Tactical Advice for Beginning the Executive Sponsor Relationship
An executive sponsor can play a crucial and multi-faceted role on an organization’s change management project, from ensuring that the project’s goals are aligned with overall organizational strategy to providing ongoing direction and accountability.
This executive is not working alone, however. Here some of the tactical ways the various other parties involved can help increase the likelihood of the project’s success.
Project manager/leader One of the earliest tasks you have as project manager is to do your homework. You want to determine which leader in your organization is best suited to serve as your project’s sponsor. Some of the factors to consider are how closely the individual’s own area of responsibility in the organization, or in some cases the budget they oversee, affects or is affected by the change.
In our experience, the most successful project sponsors tend to be those who oversee the person responsible for the project’s budget. Other factors include the sponsor’s personal bandwidth, how closely aligned they are with the organization’s vision for the specific project, and the extent to which the planned change will affect operations under their control. If, however, the person who seems best-suited for the role is unavailable, you may need to expand your search to identify another sponsor (or perhaps a sponsor coalition) to help advocate for the project.
After you have identified your sponsor, meet with them to discuss the project and your mutual roles and responsibilities. Come to an agreement about how you will support each other over the course of the project. If a potential sponsor has concerns about the project or their role, it helps for the project manager to follow industry-recognized best practices, such as those that comprise ACMP’s Standard for Change Management.
Some sponsors welcome guidance and explicit direction from the project manager, but others don’t. The main point is to have a conversation where you can come to agreement on the way that you will work together.
For practical tips on getting started with executive sponsorship, download our free guide: The Secret Weapon of Nonprofit Technology Transformation
The selected (or potential) executive sponsor Start by having a conversation with the project manager about your proposed roles and responsibilities, as well as areas in which you will need their support. If you decide to move forward as project sponsor, start speaking with other leaders and colleagues in the organization who may be affected by the change. The sooner you can begin engaging with them and understanding their project-related hopes and needs, the better the chance you’ll have their support when you need it. For more information and examples of what this strategy looks like in practice, see our Communications Toolkit for System Launch.
Stepping into the role of project sponsor can feel like a high-stakes change in itself, complete with its own learning curve and professional risks. For example, organizational structure and traditional chains of command can make it difficult for top-level executives to receive guidance from staff further down the chain. In such cases, studies have shown that executive coaching can provide leadership with a number of strategic benefits. Examples include:
- Developing the potential of leaders, and modifying specific behaviors where needed
- Promoting resilience in the face of change
- Ongoing support, inspiration, motivation, and empathy
The organization leader The person leading the organization also has a critical role to play. It begins with understanding the change process that is being planned, the value of it to the organization as a whole, and who it will affect in what ways. In addition, you need to discuss with the executive sponsor how the two of you will interact with and support one another — not only how you will ensure accountability on their part, but also how they will report to you on the status of the project.
Organizational change is risky, and reported failure rates for transformation projects are high. Projects often fail because of an over-emphasis on the process of implementing and managing, and a lack of attention to the softer, people-related aspects of organizational transformation. Weaknesses in a formal change management approach, project management, and governance are common reasons for project failure when a holistic approach to transformation is not adopted.
With the right support from above and below in the organization hierarchy, an executive sponsor may turn out to be just the secret weapon needed to achieve project success, and help transform the organization for the better.