Transformation within a business is tough to achieve. Statistics on failure are well publicized and generate major headlines and studies every year. One of the most common reasons of failure is the lack of involvement from executive leaders in the organization. Often, executive leaders and senior managers don't take advantage of the one little secret weapon they have at their disposal that won't cost a dime, takes very little time and effort, and is almost guaranteed to help them succeed in any change initiative they undertake. That's executive sponsorship. In this article, through real project experiences, I'll briefly explain why executive sponsor is critical in transformation projects and demonstrate how executive sponsorship or its lack can make a dramatic difference in the project outcome.
The Basics of Executive Sponsorship
When business transformation programs are initiated within organizations, employees look to senior leaders for communication about the reason for the change, the project's objectives, and the company's commitment to the change - and for these things they generally look for guidance on how to change from their managers. The executive sponsor is the leader willing to take the time to lay out why the initiative is being undertaken, who's involved, how the change will impact the organization, its strategy and its impact on employees, why people need to assist or cooperate, and what the benefits are of embracing the change.
In our experience, executive sponsors struggle with supporting change initiatives in their organizations for several reasons. They often don't understand their role in the change process; they minimize the impact of their engagement; and they live in the future vision but minimize the importance of the steps that need to be implemented to get to the future state. Executives often expect employees to adapt, and believe they can just ask them to change.
Yet, the kinds of activities that sponsorship calls for are fairly straightforward. It can be as simple as sending out a communication to officially announce or launch the change initiative and introduce those who will be involved in the project. Executive sponsors' engagement has the benefit of creating a sense of urgency, momentum, and commitment. The other best practice executive sponsors can deploy is to build a coalition of executive sponsorship that mobilizes and aligns key business leaders and stakeholders. Their responsibilities in the change project can be as extensive as the following:
- Scoping out a change plan and identifying change agents within the organization;
- Defining a vision for the change and building a consensus on the project's goals;
- Carving out a budget assigned to the change management plan and training;
- Supporting the idea of training and development;
- Communicating short-term success and quick wins to keep the team focused and the momentum going;
- Communicating how this new initiative is important and will be different from any previously failed effort;
- Measuring the results and sustaining the change after the project completion;
- Investing in building an in-house change maturity competency in the organization based on best practices and success stories and identifying and rewarding change champions;
- Validating the project through internal communications; and
- "Socializing" the new organization and roles by talking it up at appropriate opportunities.
The most common pitfalls made by executive sponsors and senior managers include:
- A failure to remain visible and engaged throughout the project;
- A failure to demonstrate support for the project in words and actions;
- A failure to communicate messages about the need for change and the risks of not changing;
- Ignoring the people side of change; and
- Delegating or abdicating the role of sponsorship to project managers.
What happens when an executive sponsor doesn't get involved? We've seen this happen countless times. First, there's lower productivity and passive or active resistance among staff. Then employees show disinterest in the current vision for the company. Shortly thereafter, turnover of valued people begins to happen. Those remaining will look for workarounds or revert to old ways of doing things. Walls will rise up separating "them" from "us." The change doesn't fully take place, and eventually it's totally scrapped because it becomes an "obvious" failure.
Or, as the following true tale lays out, lack of sponsorship can double the amount of time it takes for an initiative to be achieved.
What Happens Without Executive Sponsorship
A large global retail company signed high-profile major distribution deals to publish their digital goods in return for payment. But frequently, the vendors weren't receiving payments. When high-profile vendors began complaining directly to the Chairman and CEO, he asked his finance team to investigate and audit the contract process and payments systems. We were pulled in to help.
From what we could tell, the problems lay with the contracts management process. Contracts were being lost; some were signed by one party, but not the other; and frequently, the terms were never implemented within the company's various payment systems, which meant vendors didn't get paid.
The process had multiple steps: signing a contract, counter-signing it, implementing the terms of the payment, integrating the digital goods, deploying a merchandising plan, and marketing the launch of the new digital product. That workflow involved multiple global teams across the United States, Europe, and Asia as well as large departments within the company: vendor managers, account managers, business development managers, engineering, application development, accounting, legal, finance, content integration, marketing, merchandising. Yet at no time had all of these teams been brought together to understand how their processes and roles impacted each other. We quickly figured out that there was far more focus on signing up new vendors than on making sure that existing partners had been properly on-boarded.
We outlined each team and role and mapped out a detailed process to fully understand the bottlenecks that existed and the gaps in the systems. But what should have been a short-term project turned into a true tooth-yanking exercise.
The executive leaders and senior managers didn't introduce the project or the project team to the various business groups involved. Nor did they communicate the necessity for all teams to review their respective processes or to support the development and implementation of new tools. Last, they didn't see the need for a training plan, which was vital to sustain the change. So the project team, new to the organization, struggled to set up meetings with the different teams involved and struggled to create momentum and to get all teams involved and mobilized on the project. The project team spent most of its time socializing the project and overcoming resistance from employees who weren't keen to review their processes or the way they currently worked.
When executive sponsors and senior managers communicate the vision of the project and remain engaged by communicating quick wins, for example, those activities generate momentum and support the change project acceptance and adoption. As it was, a project that should have taken only three months in phase one required six months.
An Antidote to Failure
Another more recent project is having a very different outcome. In this case an organization determined that an important way it could more fully compete in the marketplace was to increase its project management maturation level. We were called in to perform a project capacity assessment and implement a project portfolio management system.
In this case the senior executives were very engaged and supportive of the project. The executive sponsor put together a coalition of senior managers responsible for supporting the change. The executive sponsor team sent out a formal email to the business groups impacted, announcing the project, providing information about the project's objectives and vision, how we were going to work together towards the change, and why they needed to participate.
We anticipate the outcome on this project to be excellent. In spite of the fact that we don't currently have 100 percent buy-in, the executive sponsor is aware of his role in supporting the change, and remains engaged to foster and sustain buy-in and adoption from all employees. This will be a long-haul, which means the on-going endorsements will be vital to seeing it through to the end.
Executive sponsorship doesn't have to be complicated: It can be as simple as announcing the project, communicating quick wins, and broadcasting the success of the initiative as it unfolds. But we have seen on many occasions how it can act as a "secret weapon" of change that makes the difference in meeting return on investment for the project and driving employees to adopt new processes and technologies.