Episode #06

Sponsoring Transformation: The Leader’s Job

with Dr. Linda Ackerman Anderson

So often we consultants and classic project managers struggle with getting the attention of the senior leader who has initiated a major change effort we are supporting. 

Today’s question asks this directly. Senior leaders are busy and often distracted with too many demands. The absence of their attention can be very costly to the project’s process and outcomes.  

This episode explores the importance of senior leaders recognizing and committing to become true project sponsors who proactively lead, set up the effort for success and engage in ways that directly support it to achieve sustained results for the organization. 

Yes, it takes more time and attention, and the benefit to the organization when results are achieved is well worth it to the conscious change leader. We will discuss the process of getting a leader’s attention and ten key responsibilities of an effective sponsor of transformational change. Come discover how you can initiate this development in your leaders and reap the benefits for change results.

Guest Question from Margaret Smith, Independent, Organization Development & Change Consultant, Portland, Oregon

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Video of Episode


04:19 – 07:06

Welcome to Ask Dr. Change.

07:22 – 10:03

I’m Dr. Linda Ackerman Anderson.

10:15 – 17:07

I’m happy to have you join me today to explore how to seriously up level your leadership and consulting

17:13 – 19:06

to transformational changes

19:17 – 22:03

all through conscious change leadership.

23:23 – 43:05

Today’s podcast is about sponsoring transformation. This is really the leaders job when initiating a change effort in the organization. So we have a question today that surfaced this issue beautifully from Margaret Smith, an independent consultant.

43:05 – 01:13:08

Hi Linda, it’s Margaret Smith, in Portland Oregon and my question for you is, “How do we get change leaders to spend more time being active and visible, enabling the change with their people? ” So often, leaders are bogged down with emails, reports, and meetings.” Thanks!

01:13:08 – 01:43:01

Well, thank you, Margaret. It’s a beautiful setup for the issue of generating good sponsorship for transformational change or any major change that you are initiating or supporting in the organization. My first question is a beautiful example of the distinction between good sponsorship and a leader who has delegated to a project team and in many ways wiped his or her or their hands of the issue.

01:43:03 – 01:51:02

Well, the cost to the change effort, the cost to the results is palpable. So we’re going to talk about

01:51:02 – 02:12:17

how to secure sponsorship. It happens long before you’re in the midst of a project. It really goes back to leaders recognizing the need for them to be good sponsors and how to generate the skills, the capacity, the time and the mindset about making sponsorship important.

02:12:19 – 02:38:20

So how do we secure sponsorship? How do we raise the issue that this is something the leaders need to seriously take on? How do we identify the data that demonstrates the cost to not only the project’s process but its results? So generating data about the potential harm in the absence of sponsorship is really important. Maybe you do an assessment.

02:38:20 – 03:08:23

Certainly you would need to get an agreement to do this. You do some kind of an assessment that generates the patterns of absence of sponsorship and the cost to the organization and to the change effort. Of course, how do we generate data that becomes personally important to the leaders that we are supporting? So the design of the data you seek has to be in the currency that leaders would pay attention.

03:09:01 – 03:34:19

One critical question I like to ask you at the initiation of a change effort is how does the sponsor, does the project leader want to be seen by the organization and their stakeholders? How do they want to show up in the change so people find them credible? The stakeholders believe that they are supporting the effort and they’re actually creating conditions for its success.

03:34:21 – 03:46:22

Today we’re going to talk about what is required of sponsors, what their role is. It’s important in the outset to identify the benefits that are required.

03:46:22 – 04:04:12

So how could we identify the benefits of good sponsorship? We’re talking about creating a smooth launch so that there are clear authorities, good governance. Everyone understands their role and how the process of the project will be created.

04:04:14 – 04:34:19

It also supports sponsors to stay current, so they’re never blindsided or surprised by things that are going on in the project or the organization. It also supports rapid course correction. No project ever goes according to plan. So how do we set up a system which I’ll talk a little bit about for rapid surfacing of critical strategic issues so we can rapidly course correct them.

