Photo by Tom Marsicano

As critical links in any organisation’s hierarchical chain, executives and senior managers are often known as expert delegators. No matter the sector or industry, these figures often feel most comfortable approving, strategising and funding the business’s big decisions, while leaving project teams and middle managers to find optimal ways of making those decisions into permanent changes.

But in the context of change management, such an approach can only limit success. In the Prosci™ model, executive management has a dual role to play:

  • Launching (authorising and funding) change
  • Sponsoring the change on an ongoing basis

It is in this second role that so many executives leaders fall short – inevitably leading to slower and less impactful implementations than hoped for or predicted. In no less than 9 Prosci™ studies conducted between 1998 and 2015, active and visible sponsorship was identified as the most important contributor to success, with “extremely effective” sponsorship delivering a success rate of 72%, while “very ineffective” sponsorship was met with a success rate of only 29%.

So, where does executive leadership go wrong when it comes to embodying the key role of sponsorship? Evidence suggests it’s not the result of a lack of willingness on their part, as the results of the 2018 Prosci™ Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report show. The data gathered demonstrated that most senior leaders are more than willing to step up in times of change, with over one-third being described as proactive and enthusiastic, and nearly 40% reporting they were ready and willing to do what was asked of them. Only one-quarter of participants reported hesitation or resistance from their organisation’s senior sponsors.

If willingness is not to blame, then what is? It can only come down to a lack of understanding of the long-term commitment that effective change management entails, and the critical, ongoing sponsorship roles that senior executives must fill if the organisation’s goals of direct return on investment are to be realized.

Communicate support and promote the change

Change is often disruptive. In many cases, this is exactly the reason it is being implemented in the first place – to overhaul a “this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-things” mentality into one that is premised on agility and responsiveness. And though this is an exciting period for the business, the employees who are expected to adapt to it will need convincing if they are to not only accept, but actively embrace it.

They will likely have many questions and few answers. “Why is the change happening? Why now? What was so wrong with the old way of doing things? And what is in it for me if I go along with this shift?” without concrete answers to these questions, resistance, indifference, or resentment can creep in, making the successful adoption of the change even more challenging. An effective sponsor will make a point of clearly communicating the need for change to employees, articulate the visions and goals that are behind the change, and show the link between the change and the business’s long-term strategy for success.

Show active, enthusiastic involvement in the project

Enthusiasm is contagious, and active involvement from the higher echelons of an organization can often be the most effective approach to ensuring company-wide acceptance of a new implementation. It’s vital for employees to see their managers making an effort to embrace and champion the change at hand, and executive sponsors are the figures most logically placed to ensure the top-down approach works as it should. Executive sponsors must combat resistance from their peers and the line-managers under them, holding mid-level managers to account and educating them (and therefore their teams) as to the importance of the change, why it’s happening, and the advantages to the each individual and the company as a whole.

Build a coalition of sponsorship

An executive sponsor’s role is made more challenging by the fact that points of resistance that may need to be managed is not limited only to employees. Fellow senior managers, mid-level managers and other key stakeholders are another potential source of frustration that can negatively affect the outcomes of a change project. With the right motivations, however, they can be remarkably useful to executive sponsors in helping the change take hold and stick at all organisational levels. Effective change management is a marathon, not a race, and passing on the baton to other “runners” once energy levels dip is the perfect antidote to creeping apathy, maintaining consistently high levels of motivation and thereby increasing the likelihood of a successful, and permanent, change outcome.