Building a relationship with your programme sponsor

Introduction

I am doing a lot of work to build awareness, understanding and commitment by senior leaders to performing the sponsor role, often as part of the transformation of their organisation. I am doing this work for all sorts of organisations: midsized, global, private sector, public sector and NGOs.

Common to all this work is a critical issue: the motivation of the Sponsor has been assumed.

Challenges faced by Sponsors

We work hard in change management to establish “the felt need for change” with those impacted by change. We talk about establishing intrinsic motivation, the “internal fire” that self-motivates those involved to develop and apply new ways of working to make the change a reality.

However, we assume that the motivation for the change is already felt by the Sponsor, and that is why they are taking the Sponsor role. In my experience, as a change management consultant and as a former CEO, that is not how it works. The responsibility for sponsoring a new initiative evolves and becomes someone’s job based on their objectives, their remit and how close what needs to be achieved falls into their perceived area of responsibility.

In addition, political factors are at work, where people volunteer for the role or suggest others for the role based on their interpretation of how strategically valuable or how much importance is placed on the outcome by other senior leaders.

So I don’t agree that Sponsors are already internally motivated to be brilliant sponsors. It is closer to the truth that on top of everything else they must achieve, this is another headache that they hope is going to run itself and need minimum involvement from them.

This is not because they are bad people, it is because they are often already over-loaded and if we divide everything they have to cover across a 40 hour week, the chances are the change initiative will get a small proportion of that time.

In reality, this means 1-2 hours per week, which has to cover:

  • Becoming familiar with what is happening in the project team and in the business impacted by the change
  • Taking decisions on prioritising work, authorising project spend, resolving resourcing issues etc
  • Championing the change and promoting its benefits to stakeholders inside and outside the organisation.
  • Addressing strong resistance from Key stakeholders over a sustained period of time.

Supporting Sponsors

I think those of us working in change all the time have a valuable role to play in transferring our skills to sponsors. We can help Sponsors excel in their role if don’t assume:

  • Sponsors are change management experts
  • Sponsors are being pulled in multiple directions every day
  • Sponsors want to do a good job but they are not working on our initiative all the time, so the level of detail they can retain is not as great as ours (nor does it need to be).

So key tasks for us in our role as change professional; programme manager; transformation manager; transition planner etc:

  • Let’s speak honestly as clearly as possible about what we need from our sponsor and how much time this will require
  • Let’s break these expectations down into specific tasks and work out how we can share the burden. Let’s ask questions about potential overlap with other initiatives and agree how these might be addresses before they become territorial issues between managers.
  • Let’s work through options for how the sponsor can help take the pressure off staff by reducing expectations of business as usual during periods when a lot of staff time is needed on the change. None of the options for doing this are palatable so the earlier we start the conversation the better.

Conclusion

Perhaps the easiest step to take is a cultural shift – let’s stop seeing the sponsor as someone who is the boss – we report to them and wait for decisions from them. Instead let’s start treating them like a valuable partner. We jointly discuss what we need from each other, create a shared plan and regularly come together to share progress and agree next steps.

How many of these support activities are you providing to your Sponsor? I know that in writing this article, it has prompted me to do more, especially in outlining what activities I need my Sponsor to carry out, because their seniority and connections with stakeholders make them the best resource for the job.

Use this paper to start a conversation with your Sponsor and I think this paper gives some useful reminders of the links between effective change management and benefits realisation.