What makes a good Executive Sponsor?
A good Executive Sponsor needs to be involved in a project at every stage, from idea to benefits realisation and beyond. Here is what makes a good executive sponsor.
In the 9th Edition of Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management 2016, the greatest contributor to a successful change management initiative was ‘identified as active and visible executive sponsorship’. Not just for the 2016 edition, but this factor has ranked Number One in all the Prosci surveys since 1998. So, if the Executive Sponsor is such a crucial role to success in Change initiatives, is it just about being active and visible?Can anyone be an Executive Sponsor, and what makes a good Executive Sponsor? Let's hear your thoughts. Click To Tweet
In my experience, the role and responsibility of the Executive Sponsor are usually unknown or grossly underestimated. Allocating the budget and opening project meetings is a very small part of the role, but to many, this is what the role entails.
Getting started as an Executive Sponsor.
The Executive Sponsor needs to be at the right level of the organisation for their involvement, and for the project to be effective. The coalition of supporters that they gain through their interactions can certainly be the leaders distributed throughout the organisation. Executive Sponsors need to have good leadership skills, such as strong communication skills, be influential, they are approachable, honest and trustworthy and having sponsorship experience helps.
An Executive Sponsor needs to be involved in the project at every stage from idea to benefits realisation and beyond. Involvement is not necessarily the day to day activities but more the leadership and supportive role. The Executive Sponsor needs to understand project management and the change management process as well as what the change means to the organisation and the affected staff. Having this knowledge makes it easier to embrace, communicate, promote and champion the change. There is a lot more to being just active and visible, the passion for the project deliverable makes a big difference.
Being active and visible is about walking and talking the benefits, leading by example and gaining support at formal and informal events; in the lift with co-workers or at executive meetings. Being prepared to be the face of the project through the good and challenging times. Too many times I’ve seen Executive Sponsors start strong with their participation dropping off as they become busy on other projects. Some Executive Sponsors think they are doing the right thing by delegating their role to others, but this sends the wrong message to the team and in many instances, the Executive Sponsors are not kept up to date with information regarding the project. Simple support activities such as providing resources or removing obstacles are left unattended and this usually disrupts the project and breaks the trust of the Executive Sponsor.
The tasks that an Executive Sponsor undertakes varies slightly as the project progresses but generally, it is support and communications but with different audiences and focus. At the early stage, there will be the start-up activities such as building the team who will implement the change. Assessing the stakeholders and building the coalition of supporters. Acting on the areas of resistance which can be time-consuming all while still creating awareness. This is where the Executive Sponsor’s vision of the change will be communicated. During the pre-launch phases, support will be needed for the project team to keep the momentum going and overcome the roadblocks. Communication activities will be increased as the project nears implementation and broadly covering the whole organisation with consistent messages of project activities and expected outcomes. During implementation the communications should not decline but focus on feedback even if it may be negative, sharing and celebrating success stories and setting the behaviours of the new process. The Executive Sponsor who has been active and visible is the best sender of many of these communications with consistent messaging to the project team, executives and affected users. Yammer is good at this with the Praise simply updating with a comment, but an email can work just as well.
So how do you know if the allocated person will be an effective Executive Sponsor? Above we have read about some of the activities they need to perform during the project, so either the Project Manager or Change Manager could assess the behaviours and actions of the Executive Sponsor and coach them towards the better traits if required. This assessment is usually performed too late, or not at all and if you did assess them, talking to an executive could be considered a career limiting move.
So, what do you do?
Setting the expectations at the first meeting is the best option. Understand what the Executive Sponsor knows about sponsorship, the time requirements and their suitability for to the role. Think of it as an extension of a project risk assessment or stakeholders’ assessment but performed on a very key stakeholder. There are many checklists and assessments available that can provide a change manager or Executive Sponsor assistance, or you can have the tasks clearly laid out in your schedule. It might be confronting, but better to do this up front than to wait until the project goes off the rails and try explaining the project failure to the board without the Executive Sponsor’s backing. The Executive Sponsor is also an end user of the project and should be coached and supported as such. Having a regular two-way dialogue with the Executive Sponsor is a great way to keep in touch with their progress. The project team can also benefit from these two-way conversations as each member will gain added insight and perspectives of the project.
Here is a quick checklist to use, for what makes a “Good Sponsor”.
They need to…
- Be at the right level of the organisation
- Knowledgeable of Change and Project Management
- Have good Leadership skills
- Be dedicated time to support the project
- Be actively and visibly passionate about the project.
Use this so you can find one in your organisation and continue to achieve a successful outcome for your projects.