04:34:21 – 05:06:11

Good sponsorship leads to leadership credibility through them being more visible and modeling what they’re asking of the organization. I’m hinting at a variety of the responsibilities of good sponsors, which we’ll get to shortly. Another benefit acceleration of of results, acceleration of the process. And above and beyond that, less redos, which are so costly to the organization when sponsors are staying on top of and engaged in what’s happening.

05:06:11 – 05:14:05

Bottom line benefit better and more sustainable results. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that.

05:14:05 – 05:34:03

So once we spell out the benefits and requirements, we have data generating the need for good sponsorship in an organization, then we would need to contract for supporting the sponsorship relationship. Those of us that are consultants or coaches or even change leaders inside the organization,

05:34:03 – 06:08:03

How can we create their agreement to be developing these capabilities and demonstrating them into in the organization? And over time, how could we get their agreement for interacting with us? So like Margaret suggested, it’s hard to get their attention. Well, with an open contract, an agreeable contract to regularly meet with them about what’s happening in the change effort or what’s needed from them to support the change effort that’s essential to get agreement on.

06:08:05 – 06:39:03

And then we would design start up if there’s training required or coaching required or whatever is needed to actually get sponsorship started up. Maybe it’s a soft launch, maybe it is. You know, everybody all the key change leaders in the organization undergo some kind of sponsorship training. It also may mean an assessment which might be part of your data generation of current sponsorship practices or the absence thereof.

06:39:05 – 07:05:02

I’m about to go through about ten major areas of sponsorship responsibilities and requirements. Maybe these are areas for you to assess. Do your change leaders? Do your sponsors currently participate in at these major areas of responsibility? So this is a lot of information I’m about to share with you. Pay particular attention

07:05:02 – 07:12:18

to whether or not your change leaders, your sponsors, do any of these critical responsibilities.

07:12:20 – 07:46:12

Do they need to do all of them? No. But any advance into any of these areas would be helpful to the results being achieved. So let me begin by the first responsibility, which is clarifying, compelling, desired outcomes for the change effort, securing a positive and clear launch and generating an accurate scope. So desired outcomes need to really be meaningful and relevant to the organization and to the stakeholders.

07:46:14 – 08:16:03

Maybe your desired outcomes are organizational technique scale. I would recommend they also be cultural, behavioral and actually addressing mindset in the organization. And how do we make these compelling? This is what the future will look like when we are successful. Sponsors also need to ensure that a viable change strategy is developed so that there’s good governance. Clear decision.

08:16:03 – 08:35:00

Authorities. The right people are on the project team and supporting it, and there’s an actual accurate scope for the change that is both organizational and cultural. This is an important shift expansion of leaders mindsets about scope.

08:35:00 – 08:44:16

Now, do the sponsors need to do all of that? No. They need to create the conditions so that all of this work is done for a smooth launch.

08:44:18 – 09:15:14

So they oversee launch to ensure that it is. The project is set up for success with a realistic process map and timing, which at big at the beginning everyone is saying, Yeah, great, let’s go for it. But is it realistic to what the organization can tolerate? I’ll talk a little bit more about that. And lastly, for this area of responsibility, sponsors need to make the desired outcomes relevant to their key stakeholders.

09:15:16 – 09:44:20

They’re not doing it to stakeholder ears. They’re doing it with stakeholders. And we want stakeholders to realize, wow, there’s benefit in this. For me, there’s benefit in this for the future of the organization. I see why we need to go in this direction. That’s the ideal for sponsors to create. The next area of responsibility is to champion and spearhead the change so they are actually visible.

09:44:22 – 10:14:13

They need to demonstrate that achieving the results of the change effort are priority and more priority than achieving a timeline. I’m going to talk a little bit about this later. Time seems to be a major driver of so much of what happens in projects versus quality results. And so we’ll talk a little bit more about that. Sponsors need to reinforce the priority and staying power of the project.

10:14:15 – 10:47:14

They need to demonstrate that the project will receive required attention and resources over the course of its life. So one of the critical things is that they ensure that the project is designed consciously to minimize negative impacts on stakeholder years. That’s a part of what a champion does. I want this to be successful. I wanted to have minimum negative effect on you, and I’m consciously designing it to do that.

