Got sponsorship?

Senior leader sponsorship is the most important ingredient for successful change, especially transformational change. Sponsors set and control the pace for change. Some say 30 – 50% of the success depends on executive sponsorship.

Conversely, ineffective sponsorship from senior leaders is the biggest obstacle to successful change, according to Prosci’s 2012 edition of Best Practices in Change Management.

The topic of sponsorship has been a popular one this month, first at the Association of Change Management Professionals Global Conference I participated in at Las Vegas earlier this month.

Then last week during BJ Fogg’s Persuasion Boot Camp held in the heart of Sonoma County, CA, the topic surfaced again during our breaks. Any time we’re undertaking a new venture that involves triggering employees, consumers or other stakeholders to take action, we want the support of senior leaders.

What are some of the make or break actions of senior leadership sponsorship? In my experience, effective senior leaders always do these seven actions:

1. Articulate a strong business case for why they’re introducing a new initiative or leading some other change. Leaders need to be very clear about what they expect employees to do and the implications of those actions. This also means continuing to make their case with a strong “call to action” in a fresh, convincing manner even if they’re sick of stating it. (As one leader once said, “Just when I feel like I’m going to throw up if I have to repeat myself, I realize that a group of employees is just now grasping what we’re doing.”)

2. Role model the change they want adopted. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  And like Gandhi, leaders will be more credible and influential if they show us they’re out in front taking the first step, which may be painful. And in a world where bad role models tend to run rampant (See “Be a good, not bad, example”), people should notice the good behavior.

3. Engage others in conversation. This includes listening to customers, employees and other stakeholders to gain greater clarity and build stronger relationships. These conversations also will help employees gain a greater understanding of what they’re expected to do. This understanding, combined with clear calls to action, will then improve the chances of strong alignment between what leaders are saying and doing and what employees are doing. And with all the tools we have these days, such as easy-to-use surveys and social media, it’s a lot easier to track what’s being said and done.

4.  Empower employees to lead from where they are. Leadership is all about leverage. Because leaders can’t do it all alone, they need to encourage employees at all levels to lean forward and act. For example, several months into a major transformational change, one of my clients told his top 100 leaders that he now needed them to take a stronger leadership role. Symbolically and practically just a couple of weeks later, more than 35 of these leaders assumed a substantive role in conducting the next in-person leadership meeting.

5. Clear the path of real or perceived obstacles that can get in the way. This includes breaking down silos, unraveling bureaucratic snags, resolving any problems in roles and responsibilities, and allocating resources (or at least reallocating) to make it easier for employees to act. As Chip Heath, co-author of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hardemphasized at the ACMP conference, organizations tend to want to change people more than changing the environment. Yet, changing the environment—the path—is easier, more effective and longer lasting.

6. Practice the 3 R’s: recognize, reward and reinforce. Timely “thank-you’s” are the hallmark of great sponsors. Recognizing and rewarding people are critical for keeping people energized, engaged and effective. Reinforcement is especially key for building commitment, not just compliance. Reinforcement helps employees shape their new behavior, repeat it and bake it into their daily routine and the organization’s culture.

7.  Be flexible. Blessed are the flexible as they will never get bent out of shape— or be caught flat-footed when the road takes an unanticipated turn or when traffic gets backed up with all their other responsibilities. With the work terrain so unstable these days, leaders need both peripheral vision as well as others looking out for them, to track what’s happening. And they must be willing to open themselves to take counsel from others, especially when they’ve missed a blind spot.

This list of action items shows that leaders can’t delegate their sponsorship duties. Leaders must be active, not passive, sponsors even as they empower others to take on more responsibility.

How else should leaders talk and walk their sponsorship role?

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