Of the four primary roles in the change process (sponsors, agents, targets, and advocates), none is as crucial to successful realization of change as that of sponsor. Yet, as practitioners, we often don’t bond with these leaders effectively enough to carry out our responsibilities. I think this is the biggest problem we face as practitioners: Even though we know how important sponsors are to successful change, we don’t always do what we could to help them succeed.

Guiding sponsors toward new behaviors and mindsets is the heart of our profession. Maybe it’s time to invest more energy in exploring what we need to learn and what needs to shift in our own actions so we can be more influential with sponsors.

Instead of commiserating about how ineffective sponsors are in their role, or how they don’t listen to us, I propose that we look at how we might be contributing to such problems. (By the way, I’d hate to tell you how many practitioner “pity parties” I’ve been a part of over the years.)

First, though, let’s list some of the things we know to be true about sponsorship.

  • A sponsor is an individual (or group) who has the power to sanction a change.
  • As professional implementation facilitators, we work with targets and alongside other agents, but we are in service to sponsors.
  • Sponsors (executives, managers, supervisors) are often frustrated by their lack of progress when executing change without our assistance:
    • “I’m up here pushing the right strategic buttons, but the lights aren’t coming on.”
    • “We don’t learn from our mistakes….We reinvent the wheel every time we implement something new.”
    • “Based on the way we keep score, I can’t tell if my projects are really successful or not.”
    • “Everyone’s busy with all these initiatives but we’re moving in different directions.”
    • “I don’t know how many times I‘ve said this is non-negotiable, yet people still act like it’s just a suggestion.”
    • “It doesn’t seem to matter how much we communicate—people operate as if they’ve never heard of what we’re doing and deadlines are being consistently missed.”
  • Sponsors who fail to realize their intended change outcomes create all kinds of problems for the organization, themselves, and the other people involved:
    • There are business ramifications for not solving the problems or exploiting the opportunities
    • Time, money, and human resources are wasted
    • Morale decreases
    • Some people lose their jobs
    • People within the organization learn to ignore leadership directives
    • Leaders appear to lack control, and the organization loses confidence in its leadership
  • Successful sponsors demonstrate strong personal commitment for full realization of the intended outcomes.
  • There are two critical things sponsors must do to ensure that change is properly positioned for success:
    • Communicate (explain the change in ways that are meaningful to the targets)
    • Impose consequences (ensure there are meaningful positive and negative implications for the way targets support the intended outcomes)
  • For sponsorship to be successful, it must be “cascaded.” It starts with the initiating sponsors, who are the first to engage the change. After that, sustaining sponsors lower in the organization enforce it at the local level (division, function, department, etc.).
  • When an initiating sponsor is committed, but the sustaining sponsorship is weak or non-existent, a “black hole” forms. I borrowed the term from astrophysics. It refers to locations in space where gravity is so strong that all surrounding matter and energy, even light itself, is drawn in and can’t escape. A similar dynamic can occur when the initiating sponsor’s decision for change is announced but is not adequately supported at the sustaining sponsor level. This is usually the result of logistic, economic, or political gaps between the initiating and sustaining sponsors. By the time the decisions reach their destinations (the targets) they’re distorted or ignored. The senior decision makers have the power to engage a major change, but because the initiative is spread throughout the organization, they don’t have the proximity to sustain it.
  • Black holes happen when the initiating sponsor doesn’t create enough commitment at the local level. The way I see it, an initiating sponsor who discovers a black hole in the organization has three options:
    • Use communications and consequences to help local sustaining sponsors see that such behavior isn’t helping anyone and, more importantly, won’t be tolerated
    • Replace uncommitted or incapable local sponsors with people who are more supportive and/or skilled at the role.
    • Prepare to fail at the stated change objectives within the original time and budget constraints.
  • Sponsorship is vital to change success because without committed resolve at every level, very little can move forward. (The least bit of resistance or other negative action can create insurmountable barriers.)

On the other hand, strong sponsor commitment can usually mitigate even the most daunting logistic, economic, or political obstacles.

You may have your own terminology and frame of reference about how to articulate the items listed above but I’m willing to bet that most change practitioners have come to similar conclusions.

So the question is, if we believe these axioms are valid why don’t we always act like it? (For example, if a sponsor publicly promotes change but then doesn’t create the cascading network of sustaining sponsors needed below him or her, why would we fail to mention that this will negatively affect realization?)

Next: The Geometry of Sponsor Relationships