When we point out in the Prosci Change Practitioner Certification Programme that part of the Practitioner’s role is to coach the Sponsor and that all of Prosci’s Best Practices research says effective sponsorship is the number one factor impacting success of a change initiative, I feel an immediate shift in our participants’ view of their challenge. Inevitably the questions start to form in their mind. “So, what do I do if our sponsor is not effective?” and “How am I supposed to influence my leadership?”
I find this topic very difficult to write about for several reasons. For one, it is emotionally charged. When we talk about "sponsors" in change management, we often mean organisational leaders up to and including the C-suite and working with our leaders is, even in the best of circumstances, very stressful. Ultimately, they make the decisions that will affect our careers. Attempting to coach our leaders is probably one of the scariest and potentially career limiting tasks we will perform. Moreover, we find an infinite number of circumstances that can lead to a leader's effectiveness ranging from a lack of awareness of their role as a Sponsor to simply not appreciating the people side of change. Their reasons can be steeped in organisational politics, respect for traditional hierarchical structures, or even the possibility that they want to separate themselves from the risks of the project. Or, there may be personal circumstances we just don’t understand and won’t. The number of variables affecting any particular situation makes it impossible to provide a comprehensive check list of tips to address them all; therefore, this is not an attempt to do that.
Finally, Change Practitioners are not necessarily in the right position to educate and influence their leadership. I have run across this problem in several flavours as well. Through my interaction with clients and students, the challenges and difficulties Change Practitioners may face include but are not limited to:
- the Practitioner’s role was ill-defined (some do not even know they are Change Practitioners)
- they are not at a level that has access to the Sponsor
- they do not have the time or experience to manage their role effectively
- they do not believe it is their role to manage someone who has a higher title or pay level because that person should know what to do.
Of these reasons, the latter one always confuses me when I hear it. Throughout my career, I have strived to see every role as an opportunity to gain experience and personal growth. I feel I am hired into that role either for my expertise or as a way to develop my expertise. So, if a leader accepts someone into the role of the Change Practitioner, they expect them to perform that role. It would be like hiring a travel agent who feels the boss should gather all the information, determine the options, determine the costs, and only then would they jump in to make the bookings. Still, it is a view that many people hold, more than I expected, and is a good subject for a future conversation.
In this article, we are making the double assumption that the Change Practitioner is motivated to succeed in their role and that the Sponsor is invested in the success of the project. From there we can determine how to maximize the Sponsor’s engagement and effectiveness.
During my 20 plus years working with change, I have been an Executive Sponsor, a Practitioner, and a consultant on various projects, so I have my own tips to provide in this area. To best serve the reader, however, I thought it would be useful to reach out to my colleagues and peers around the world to get their tips as well. What was interesting in the result was the assumptions people in different geographies made when answering the question of “How to best engage your Sponsors.” The answers from European and American markets assumed that a dialogue was already established and focused on how to maximize the relationship whereas those of us working in Asia assumed the question was on establishing the relationship and gaining influence. While pointing out interesting area of cultural awareness, this result also added a layer of complexity and allowed for a more comprehensive list of tips.
So, given all of this, here are 20 tips for engaging your leadership in your change. Not all of the tips will apply in your circumstance. Neither are they mutually exclusive or necessarily comprehensive. Your situation may require you to employ a number of strategies. How you interpret and apply the tips will depend on your organisation’s culture. The tips are meant to be considered, combined, and adapted in a way that works best for you.
1. Ask key questions prior to accepting the role: If you have the opportunity prior to accepting a change management role (we understand many do not), some key areas to explore before committing include:
a. Whether you will have access to the sponsor (and how that access occurs),
b. The sponsor’s commitment and investment in the change,
c. The sponsor’s history in leading change, and
d. The sponsor’s approach to leading change.
A prior, productive relationship with the sponsor is, of course, a huge benefit. That said, it is well understood that we don’t always get to pick our Sponsors nor do we have the time or capability to explore these questions.
2. Remember your Sponsor is human: Your Sponsor has her own context as to why she is making decisions and behaving the way she is. Working to understand her, what is important to her, what is impacting her, and where she is coming from will go a long way towards improving your influence and driving effectiveness.
3. Don’t assume your Sponsor knows what to do: Leaders become leaders for many reasons. Often, they are good at the line work and were elevated to management as a result without much leadership training. Add to this that Change as a discipline is relatively new, we find that many Sponsors are acting instinctively. Unless they have been introduced to Prosci or other methods for affecting change, they may not fully understand their role or the importance of it. According to Prosci research, this is true 50% of the time. In changes I have been a part of, I would say this is grossly underestimated.
4. Don’t underestimate your value: I can say as a person who was assigned as a Sponsor for change prior to learning Prosci, if one of my team came to me at the time and said "I have a framework, tools, assessments, and analysis to help make your change successful," I would have welcomed them with open arms. There is a reason books are a primary resource of information for people in leadership positions. In many cases, leaders are looking for all the things that a trained Change Practitioner, can bring to the table.
5. Listen to them: If you don’t already know them well, or even if you think you do, taking some time to listen to them (really listen) and understand what they are talking about is invaluable. For example, if the Sponsor spends a lot of time talking about risk, focus your discussion of change and their role in risk mitigation. Or, if they talk a lot about timeline constraints, focus on how effective Sponsorship raises the probability of finishing on time. Adapt your discussion to their concerns.
6. Focus on delivering outcomes: One of the biggest mistakes I see Practitioners make is to focus their discussion on activities, what they are doing, how busy they are, what needs to be done, or what research says the Sponsor needs to accomplish. Rather, focus on outcomes and what these activities will enable. Leaders are judged based on the outcomes they drive. Tell them how you will help them get there and they will listen.
