George was sitting quietly at the back of the room when he suddenly came to life. “But you don’t understand. All this talk about getting ‘sponsors’ on board is all well and good, but what do you do when your sponsor is basically invisible?” A roomful of participants nodded in agreement as George continued. “We can’t get sponsors to show up at meetings, they won’t make decisions that affect the project, they don’t allocate the resources we need. They might as well be ghosts!”
Active and visible support from senior-level sponsors is well-documented in the business literature on change as one of the most important contributors to successful change implementation. Key leaders need to communicate their support of planned organizational change. Clarity of vision, and consistency in word and action are powerful levers that sponsors can use to convince people of the need and urgency for change and to get everyone pulling in the same direction. Yet the experience of many mid-level managers attests to the reality that it can be difficult to engage sponsors and maintain their commitment over the life-cycle of a change initiative.
What can you do when you are challenged by ‘ghost sponsors’ who may be mute, or those who fade in and out of your change project?
Selecting a Sponsor
As change champions, we don’t often get to choose our change sponsors. Sponsors are typically selected based on their position, power and status in the organizational hierarchy, and these are important criteria when it comes to being able to advocate or provide needed resources. Daryl Connor suggests that beyond organizational position we consider a more personal set of characteristics, including the ability of the sponsor to develop effective relationships with the change champion and other members of the change team. Connor suggests that at the selection stage we assess several factors. What is the commitment level of the sponsor? Commitment must be deep, personal, and unequivocal. Sponsors should be selected who have a profound appreciation that people implement change. These sponsors understand that investing in the people side of change builds the organization’s capability to be successful with change now, and into the future. Sponsors who have some change related ‘scar tissue’ will bring their experience with past changes to the current change initiative. Select sponsors who believe that resistance is inevitable and healthy, and who understand that mistakes are valuable learning opportunities. Shifting our thinking to consider that the selection process for sponsors should be conducted as carefully and thoughtfully as selecting the next CEO signals to sponsor candidates, and to the rest of the organization, that change is indeed serious business.
Coaching a Sponsor
Effective sponsors are open to being coached. These are the people who lead with humility, who recognize what they don’t know, and who reach out to others in the organization who can help them be more effective in their roles as sponsors. For those of us serving as change champions, we need to be ready, willing, and able to coach and support sponsors: Do you have the skill, the experience, and the credibility to make it easy for sponsors to be receptive to your wise counsel and coaching about how best to move the change initiative forward?
Ed Schein suggests that leaders need to recognize that their personal success, and organizational success, depends on the contribution of their teams and subordinates, and they should have the humility to acknowledge their own vulnerability and dependence on others. Leaders need to be able to ask their teams, “Am I doing this correctly?” and “Tell me if I am doing something wrong.” They need to be able to “abandon themselves to the strengths of others” as Max De Pree described it, recognizing that much can be accomplished by utilizing the diverse talents of their teams.
But it’s not always easy to tell sponsors how they might be getting in the way, or not stepping up to the plate. It can be very difficult for others in the organization to override an ingrained sense of deference to authority, and provide sponsors with troubling information about organizational resistance or other issues that may require a course-correction before greater problems emerge.
Sponsors have a responsibility to make it safe for others to provide this critical information, and change champions have a responsibility to learn how to communicate difficult information upwards in ways that they can be heard. Change champions need to be at the top of their game, prepared to coach sponsors, and credible in terms of their knowledge, skill, expertise and experience so that sponsors have a trusted advisor (Ulrich et al., 2012). Forging a solid relationship with sponsors is critical for change champions to be able to provide and receive frank feedback that will ensure the change sponsor is engaged, and keeping the project on track.
Sponsors Must Model the Way
While senior leaders and sponsors may have many skills that enable them to manage people, balance the budget, and generally lead effectively, it may be difficult for them to admit that they have no background or training in leading change. I can recall one conversation with a senior leader who told me that since he had been managing change his entire career, he had no need of any change management training. This individual not only refused to attend a training session planned for mid-level managers, but refused to introduce the facilitator who would be delivering the course, because he was too busy with other things. This sponsor failed to recognize the power of shared experience and common frameworks that contributes to change success. Imagine if this sponsor had at least participated in some of the change conversations, and listened sincerely and respectively to some of the challenges faced by his managers in implementing change.
In contrast to this experience, I have also witnessed the CEO of a large corporation who deliberately made time (and more than five minutes!) to come into a training session to talk about the importance of building the capacity of the entire company to better manage change. This was leadership…and sponsorship…in action! This leader shared a personal story about his own experiences learning about change, and how some of his assumptions had been challenged along the way. This leader/sponsor really walked the talk! The effect on the motivation and morale of those managers attending the program was both immediate and long lasting. Effective sponsors recognize and seize every opportunity to demonstrate in word and action that they are committed to helping their people lead change successfully.