10:47:16 – 11:21:03

They also need to ensure that stakeholders can build the capability to succeed in the project. Again, they’re not doing this. They’re asking the project team in their change, strategy and process plan to deliver stakeholder capability early on. Sponsors need to secure their peers, their leaders support and ensure alignment. Now, this is particularly true when there’s a large scale transformation that affects most leaders in the organization.

11:21:05 – 11:50:09

And so what we’re attempting to do here is to get leaders brief about the outcomes and how the outcomes serve the overall strategy for the organization, not just self-serving to an individual leader, although it may be serving a part of the organization, the division, and then securing alignment of those leaders. Now, this goes well beyond the head nod, which I typically call the empty head nod.

11:50:11 – 12:26:05

Alignment requires leaders to agree to play a change leadership role and contribute what is required of them personally and also of their people. We’ll talk a little bit more about that. There need to be mechanisms put in place to also consciously manage the interface of the change with ongoing operations and other projects that will help peer leadership alignment that they recognize there’s an impact on their work based supporting this change effort.

12:26:07 – 13:12

But over and above all of that, it supports the success of the organization. And so mechanisms need to drive a smooth interface. Now, part of what I’ve been describing is sponsors setting up conditions for success. We’ve done a whole podcast on conditions for success really worth your time and attention. So sponsors need to ask that and then support conditions and factors that have to be known from the beginning so that the project can succeed.

13:14 – 13:46:00

So if you think back on your history with this organization, what are the kinds of things that must be in place for the change effort to be successful? Is it resources? Is it timing? Is it attention? Is it communications? What has to be in place for this to work? So we consciously go after identifying them, communicating them, really establishing them in the organization, and then the sponsor modeling their support of the conditions for success over time, if adjustments need to be made, we make adjustments because even conditions for success might not be able to be fulfilled throughout the life cycle of the change effort.

13:46:02 – 14:17:09

So sponsors need to stay on top. Are we set up for success? Doing so adds enormously to their credibility. It becomes obvious that the sponsor is really invested in this change effort, working so to do so, one of the most important conditions for success is committing adequate resources. And part of that is truly understanding the full scope of the change that requires resources.

14:17:11 – 14:47:05

And so resources might be budget people, technology, their time and attention. There could be all kinds of things that are necessary to support the change effort. Sponsors also need to adjust resources up and down as required because they’re staying in touch with what’s needed in the organization for the change effort to succeed. So providing resources is also an adjustable strategy.

14:47:07 – 15:20:11

One of the most important things is sponsors supporting project teams to be staffed with the best people. Now, that’s not just the content experts, which is very typical. It’s also change leadership skill project management, change management process design, certainly the content expertise, but also how about expertise and stakeholder engagement strategies in culture change in change communications that really compel people to understand and invest.

15:20:13 – 15:49:05

All of these skills need to be in one way or another, embedded in your project plan. And the sponsor can ask for that. The sponsor also needs to monitor or be informed about resources that are actually matching the need over time, because, again, it fluctuates. And so adjusting resources in real time. Very powerful symbol message to the organization.

15:49:06 – 16:20:01

The one other thing I would say is that sponsors are holding other leaders accountable to provide their people and resources that are required of them. So one of the most important issues in change is capacity. So sponsors need to support the freeing up of capacity, adequate time and attention for the change effort. And that includes a realistic pace and timeline.

16:20:03 – 16:48:16

What this requires is reprioritizing operational goals so other leaders are not back against the wall about I can’t support the change effort because my people have too much work to do. It’s about creating capacity by readjusting goals that support the length of time of the project. Maybe they stop some work, maybe they modify scope or pace for the full lifecycle of the change.

16:48:18 – 17:15:06

They may also support the reprioritizing of workloads of the stakeholders of the people and the project team members who may need to devote time for designing and implementing and overseeing the change, as well as the stakeholders who must adopt it and make it work in real time. So really stick pace, realistic timeline given the resources and capacity that are available.

17:15:12 – 17:39:21

Really essential. This is a consciousness strategy. Instead of overlaying do all of this on top of everything that you do and as fast as possible. As much as leaders would love that to be true. Reality says it can’t be. And so resources and capacity need to be assessed and supported to make the space for the project.

