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How Critical is an Initiative's Executive Sponsor?

Posted on Mon, Oct 21, 2013 @ 08:58 AM

alphabet blocksAccording to the 2007, 2009, and 2011 benchmark studies performed by Prosci, Inc., a world leader in change management research, ineffective sponsorship from senior leaders was identified as the #1 change management obstacle. Said differently, the top reason that change initiatives (such as system implementations, organizational structure changes, etc.) fail is due to ‘lack of leadership’. That’s right…’lack of leadership’. Not too little funding, not bad project plans, not resource constraints, but ‘lack of leadership’. In addition, Prosci’s research also found that most change initiatives with effective leadership met or exceeded expectations. So, I think we have a pattern here. Projects with effective leadership succeed, while projects with ineffective leadership fail. Maybe I should just end this paper right here.

But, I won’t because there is more to say, and more to learn. Prosci goes on to identify the three key behaviors of effective sponsors:

  1. Active and visible participation
  2. Building support with peers and managers
  3. Communicating directly with employees

ABC should be easy for any sponsor to remember. For some reason, however, there are a lot of ineffective sponsors out there leading initiatives that are destined to fail. Besides remembering to be visible, building support, and communicating with employees, I think sponsors should think about a few other keys to shepherding their initiatives along.

The Team Follows the Sponsor’s Lead

Make no mistake about it; the team is watching your every move. Why? Because that is the clearest signal to them about how they should behave throughout the effort. If you are more engaged, they will be more engaged. If you roll-up your sleeves and get the job done, they will do the same. If you show you are accountable for the results of the effort, they will feel accountable as well—and they will want to deliver the best result possible, on time and on budget.

However, the opposite is also equally (and painfully) true. If you lack engagement, they will as well. If you’re trying to avoid being responsible for the overall effort, how can you expect more of your team? The answer is…you can’t (and you shouldn’t). So, just like in other leadership situations, you must pay close attention to how you come off to your team. You cannot expect a superior result without leading in a superior way.

The Team Needs to Know the Sponsor Has Their Backs

Here is a far too frequent example of poor project leadership: the project seems to be going along just fine for quite a while (staying in the “green zone” for those who use a stop-light system for project tracking) until suddenly, everything falls apart (an immediate move to the “red zone”). Deadlines are being missed, budgets are overrun, risks turn into issues, benefits are not materializing, etc. How can this all happen so quickly? It’s not as hard as you might think. The reason everything went from fine to terrible so quickly is that it really didn’t go from fine to terrible. It went from fine to alright to fair to poor to terrible. However, the team did not alert the sponsor quickly enough as the situation began to deteriorate because they feared reprisal if they showed the project was veering off course. That’s not the sign of a bad team, that’s a sign of a bad sponsor.

It’s the job of the sponsor to make sure they hear about problems early so they can help ‘right the ship’ before things get out of control. But, if the team lives in fear this doesn’t happen. I like to think about it this way: if all of the project indicators are good, then there’s a problem, because someone (or everyone) is not telling you something. And that’s because they don’t believe you have their backs. They believe your reaction will be to blame them and avoid being accountable yourself. The sponsor’s job is to support and protect the team and personally help solve problems and remove roadblocks. So when an indicator goes from ‘green’ to ‘yellow’ or from ‘yellow’ to ‘red’ try this for a response: “how can I help get the project back on track?

The Team Needs to See the Sponsor be Accountable and Decisive

A project sponsor must own the execution of an initiative and own the results. He/she must be fully accountable for the success of the initiative. As the sponsor, you are asking your company to invest a lot of money in an idea that you stand behind—it was either your idea personally, or one you now own due to your position in the organization. Either way, it’s yours. And for that investment, the company expects a reasonable a return. That might be a monetary return such as increased sales or decreased expenses, or it might be a non-monetary return such as improved customer satisfaction. Regardless of which one, the company is putting its faith in you as project sponsor to deliver a return on their investment. So, the team needs to see how invested you are in making sure the result is a positive one. Just to reiterate from my initial point, the team is always watching the sponsor to see how they should behave. If you want them to be accountable for the project, then you need to be accountable first.

One critical way to demonstrate accountability is to measure the progress of the initiative. There should be ample metrics around your strategic initiatives and projects and they should be both operational in nature and outcome-based. Operational metrics measure how things are going with the process (the actual project itself). Examples would be measuring the time it is taking to complete the project, the money being spent versus the allowable budget, etc. Outcome metrics, on the other hand, measure the true results of your project efforts. Examples would be increased quotes, increased revenue, lower technology costs, improved customer satisfaction, etc. While you have to carefully watch both types of metrics, make sure you are keenly focused on outcome metrics. The project can be on time and on budget all day long, but if the effort doesn’t deliver the expected return, then your efforts were wasted.

Finally, a few words on being “decisive”. During any major initiative, large and small decisions will come up every day, and the sponsor can’t make all of them. So, it’s important at the outset to create a decision-framework so the team is clear about what they can decide on, and which decision needs to go to the sponsor. In addition, there will also be decisions, such as additional funding, that may be beyond the sponsor’s authority. The team needs to understand the entire framework so they can act responsibly and efficiently. When it is the sponsor’s time to decide, he/she needs to act swiftly. The sponsor cannot become a bottleneck for the team. That’s not to say decisions should be made without the appropriate information being presented, but the sponsor must also recognize that the team needs clear (and often quick) direction. Pondering decisions unnecessarily will not only set the team back in terms of timing, but it will also signal to them that they can be indecisive as well.

So, to wrap up, the role of the executive sponsor in any project or initiative is a critical one; perhaps the most critical one of all. Problems arise, however, when sponsors are not ready to take on the responsibilities that go with the role. If you are an executive sponsor, remember that your team follows your lead, you need to have their backs, and you must to be accountable and decisive.

Written by Ray DiDonna, Vice President and COO, mL3 global life

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Tags: Thought Leadership