Dealing with Sponsor Turnover
In some organizations, sponsor turnover is a very real risk to the success of a change project. Capable leaders may be on a fast-track for promotion, and may be re-assigned to another division or portfolio that removes them from the sponsorship role on your change project. This phenomenon occurs in both the private sector and the public sector. How can we as change champions be proactive in anticipating and dealing with this possibility?
Change guru John Kotter advocates for a guiding coalition to steer the change initiative. Ideally, a guiding coalition consists of the people with the position power to influence and guide the change initiative, create and communicate the urgency for change, and the ability to dedicate the necessary resources to support change implementation. In addition, members of the guiding coalition must possess the personal power that enables them to build trusting relationships with others across the organization. They must draw on their own personal integrity, and the credibility that derives from having expertise, experience, and a reputation for engaging others, and achieving results. If sponsor turnover is a real and present danger in your organization, consider the option of involving someone who could act as an alternate sponsor if the lead sponsor is promoted or redeployed. This strategy might provide your steering committee or guiding coalition with continuity when key roles and responsibilities change suddenly.
The Sponsor Does Not Understand ‘Who’s on First?’
Lack of clarity about fundamental roles and responsibilities contributes to confusion, communication errors, and inefficiency. Sponsors who are unclear about the various roles and responsibilities that are critical to success are caught in a position of being unable to appropriately steer the course of the change project and ensure appropriate accountability for the completion of tasks. Just like sports teams, this fundamental premise of ‘play your position’ is key to success.
A project charter is a very effective tool to clarify roles and responsibilities, deliverables, performance metrics, and timelines. It also ensures accountability around the project. To ensure accountability, sponsors must understand, and help other key players all understand, what roles they play in the change project. However, when sponsors are not involved in developing the project charter, but simply presented with the final product by the project manager, they may feel disconnected from the project.
One strategy to ensure focused involvement of the sponsor is to extend an invitation to participate in the meeting to develop the change project charter. This task could be accomplished within a very specific and short timeframe, and allows all of the intended project players to participate in the conversation about roles, responsibilities, outcomes and timelines, key deliverables and accountabilities.
Involving the sponsor in setting the change project charter meeting affords an opportunity for honest and open, person-to-person communication about key requirements that are critical to the success of the change project, including an exploration of what the sponsor thinks is important, and what the change team needs from the sponsor. Sponsors with a better understanding of their role are more likely to be active and visible in their support for the project. Effective sponsors communicate the specific changes that are required. Appropriate delegation of responsibilities by sponsors means communicating clear expectations. They provide a clear line of sight that enables individuals to connect their specific tasks and responsibilities with the overall goals of the change project. Sponsors who delegate appropriately provide this clarity, and ensure that others on the team have the authority, the power and the resources to get the job done. Sponsors who abdicate this critical responsibility quickly fade from view and become obstacles to realizing the benefits of change.
Out of frustration, we might be tempted to blame senior leaders for their lack of effective sponsorship. If we can avoid the ‘blame game, and stand in a place of curiosity, interest, and concern instead, we may be able to diagnose and understand the problem, and arrive at creative solutions to keep our change projects on track. Sponsors are only human. Just like employees, they too may need time to move through the change curve, and process their own emotional reactions to the intended change and the practical implications for the business functions for which they are responsible, as well as the broader organization-wide implications.
Nonetheless, Ghost Sponsors can have a deleterious effect on change implementation, wasting time, money and precious organizational resources. Poor sponsorship can increase employee resistance to change, have a negative impact on morale, and make it difficult for the change team to accomplish desired results. Rather than time spent with the Ouija board trying to communicate with elusive ghost sponsors who inhabit the spirit world, I hope your future involves interaction with leaders who value authentic engagement with their teams, sponsors who can abandon themselves to the strengths of others, and in doing so, can make change happen.
About the Author
Kate Sikerbol, PhD is a facilitator with the Queens IRC Change Management Program and an organizational consultant and coach who has worked in business, industry, government, and higher education. As a scholar-practitioner she is interested in bringing theory into practice, especially in the areas of organizational change and communication. She has delivered change management training to hundreds of people across Canada, and internationally.
Conner, D. R. (2012, March 13). Assessing leaders for change roles. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from http://www.connerpartners.com/frameworks-and-processes/assessing-leaders-for-change-roles.
Connor, D. R. (2006). Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper When Others Fail. New York, NY: Random House.
De Pree, M. (1989). Leadership is an Art. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Kotter, J. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review. March-April, 59-67.
Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W., Ulrich, M. (2012). HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.