Research demonstrates that sponsor engagement is the number one predictor of change management success. Yet, sponsors outrank change practitioners in organizational hierarchies, which can make them tough to access and even tougher to influence! As change practitioners, we can be daunted by the idea of approaching a project sponsor to offer and provide coaching—even when that coaching is exactly what the sponsor needs to be effective in their role. How can we confidently engage with sponsors to deliver the coaching necessary to ensure project success?
First, it helps to remember that sponsors are real people. They share your desire to deliver a successful project outcome and maximize adoption of a future state. That mutual goal is a great foundation for any sponsor dialogue you need to have. And equipping sponsors to perform their employee-facing roles successfully is a critical part of your job as a change practitioner.
Here are five actionable tactics, which I like to refer to as the 5 A’s of Fearless Engagement:
Sponsors often focus on the business outcomes of projects more than the people impacts, and that’s okay. It’s helpful to speak a common language that ties your outreach directly to business value. You can do this by reminding your sponsors of the people dependency of your project. Ask your sponsor what business results or ROI might not be realized without people adopting the future state. By level-setting around the business value of your request, you’ll get your sponsor’s immediate attention and action. This conversation is also a great opportunity to remind your sponsor that their engagement is highly correlated to the success of the project.
Due to our proximity to a project, we tend to arrive at insights that others, including our sponsor, have not. Rather than offering these insights to the sponsor directly, we can facilitate an exercise that helps the sponsor come to the same realization themselves. Visual tools can help, such as a visual that shows impacts and disruptions to customer or stakeholder journeys in a linear way. Another effective tool is an anonymous report-out of existing stakeholder sentiments. You can sort the sentiments into themes and remind your sponsor that the resistance you identified could put future-state adoption at risk. Finally, asking your sponsor questions that help you understand their primary motivations and requirements enables you to align your change recommendations to meet them.
Sponsors may advocate for projects with ambitious future states that will be hard for stakeholders to adopt outright. Sometimes, sponsors and teams have spent so much time looking at the finish line, they miss opportunities to improve stakeholder journeys. If you understand your sponsor’s requirements, you can develop a phased approach that enables easier journeys for impacted stakeholders. As the change practitioner, you’re in a great position to find creative pit stops that meet business and people needs.
Even though you are responsible for coaching the sponsor, you don’t need to prepare for the task alone. Leverage your team to validate what you need from the sponsor. Try discussing the matter with a respected team member. Or reflect team sentiments you have already heard to your sponsor as evidence for what you’re asking. You may be the one making a specific ask of your sponsor, but you’re not asking on your own behalf. You’re asking because it’s best for the team. It’s okay to bring their feedback and insights to the conversation.
We know stakeholders need to be told how to participate in a change. Your sponsor probably needs that same help to build their own knowledge and ability . If your sponsor has great intentions but doesn’t know how to get involved, you will miss out on the full value of their leadership. Your sponsor needs two kinds of information to be successful. First, they need to know what’s being asked of them immediately. Second, they need visibility into your entire plan, so they can understand how their participation adds value across the full timeline. Coaching your sponsor with immediate, actionable requests demonstrates respect for their time.
Are you leveraging the 5 A’s in your sponsor engagements? If not, it’s time to get fearless! Remember, your sponsor shares your goal of executing a project successfully and ensuring business results. Leverage these five tactics to prepare an approach that will inspire your sponsor and improve your change outcomes. By coaching and preparing your sponsor to be successful in their leadership role, you’re enabling everyone to achieve better outcomes—and that’s a future state no one needs to fear.
Kendra Modzelewski is a Prosci Change Advisor and former Change Manager at the Project Management Institute (PMI). Aligning leaders at the program and portfolio levels, Kendra delivers creative solutions that ensure benefits realization by facilitating successful change journeys for impacted people. As a change leader, she coaches and engages leaders, develops and implements change management strategies, builds and matures change management capabilities, and helps stakeholders at all levels understand how change impacts align with the organization’s goals.
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