7. Find ways of adding immediate value: Leaders make calculated decisions on their time based on the value people can provide them. Present your Practitioner role that of a valuable collaborator. There are many demands for a sponsor to be effective, and you can work in the background by working through assessments, helping with meetings, developing talking points, actioning promises they made to others, etc. When they see you as an asset, they will be more open to your influence.
8. Use your training as an excuse to inform: If you have attended Prosci training, set up a meeting to convey what you learned. You can incorporate the Sponsor effectiveness points in this discussion. This works especially well of the Sponsor allotted part of their budget to send you to the training. They will likely be curious about what their investment won them. This can take place as a 1 to 1 or as a team meeting, depending on your situation.
9. Consider additional resources: Don’t underestimate the time limitations on your leaders. Likely, they are sacrificing a lot (family, health, peace of mind) to be in their position, and they may be juggling many other priorities. Try to determine if they have the capacity to be an effective sponsor and see if you can help remove barriers by bringing more resources to the table.
10. Don’t waste their time: If the Sponsor gives you their time, and you don’t know what to do with it, don’t expect them to continue to engage with you. Attending endless meetings outlining details where the team members default to them to make all the decisions defeats the purpose of having a change team to begin with. Sponsors forced to navigate and figure out the minor decisions on their own will become frustrated. Determine what critical elements you need from your Sponsor, take only the time you need, and give them tasks to complete that are important in their role.
11. Don’t make every conversation official: Find an opportunity to talk to them informally, perhaps at a company event, engage them and ask questions about how they think things are going. Listen for clues on how aware they are of their role, what is working and what is not, and offer to provide them knowledge resources (e.g. articles, data, etc) when appropriate. This can be an opportunity to address specific challenges that in a less guarded environment.
12. Consider 3rd party help: In those situations where the potential heat from engaging your Sponsor is just too hot, you may consider bringing in a 3rd party to moderate. This can be another leader, someone from the company’s L&D / centre of excellence, or an outside consultant. Often leaders will listen to someone from outside their team more than they will listen to their own people. If they don’t like what they hear, the 3rd party takes the heat. Of course, this 3rd party should be well educated and experienced in facilitating change at the sponsor level.
13. Approach the leadership issue as a team thing: Many ego-driven leaders may not be able to see the need to adjust their own behaviour right away, but I have rarely encountered a leader who thinks their team is perfect. If you approach the Sponsor with a need to educate and train their leadership team, they are more likely to be more receptive. You can then introduce a sponsor briefing and ask them to be present to support the effort. When well facilitated, they too will learn along the way. Also, it helps if you have feedback from project management, stakeholders, and people managers to present.
14. Use a plethora of resources as indirect education: So much good literature on change leadership exists that you can often introduce it as a matter of practice without being offensive. Books, articles, videos, and statistics from Prosci’s Best Practices can become FYI (for your information) materials that you introduce into conversation. Using many of these resources, Sponsors will be able to assess themselves against the examples in these resources.
15. Piggyback on organizational L&D: Many companies have a Leadership and Development (L&D) programs that, while not specifically focused on change, will likely emphasize the traits and skills of good sponsorship. Engage with the L&D group and develop a strategy around raising awareness through established and accepted channels.
16. Build the process framework and use it: By simply putting a change framework such as Prosci in place and working through it, your default reason for driving Sponsor engagement is that it is “part of the process”. By educating Sponsors on the process in advance you build their awareness and then can then include them in the steps that require their participation without them feeling attacked. Change Management in itself is a change. Treat it as one.
17. Be collaborative on their tasks: Utilize facilitation tools, like the 4’Ps model, to focus them in on the people dependency of the project. Use the Sponsor Coalition diagram to focus them on what a good sponsor does and needs to do. When employing such tools and following a Socratic method, asking question to draw out their thinking, then guiding them toward inevitable conclusions, you can help Sponsors help themselves.
18. Have highly focused discussions: When going into a meeting with your Sponsor, try not to hit them with everything at once. Think about 1 or 2 things that you want to achieve in every meeting and conclude the meeting when you have their concurrence. Also, tell them what you need up front (don’t build up to it or you will lose attention), try to keep the meeting short, and plan to end early so they know you see their time as valuable.
19. Use your tools to make their job easier: The data, assessments, and analysis presented well will tell the Sponsor the condition of her organization and initiative. Most leaders will value well organised input and feedback and will listen to well presented analysis. As a Prosci trained Change Practitioner you have a lot of tools at your disposal. Use them.
20. Interact with other Practitioners: The problems you may experience gaining engagement and influencing your Sponsors are not uncommon. While your specific situation is unique you can learn a lot from input and advice from other Practitioners. May cities have local associations and meet ups. If you are not aware of what is available in your area, we are happy to help.
These are 20 tips that have been proven in practice by Change Practitioner operating globally. Again, not all may be applicable to your situation, and you may need to piece several of them together to get the results you need. How you apply them can be different based on your culture. Finally, this is not an exhaustive list, so I would love to hear back from people their stories of how they gained the engagement they needed. Remember every Sponsor is an individual, all change is individual, and applying Change Management is a change for most organisations. Also, try to remember that as a Change Practitioners, you are also human and that not all problems are yours to solve alone. Don’t take the world on your shoulders. Manage what is feasible and don’t hesitate to look for help.
To that end, think of CMC as a resource. We are happy to listen to your needs and point you in the right direction. Feel free to get in touch so that we can have a conversation.
You may also wish to consider attending an upcoming Prosci Change Management Practitioner Certification Programme.
Apply Prosci’s analytical tools and practical approaches to change initiatives, helping build organisational awareness and capability in change management.