Many established Organizational Change Management (OCM) methodologies highlight the importance of Executive Sponsors, typically senior leaders, within organizational change initiatives. Organizational change sponsor advocacy is a critical component to convincing impacted employees to accept and embrace business role, technological, business process, or cultural organizational changes.
Prosci, the global leader in Change Management solutions, identified active and visible sponsorship/leadership as the number one success factor for any organizational change initiative. Market data and scientific research involving responses from global fortune 500 companies validates executive sponsors’ key role within organizational change management.
However, even with statistical data connecting organizational change success to executive sponsor engagement, many sponsors struggle to fulfill their roles as change advocates. One main reason is that executive sponsors are typically organizational leaders who participate in significant meetings and activities that demand significant time and attention. Another reason is that sponsors are not aware of their change management role expectations and responsibilities.
Executive sponsors’ organizational change management responsibilities include:
- Communicating the business reasons for change, the impact of the change on the organization, and the risk to the organization if the change initiative is not successful
- Providing regular updates on the progress made in implementing the change initiative to the organization
- Leading the organization in celebrating key accomplished milestones along the change journey
- Participating in organizational meetings (town halls, department level meetings, fireside chats, company-wide quarterly meetings, etc.) to directly answer employees’ questions and address concerns
- Encouraging other executives across the organization to show support for the change initiative
- Actively supporting the change management and project management teams throughout the change implementation
As a change management and project management consulting professional, I interact with extremely busy sponsors in most of my client project engagements. When establishing a working relationship with a new project sponsor as a change management leader, my first formal meeting agenda includes an overview of OCM and the sponsor’s change management role and responsibilities.
Yet even with a clear understanding of their roles and a strong desire to execute these activities to the best of their abilities, many sponsors unfortunately do not have the bandwidth to manage all of the required change management activities for which they are responsible.
As such, I typically employ the following approaches to support over-allocated executive sponsors:
- Manage all sponsor related organizational communications (develop, review, receive approval, release and collect employee feedback).
- Ask the executive sponsor to identify a willing surrogate executive with sponsorship experience, who can represent the sponsor in change management activities as needed.
- Schedule short monthly executive sponsor status meetings to discuss the organizational change’s progress and address concerns or requests.
Manage all sponsor related organizational communications (develop, review, receive approval, release and collect employee feedback).
Executive sponsors provide the voice of leadership during organizational change planning and execution. Impacted employees require information on the expected changes (the rationale, details and effective date of the changes, and the organizational risks if the changes do not occur). It is the executive sponsor’s responsibility to convey this information so that employees can clearly understand what the future holds and why the future is changing in the first place.
Change managers are responsible for supporting the executive sponsor by providing high-level communication talking points, message delivery timelines, perspectives on the right communication channels to deliver these business messages, and methods to gather and process employee feedback.
However, busy sponsors may not have the time to manage their communication activities due to other commitments, company travel, and competing corporate meetings. They may not be willfully trying to avoid their change management responsibilities, but just too busy with other executive priorities to dedicate enough time to being an engaged executive sponsor. Change managers should begin executing communication activities on the sponsor’s behalf under these circumstances as follows:
- Develop all sponsor-related communication messages
- Ask the sponsor to review and approve message accuracy and tone prior to release
- Release communications to the intended audiences on the sponsor’s behalf, through collaboration with the sponsor’s executive administrator or the communications department if applicable
- Gather, analyze, and review any employee feedback with sponsor to determine appropriate follow up actions
By taking charge of the sponsor communication effort, change managers will ensure the organization is still hearing the voice of leadership despite the sponsor’s minimal time commitments for these activities.
Ask the executive sponsor to identify a willing surrogate executive with sponsorship experience, who can represent the sponsor in change management activities as needed.
Face-to-Face communication is the most effective method to ensure intended recipients receive, understand, and can provide valuable feedback on intended messages. As such, executive sponsors should not rely solely on written organizational change communications to interact with employees. They should provide change updates and be willing to answer employee questions through participating in town halls, department meetings, fireside chats, water cooler discussions, quarterly meetings, etc.
Busy sponsors may not have the time to participate in all planned events to provide remarks and engage effectively with employees. Thus, change managers should ask their sponsor to nominate a surrogate representative, preferably another senior leader, who can attend these events and effectively be the voice of leadership.
Surrogates should not replace the executive sponsor. Change managers should engage surrogates only when the sponsor is unable to attend functions or is unable to review and approve written communications.
Of course, for surrogates to perform their role effectively the change manager must provide frequent organizational change updates on progress and outstanding issues, in addition to key talking points and potential responses to employee questions.
Schedule short monthly executive sponsor status meetings to discuss the organizational change’s progress and address concerns or requests.
Although some executive sponsors may not have the time to participate consistently in OCM activities, they should still be aware of the change effort’s progress, issues and next steps. The change manager is responsible for providing this level of information to the sponsor from an OCM perspective, just as the project manager is responsible for providing sponsor updates from a project management perspective.
To ensure busy sponsors have the relevant updates, change managers should schedule and lead monthly sponsor meetings, preferably 30 minutes in duration. This will allow change managers to provide the sponsors with necessary information and receive any necessary decisions quickly. Sponsors will benefit from these short meetings by receiving critical information that can be conveyed to other organizational leaders within executive level meetings.
These short updates will also make it easier for executive sponsors to resume their OCM responsibilities quickly as their schedules become less hectic and their availability improves.
As a change practitioner, do you have any additional thoughts about this topic? What other approaches do you use to support busy executive sponsors? Please leave your comments below!