Turn and face the change - How do we really engage sponsors with change management?

With apologies to all Bowie fans for the glaring - glaring but genuine - Mondegreen in the title of this blog, but having just celebrated my 25th anniversary of managing change in the workplace, which coincided neatly with my successful recertification as a Prosci® Change Management Advanced Instructor, I am keen to share and discuss with you my learnings and reflections. I wanted a title to engage you, even if that initial engagement is merely to point out to me that I am quoting the lyric incorrectly.

Those 25 years cover a dozen change management and change leadership/sponsorship roles for eight different organisations and span public, private and non-for-profit sectors. In the past two years alone, as a Prosci Change Management Instructor, I have trained and supported over 600 individuals, across 55 programmes, in the effective management of the people-side of the organisational changes so many of us are facing.

A week ago, a colleague asked me to think back over the years and to recount the three most frequently raised change management challenges. This didn’t take a lot of thinking time on my part, as three areas are resoundingly prevalent as day-to-day challenges as a change leader, and, latterly, as a change management advisor. They also prompt the most questions and debate on handling strategies and tactics in my training room. They are:

Over the coming weeks, I will share my reflections on each of these questions and set out what I’ve learned over the years. Let’s start with sponsorship.

How do we get the sponsors of change really engaging with the change management?

In its Best Practices in Change Management 2016, Prosci found that for the ninth consecutive research study, active and visible sponsorship was identified as the greatest overall contributor to change success. I’ve been part of project and change teams trying to engage with the sponsor and I’ve also been the sponsor accountable to the top of the organisation for successful and sustained delivery of the change outcomes – for benefits realisation, in the jargon: I wholeheartedly agree with this finding.

About 15 years ago, as a newly-minted director of a large organisation, one of my responsibilities was to be accountable, corporately, for realising the benefits of a multi-million £ IT change programme. I took up post part-way through a tricky and protracted implementation. In an organisation which could be characterised as comprising large operational silos – often described as the five fiefdoms (how very Tolkien) - it was the work of mere moments to realise that the only way the organisation was going to achieve the (potentially transformational) outcomes of the change was if the five sponsors heading the operational arms actively championed, promoted and drove the changes through their commands. One of my first actions was to meet them individually to discuss the change, meetings I will never forget. They did not recognise themselves as sponsors of the change; three were actively opposed to and briefing against the change; and none had realised the business case contained cash efficiencies and staff reductions for their directorates post-implementation. And as an organisation, we wondered why the rollout was proving tricky.

I compare this to my next role, also as the leader for a transformational change. My team and I undertook months of engagement work to ensure the very powerful and very influential directors of the areas of the organisation impacted by the change had great understanding and awareness of the what, and the why, of the change. We engaged them as much as possible in the design elements and supported them as they developed detailed plans for how “their” change would be communicated to “their” people. My work hinged on positioning the change as belonging to the directors and empowering them - yes, nagging them sometimes – to be active and visible sponsors of it. The results weren’t perfect but they were good, and a difficult series of disruptive system, tool, process and job role changes landed, and were adopted, remarkably well, and the organisation maintained customer service standards throughout.

We have a saying at CMC Partnership: “change sponsorship isn’t a badge; it is a doing role”. It is a favourite maxim to recount because it is so true. We cannot expect the sponsors of our changes to be proactive, authentic, visible leaders of it if they lack awareness about what the change is and why it is happening, and if they don’t realise we need them to be great change sponsors. We need to educate them – coach them, if you prefer – about what is entailed in being a great change sponsor and design moments and opportunities for them to be visible and vocal in support of the change, to lead from the front, to be the earlier adopters. Every change sponsor I have worked with, myself included, has been a busy person, with an already-full calendar. As change management practitioners, if we don’t construct “bite-size” and do-able moments for the sponsors to get actively and visibly involved in the change, then it’s simply will not happen. 

So my change sponsor checklist these days – whether I am the change lead, the project manager, change practitioner or advising any of these people – always contains these four elements as a foundation:

  1. Establish early contact with the sponsor and maintain it. If the sponsor is too busy for a set-piece meeting, use any and every opportunity to get a moment or two with them – in the margins of other meetings, in the coffee queue – and succinctly communicate your key point, ask your killer question, confirm understanding;
  2. Coach on what great sponsorship looks like. Don’t assume your sponsors realise they are sponsors or that they know what great sponsorship looks like. Coach them on this (via your punchy, time-efficient interactions with them). Unless you do this, they may think that their attendance at every other project steering committee is all you need of them; by turning up, having read the committee papers every six weeks or so, they may think they are being great sponsors;
  3. Build understanding of the people-dependencies of the change. They may receive project board papers and so have a level of awareness, but don’t assume your sponsors have deep understanding about the change, especially of the people challenge the change presents. I figure it is my job to explore this with them and my favourite tool to structure this conversation is the Prosci 4Ps assessment , which identifies the people-dependency inherent in the desired outcomes – benefits – of the project. In my experience a quick 4Ps exercise can lead to very fruitful conversations about the change with sponsors (and project managers);
  4. Say thank you. Do remembering to say thank you when the sponsor has undertaken a piece of engagement or communications activity: we all like to be thanked for our efforts, and sponsors are no different. I’ve not graphically plotted it, but in my work over the years there is undoubtedly a positive correlation between me saying thank you to sponsors for their efforts and their willingness to engage actively and visibly again on the same change project.

If you have enjoyed my reflections and learnings, please feel free to share them with your network. You may also enjoy reading another blog in this series: 'Turn and dace the change - Why are line managers so important to our change efforts?' You may also be interested in the one day Prosci Sponsor Briefing,  or one of our other role based change management training courses.

Emma de-la-Haye | Prosci® Certified Advanced Instructor | CMC Partnership Ltd

Emma is a Prosci® Certified Change Management Practitioner and Prosci® Certified Advanced Instructor. Emma is among the first cohorts in the UK to achieve the ACMP’s Certified Change Management Professional (CCMP) credential. An accomplished business change leader and executive coach, with extensive experience of  transformation programmes, operational delivery and corporate governance, Emma is an excellent facilitator and a motivational leader of people.

Emma has worked in the corporate environment for the past 30 years, the last 15 of these at director and board/senior lead level. And just to keep things lively, from 2013-2017, Emma owned and successfully  developed two small businesses, one of these from start-up.