufacturing, before taking a corporate leadership role in the future. This idea is very common in large organizations; and the theory behind the idea makes sense. If future leaders know the nitty gritty of the business, they are more likely to make well-informed decisions and command the respect of the organization as a whole. Although the idea of the initiative was solid, ideas such as this require a great deal of management to drive success. I am confident that the failure of the program can largely be attributed to the lack of effective executive sponsorship.

As part of the initiative, participants were assigned to a manufacturing facility, where they would spend the next two years learning the ins and outs of daily operations. Each manufacturing facility had six departments: Human Resources, Safety and Wellness, Procurement, Engineering, Shipping, and Operations. The program was designed for participants to spend four months in each department to complete a project before moving to their next rotation.

“Communication is Key”

The first day on the job, I could already sense that the program would not live up to the hype that was pitched in my various interviews. My first sign was that none of the department leaders knew who I was or why I was there. This leads us to our first sponsor responsibility: communication. The executive sponsor of the program failed to organize communication to inform department leaders of the program. An effective executive sponsor should not only tell those affected by the change the time and date of the implementation of the change, but should also communicate why the change is needed and what’s in it for those affected.

“Tools to Succeed”

Once it was determined that I wasn’t a guest touring the manufacturing facility, I was ready to apply what I learned in school to my projects in each department. My excitement to apply my skills was short-lived, when I quickly realized that the department leaders didn’t have any direction on what I should be doing. The lack of direction quickly turned into a game of pawning me off to whoever in their department could watch me for the day. The executive sponsors didn’t provide the department leaders with any direction for the program. An effective executive sponsor should always supply the resources needed for the change program in the form of people, access to information, and in this case program learning materials.

“Not Just the Flavor of the Week”

As the weeks went by, it became more and more clear that the program was not here to stay. The department leaders became frustrated with my presence, and the program became a low priority. The only time the program was given attention was when the corporate executives would visit. The executive sponsor never developed the urgency among the department leaders to make the program a high priority. An effective executive sponsor must legitimize and support the effort in order to show that the program is here to stay.

“One Out of Four Ain’t Bad”

Despite lacking many of the components needed to be an effective executive sponsor, my sponsor did succeed in one area. My executive sponsor reviewed the progress of the change effort weekly in order to identify obstacles that were hindering the success of the program. Unfortunately, the sponsor was unable to remove these obstacles. An effective executive sponsor has the responsibility to remove barriers of the program in order to build positive momentum and carry the program, and ultimately the organization, forward.

Conclusion

In this blog post, we briefly touched on the key components to effective executive sponsorship. An effective executive sponsor must communicate the change, provide the tools to succeed, legitimize the change, and review to identify and remove obstacles that may be getting in the way of the program’s success. Without effective executive sponsorship, the organizational change initiative I was part of did not succeed. The sponsor never got engaged, the organization never recognized that a new sponsor was needed, and in the end, I ended up getting a new job.

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