17:39:21 – 17:49:13

Now, one of the most important areas for sponsors to recognize is the need to address culture, behavior and mindset as

17:49:13 – 18:12:00

direct part of their scope of change. They need to acknowledge the need for culture change, behavior change and mindset change not only in leadership, but of the organization and in particular their stakeholders and how important it is to sustainable results to be able to address culture, behavior and mindset.

18:12:06 – 18:19:08

They need to actively engage themselves to model what they’re asking of the organization.

18:19:08 – 18:39:12

They also need to ensure that their executives, their peers and their project cleanup teams are clear about the organizational culture and people changes that are required so that that gets embedded into change efforts into the project plan and scope from the very beginning.

18:39:14 – 18:40:19


18:40:19 – 19:14:14

the content part and the people part, the cultural part in the project plan really essential from the start. And lastly, asking that the projects, strategy and process plan model the desired culture to the degree that’s possible. Let’s say the project is also supporting becoming more people, becoming more empowered to make decisions at a lower level. Well, heaven forbid the project is making all of their decisions and mandating all of that to the stakeholders.

19:14:16 – 19:48:23

That’s a direct conflict of the desired culture of empowerment of your stakeholders. So ensuring that the project plan is designed in such a way to further the change in culture. Now sponsors need to monitor what’s going on and be able to rapidly course correct. Now, most project managers will tell you we have an issue tracking process and that takes care of adjustments that are needed while this is a higher level, a more strategic level of what I’m talking about.

19:49:01 – 20:28:23

We need reporting mechanisms so that sponsors stay informed about design and implementation, about how stakeholders are doing, about changes in culture, behavior and mindset. So maybe that’s a regular agenda item. When project leaders are meeting with their sponsors or their a change leadership team is meeting, how are we doing around all of these different things? In addition, we strongly recommend a formal course correction system where leaders have the opportunity to receive early warning signals.

20:29:01 – 20:58:12

Now, what this means is that they need to set the expectation in the organization that early warning signals might be surfaced. Indicators for course, correction might be surfaced and they have a place to go. It isn’t just rumors. It isn’t just backtalk. It really is invited from anywhere in the organization. Now, that’s pretty new for most organizations. So an indicator, for course, correction has a place to land change leaders.

20:58:12 – 21:26:13

Project leaders have an opportunity to address it, to look at it up, put it up upstairs to the sponsor or the change leadership team if it’s a strategic navigation issue so that it can be addressed quickly. Sponsors also need to hold their change leaders accountable for fulfilling their agreements all the way until results. This is a course correction strategy because most leaders, they’re busy people.

21:26:19 – 21:39:19

They want to get on with their own work, but they’ve made an aligned agreement to play a change leadership role. So sponsors keep that their feet to the fire, so to speak, holding them accountable

21:39:19 – 21:42:23

to support the results of the change effort.

21:42:23 – 22:05:01

Now, sponsors also need to ensure effective stakeholder engagement and good communications. So first up is sponsors and the project team identifying all of the stakeholders that are impacted by this change effort with the context of how do we minimize negative impact on them.

22:05:03 – 22:07:16

Now, many change efforts will have some

22:07:16 – 22:29:05

negative impact on stakeholders. There’s no, you know, no way to get around that for many of them. How do we make it less painful? How do we support them? Maybe it’s our policies, maybe we support them to land on their feet when they are taken out of a job or giving them extra training or whatever the support mechanism says.

22:29:09 – 22:59:10

We’re attempting to minimize the negative impact on stakeholders. Then we need to ensure that stakeholders fully understand the case for change, the vision and the change strategy. So we’re really have the hearts and minds of our stakeholders in mind as we’re planning our change process. They need to be engaged early and often now. Many project plans say, will communicate to stakeholders.

22:59:12 – 23:40:01

After we’ve figured out the design that we’re going to ask them to carry out, well, there are so many earlier possibilities for engaging stakeholder leaders in understanding the case, shaping the scope, coming up with design requirements, maybe even participating in envisioning an ideal future state that could actually work for them so early and often. Engagement is important, and then most important for stakeholders is to listen to the issues that stakeholders are having and respond compassionately to their issues.

