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Sponsor Engagement: THE no. 1 success differentiator
Published on: April 18, 2023
Published By: Timothy Grayson

Sponsor engagement is critical to driving successful organizational change. Yet it is typically overlooked or—worse—misguidedly expected to just happen. Sponsors are key stakeholders with the authority, influence, and resources to support and enable change initiatives. But their support and value must be actively tended.

     From my perspective, the most efficient lever for success in any organizational change scenario is engaged, passionate, and active sponsorship. At a minimum, one such (executive) sponsor is needed. Ideally, you will cultivate and benefit from several.[1]

Sponsor engagement of passionate and active sponsors is the most critical lever for change management success. One is good; more is better.

     To be clear, these posts are directed to or for those working to become change leaders. As stated in The Change Playbook, this is not a defined job so much as a distinction. Anybody can be a change leader irrespective of job/role. Change management techniques help. But “managers” are not necessarily leaders for our purpose. And yet… change managers and project managers can benefit from these techniques.

     In what follows, we’ll identify the best-practices for sponsor engagement. You cannot go wrong with them, they can be used by anyone, and represent your bare minimum sponsor management. After that we’ll consider a second set of more artful techniques or tactics. These are more effective but, as you will see, may be beyond some change and project managers (for obvious reasons). They are for change leaders.

Sponsor Management Best Practice

     Here are some sponsor management-focused best practices. Their order is based on when you are likely to encounter or have to implement them. Note that these apply to both the project manager and to the change manager in equal measure.

Align with organizational priorities:

Ensure that the change initiative aligns with the organization and sponsors’ strategic priorities. If your organization method doesn’t already prescribe it, link the change to the organization’s vision, mission, and goals. Highlight how the change will contribute to the overall success of the organization and the sponsor’s specific interests. Address any concerns or conflicts of interest.

Identify and engage sponsors early:

If not inherited, begin by identifying key sponsors for your change initiative. These may be senior leaders, executives, department heads, or other influential (senior) individuals. Engage them early to secure their support and commitment. Clearly articulate the benefits of the change and how it aligns with both the organization’s strategic goals and the sponsor’s specific goals.

Create a sponsor coalition:

Form a coalition of sponsors who collectively support the change. This can be a group of influential individuals invested in the success of the change, who can work together to champion it. Leverage the power of this coalition to amplify your messages, overcome resistance, and drive the change forward.  Coalitions are good because the sponsors can cover off the important stakeholder impact areas and they can keep each other motivated.

Clearly define roles and responsibilities:

Clearly define sponsor roles and responsibilities in the change process. Ensure they are all clear about their role as advocates and champions, and your expectations of them. Clarify their responsibilities in terms of providing resources, removing obstacles, and making decisions that support the change. Establish clear scope and expectations for their engagement and involvement throughout the change journey. Even senior executive sponsors need to know what the job practically entails.

Build strong relationships:

Establishing strong relationships with sponsors is crucial. Take the time to understand their individual needs, concerns, and expectations.  (Use a heat map or other relationship plot keep track.) Listen actively to their feedback and address issues or questions. Keep sponsors informed of progress, risks, and challenges related to the change initiative. Regularly remind them of the value and impact their sponsorship has on the success of the change.

Foster accountability and ownership:

Don’t hesitate to hold sponsors accountable to their commitments. Monitor progress and provide feedback on their performance as sponsors. Encourage them to take ownership of the change and visibly demonstrate support to the organization. Celebrate their successes and recognize their contributions to motivate ongoing engagement.

Provide support and resources:

Ensure sponsors have the necessary support and resources to effectively fulfill their role. This may include providing them with relevant information, data, and tools to make informed decisions. Offer training or coaching to help them better understand the change, change process, and their role in it. Be responsive to their needs and provide timely support as required.

     By effectively managing sponsors, change leaders (and managers) garner the support and commitment needed for successful change initiatives. Strong sponsor engagement can help overcome resistance, facilitate decision-making, and enable the organization to adapt to new ways of doing things.

Better Than Best Practice for Sponsor Engagement

     In addition to the best practices, here are a few additional, implicit and potentially unorthodox approaches for raising your game on sponsor engagement.[2]

Appeal to personal motivations:

This is so basic. Understand what personally motivates your sponsors and use that to gain and deepen their support. For example, if a sponsor is particularly interested in innovation, emphasize how the change will drive innovation within the organization. By aligning the change with their personal motivations, you increase their engagement and commitment.

Use storytelling:

Storytelling can be a powerful way to engage sponsors, as a series in Change This! makes clear. Craft stories that illustrate the benefits of the change, its impact on employees or customers, and the positive outcomes that can be achieved. Use anecdotes, examples, and testimonials to create a compelling narrative that resonates with the sponsors’ emotions and motivations. Think about what character your sponsor plays in your change story. Ideally it will resonate with him/her.

Foster informal relationships:

Cultivate informal relationships with sponsors to build trust and rapport. This can involve socializing, networking, or finding common interests outside of work. Informal relationships foster a sense of camaraderie and collaboration, which can positively influence sponsors’ attitudes towards the change initiative. It’ll probably be beneficial to your career too. Try, but don’t be completely surprised that 3 organizational layers between you/the sponsor make this challenging. If you succeed though, you will be operating on a new level.

Seek their input and feedback:

Demonstrate that you value sponsors’ expertise and wisdom by actively seeking their opinions and input. This can help them feel more involved and invested in the process. As much as reasonable and feasible, incorporate their suggestions and ideas into the change plan. Then tell them about it. Every time their fingerprints are laid onto the project, the more their sense of ownership and, more especially, commitment will grow.

Make the sponsor live the change:

Sponsors must evangelize your words about the change and experience the change personally somehow. Using words you’ve provided helps them buy-in deeper because of the Saying Is Believing effect. Consider creative and interactive approaches to engage sponsors in the change process. Organize simulations, workshops, or other experiential learning activities so sponsors directly experience the change and its potential impacts. Such approaches can be engaging and memorable. More importantly, they’ll foster a deeper understanding and commitment.

     Every organization and change initiative is unique, so be prepared to adapt your approach to sponsor engagement based on the specific context and dynamics at play. Have a full quiver of tactics, and know that innovative or unorthodox approaches will at the very least help you capture attention and more likely secure, deeper sponsor commitment. That will help drive successful change outcomes.

     The Change Playbook is loaded with practical tips and pragmatic guidance for all aspects of making change happen. Check it out. Subscribe—even for the FREE membership—to be notified about new posts and fresh content.

[1]   Some will argue that any supporter and advocate to a specific constituency is a sponsor. That may be valid; it may not. To avoid semantics, this content is applicable to sponsors irrespective of how defined. But know that I am very specifically visualizing executives—the more senior, the better.

[2]   These are all common sales techniques. They are “uncommon” because for some reason or another, somebody decided along the way that “external” techniques, like sales and marketing, should not be part of “internal” change management activities. Silly.

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Sponsors are key stakeholders with the authority, influence, and resources to support and enable change initiatives. But their support and value must be actively tended.
Published By: Timothy Grayson

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