Prosci research has consistently identified active and visible sponsorship as the number one success factor in major change initiatives for two decades. But once “COVID creep” began affecting our world and projects, we quickly moved from traditional work arrangements to integrating our professional and personal lives in surprising ways. How can leaders continue to fulfill the critical sponsor role in change, and even improve, in this strange new virtual world?

Adapting Leadership VIrtually

I feel very fortunate to work for a change-agile organization capable of quickly shifting to remote work functionality and successfully pivoting to virtual offerings. But as with any change, those successes need to be sustained, which takes effective leadership. As organizations around the world continue to adopt ongoing changes, leaders must do their jobs to sustain them. Lately, in my discussions with leaders across different industries and regions, I commonly hear: 

  • “How long can we sustain a virtual business environment and continue to grow?” 
  • “How can I help projects, programs and transformation continue to move forward successfully?” 
  • “How do I maintain engagement and continue to inspire the health and wellbeing of our people working remotely?” 

Although these leadership issues feel new in our blended personal and work-at-home world, the role of leadership remains the same. In Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking study, participants identified a consistent set of behaviors and competencies required for leaders in times of change, which we call the ABCs of Sponsorship: Actively and visibly participate, Build a coalition of sponsorship, and Communicate directly with employees.

The question here is not what leaders need to do today, but rather how to do it differently now that life and work are so closely intertwined. As a leader, sponsoring change initiatives won’t stop. Neither will leading and inspiring employees. This includes maintaining engagement and driving innovation—even more thanks to COVID-19—and simply being there for our people.

Steaming hot cup of coffeeVirtual leadership has never been so real and intimate. Connecting with employees means entering each other’s lives and homesour kitchens, home offices, dining tables, backyards, and even bedrooms. And of course, we’re all getting comfortable with random guest appearances from children, partners, dogs, cats, and my personal favorite: the floating coffee-cup-in-hand magically appearing in the speaker’s frame.

One-on-one meetings have evolved too. Conversations that used to focus solely on work now include plenty of personal commentary, such as “I read the same book you have on your bookshelf!” and “Your child is the same age as mine.” Ironically, given the distance between us, we have never connected and engaged so intimately with employees.

As leaders and sponsors, you can take advantage of this brave new virtual world we are living and operating in today. Here are a few ways to maximize the impacts of your leadership virtually:

1. Actively and visibly participate

Plan to connect via Zoom, Teams, Skype or other virtual conferencing platform during updates on projects, key events, milestones achieved, celebrations, training sessions, and team meetings to show your support and encouragement.

2. Build a coalition of sponsorship

Rotate the above activities mentioned with the executive and leadership team. Keep each other informed of the virtual appearances you have each done. Share insights, stories and experiences during employee drop-ins with colleagues (executive team), including feedback and responses received.

3. Communicate directly with employees

Businesswoman using mobile phone at her desk in the officeOffer greater flexibility and virtual reach for your employees in remote areas, across small groups, and for individuals by utilizing available mobile collaboration apps, in addition to the platforms you use on laptops and computers. Utilize chat discussions and available digital functions for posting messages people can read and respond to later when live connection is not possible.

Overcoming obstacles in virtual sponsorship

Just as with face-to-face sponsorship, the virtual environment can present sponsorship challenges. Fortunately, many issues can be resolved by making yourself available to the change team. In fact, Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking study shows the more access change practitioners have to their sponsor, the more effective they are.

Here are a few tips for sponsors who want to best leverage change practitioners:

  • Plan to make yourself available to provide input and feedback on your sponsor roadmap.
  • Include knowledge support time on of how best to utilize the digital platform, collaboration tools and activities to maximize employee engagement.
  • Provide input and feedback on talking points, scripts, activities, and how best to make your virtual impact a positive experience.
  • Do a “what worked well” and “even better if” exercise with your change practitioner to provide formal feedback and opportunities for improvement.
  • Ensure a sponsorship rotation for the executive team to make virtual appearances and participate in activities for employees. This adds to a shared experience and demonstrates an aligned sponsor coalition in action.

Humanizing leadership in a virtual world

Virtual platforms and added functionalities have dramatically evolved and forced us to adapt quickly with little planning. For many, the difficulty of this swift change and the circumstances around it will linger for a lifetime. But the technology has gifted leadership with unexpected new ways to not only reach employees and connect with them, but also to develop more meaningful connections by humanizing us beyond the confines of corporate office walls.

Sponsor Start-Up Checklist and Template

Written by
Joanne Rinaldi
Joanne Rinaldi

Joanne Rinaldi is a Master Instructor and Director of Service Delivery for the Prosci Australia-New Zealand team. A seasoned program facilitator, she also serves as a change advisor and leadership coach for clients who want to build organizational change capability. Joanne brings more than 20 years of experience with the people side of change to her work with organizations in several industries, including IT, insurance, healthcare, retail and government.