One of the most vital factors when implementing change in a company, is the crucial role of the Project Sponsor. Typically, a sponsor is somebody who occupies a position in top management or, if it’s a smaller company, the sponsor would be one of the major shareholders. Prosci’s extensive worldwide research reveals that active and visible sponsorship is #1 on the list of top contributors or top obstacles for success. Project and Change Managers know this. They live with this reality in every project that requires change management and can tell a number of stories of how a good sponsor can catalyze change and a sponsor who is not adequately engaged can completely derail the project.
When we look at underperforming or even disastrous implementations, we find that the constant and common root cause, more often than not, is poorly-executed Sponsorship. So, why is it that the same cause for failure, i.e. poor sponsorship, occurs over and over again?
In my experience, the biggest challenge when engaging with sponsors lies in getting them to fully understand, accept and perform their role.
Sponsors are not aware of what is expected of them in their role as a sponsor. Some think that their involvement is symbolic and associated with their position in the company. They see it as putting their name on a project charter, showing up for update briefings and celebrations and holding up their “yay” or “nay” paddles when decisions need to be made. Hence, they tend to confuse “position” with “role”. Very often they are oblivious to how much of their time and engagement is needed in order to move the project forward successfully.
Another common occurrence is that this is the person’s first time as a sponsor and/or that he/she has not received the adequate coaching for the role. I’ve seen this happen so many times. Prosci´s research reveals that more that 50% of the sponsors have an inadequate understanding of their role. So, coaching becomes necessary in order to learn the relatively new art (and it is an art) of change management. This brings us to the next obstacle: arrogance and lack of humility and the question “how coacheable is the sponsor”?
As you get higher up in the food chain, not only are you expected to know it all, you start thinking that you do! And when that happens, arrogance kicks in. From my perspective, there is nothing more toxic in leadership and in sponsorship, than arrogance.
Arrogance is an obstacle to learning. It clouds your vision, blocks out constructive criticism and feedback and hence, impedes the sponsor from learning his/her role. Arrogant sponsors become tyrannical micromanagers and if they are assigned a coach, they go through the coaching process just to tick off a box instead of actually listening to, learning and and implementing the coach’s advice.
Last but not least, unengaged sponsors might just be afraid of the vulnerability and responsibility embedded in the sponsor role. Sponsorship of a project implies accountability and exposure. The easy way out for the sponsor is to delegate the role and that is a big mistake.
If you are a sponsor of a project and at some point in time in your career, you may be, here´s some advice: your change management specialist is your best resource and ally in your role as a sponsor. Please take some time to learn about change management so that you develop an awareness of your role, the desire, motivation and knowledge to perform the role and do allow your change management specialist to be your coach. He/she can make you aware of the importance of your role, create in you the desire to perform in it, give you the adequate knowledge and training that you require and accompany and encourage you as you perform. Especially if this is your first time as a sponsor, believe me, you need a coach.