23:40:02 – 24:04:18

These are real for them. We want them to turn whatever resistance they have into commitment. How do we best do that? We’re not going to solve all their problems. We’re not going to take away all the fear and pain. But listening and responding compassionately is really important to support them, to stay in the boat so they can contribute most positively.

24:04:20 – 24:32:18

The last major area I want to talk about is that sponsors need to remain actively engaged and visible. So what does that look like? Them seeking out issues concerns circum stances, decisions that impact the change. Maybe things are happening around the project that they can influence or they learn about and they communicate with the project team. We need to make this adjustment.

24:32:20 – 25:01:18

They’re actively there in a proactive mode rather than a reactive mode. Major part of their responsibility is to remove organizational barriers and political barriers and help resolve them to keep conflicts and momentum going in the change effort and of course, participating in critical change tasks that are requested of them. Now, most sponsors don’t know all the things they need to be doing.

25:01:23 – 25:03:07

So we as change

25:03:07 – 25:35:03

coaches, change consultants and project leaders can, if we have the relationships set up, coach them when they need to communicate how they need to communicate. Participation in engagement strategies with stakeholders. Certainly rapid course correction, especially for strategic issues, modeling the culture changes, behavior and mindset needed for the future state to sustain. And then, of course, participation in celebrations of the good work done.

25:35:08 – 25:40:16

The time and attention spent to create sustainable results.

25:40:16 – 26:20:23

So pro tip for today. It’s about making the invisible visible. How do we go about raising the data, generating feedback that allow leaders to recognize something that’s going on that you feel others feel but nobody talks about? And that has a direct impact on the success of the change effort. So what we’re after here is finding ways to constructively in a non blaming, non shaming way to get leaders attention that something is happening here that needs conscious attention.

26:21:01 – 26:36:06

So it’s bringing things from the unconscious to the conscious in a way that leaders can positively then address it. So what strategies could you use to make the invisible visible?

26:36:06 – 27:01:21

My personal reflection for you today is generating the courage to hold the mirror up to the leaders that you serve. Now, if you’re an executive coach, you likely already have this ability to give feedback, to shine a light where leaders may not be seeing how their actually impacting others or participating in dynamics that are hard for the organization.

27:01:23 – 27:19:17

If you’re not in that role, how do you generate the kind of relationship, the language, the set up, the context to be able to get your leaders attention, that they need to be doing something different than they already are? Again, it’s about making the

27:19:17 – 27:46:01

invisible visible. And so what we’re after here is you reflecting on how can you be a stronger contributor by being able to provide the kind of feedback that will enable your leaders to course correct themselves of their own mindset and behavior so that they can have a more positive impact on others and certainly on the projects they hope will be successful.

27:46:01 – 28:07:01

So I’ve talked about a lot of things that sponsors can do need to do. And again, a lot of it is new for sponsors. So do they need to do all of this? No. Any of these ten areas will support the success of the change effort, but teaching them about good sponsorship.

28:07:06 – 28:44:18

Having them claim I am a transformational sponsor and I understand my role. This is essential, especially at startup or before startup, so they know what’s going to be required of them when they launch a major change effort. Now, I would assume you’re calibrating all of this information to the appropriate magnitude of the changes you’re working on. And if you’re well into a change effort, it’s still an opportunity to raise some data and have a change leader play a more proactive, visible role.

28:44:20 – 29:17:11

I always assume that there’s room for a stretch for candid communication, for feedback, and the opportunity to support leaders, to support the success of the work they’re asking of the organization. So transfer occasional sponsors. The leaders Real role in change. So given Margaret’s question, how do we get their attention? How do we get them them to participate? Any of these strategies will support your success.

29:17:13 – 29:27:20

I hope you’ll be able to take them seriously. Generate some data, get the attention of your leaders, and create a sponsorship development strategy.

29:30:18 – 29:43:08

Thanks for spending some time with me today. I hope you gain some valuable insights for your work. Please send me your questions and challenges by going to askdrchange.com


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