Change Management Christopher SmithMay 24, 2021

How to “Onboard” an Executive Sponsor into a New Project

How to “Onboard” an Executive Sponsor into a New Project

An executive sponsor who actively leads a project will exert a positive influence on that project’s direction, from improving project outcomes to reducing employee resistance.

Research from a number of firms, such as Cloudbakers and Prosci, for instance, has even shown that executive sponsorship is the biggest contributor to the success of organizational change projects.

It is important to note, however, that an executive sponsor cannot be a sponsor in name only, they must be proactive change leaders. This means staying visible and involved – but that is easier said than done.

Project leads, therefore, should work closely with sponsors to ensure that the sponsor is willing to commit and take a leadership role in the initiative.

Why Enlist the Support of an Executive Sponsor?

As mentioned, executive sponsorship is one of the top factors influencing a project’s success.

There are several reasons why:

  • Executive sponsors can provide resources and exposure at every level of the organization, which can have a number of positive effects, from reducing employee resistance to improving project visibility to boosting employee productivity
  • Sponsors help ensure that the project stays aligned with business goals, which can reduce the potential for outcomes that are irrelevant to the organization’s strategy
  • Having an executive in a leadership role improves support from other executives, or, at the very least, reduces the chance other executives will resist the project

On top of positively influencing a project’s outcomes, executives themselves also benefit from sponsoring a project. A successful project, for instance, can positively impact the organization, which boosts their own influence, improves their track record, and helps improve their standing with other executives. 

However, to actually have a positive impact on the project, it is important to cover a few bases.

Prerequisites to Sponsorship

There are several ways that an executive can help a project succeed, as we’ll see in the next section. But one of the most important prerequisites for success is ensuring that the sponsor is actually the right fit for the project.

After all, if the sponsor isn’t fully committed, their impact will be limited at best, or negative at worst.

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Does the project align with the sponsor’s needs and interests? Every sponsor has their own agenda. The more closely a project aligns with that agenda, the better. For instance, CIOs frequently lead digital transformation projects precisely because those projects align with their interests and their specialty. They would be less interested in projects outside their domain, such as organizational culture changes.
  • Is the sponsor willing to actively commit to the project? As mentioned, active leadership is essential. When discussing proposals with executives, it is important to ascertain whether they would be willing to actively play a role in the project or not. 
  • Does the executive have time? Executives are busy and they can only commit to so many projects at once. If they don’t have time to actually engage with an initiative, project advocates may want to consider other options – such as reducing the project scope or requesting support from other executives.
  • Is the executive willing to own the project? While all business initiatives are team efforts, sponsors bear a large portion of the responsibility for a project’s success. Since they will be representing the project when meeting with the C-suite, for instance, they will be held accountable for its results.

Questions such as these can help project leaders determine whether they are the right fit, whether they will proactively engage with a project, and, ultimately, whether the project will be successful or not.

Once the appropriate executive has been found, the next step is to ensure that they are willing to commit to a few specific activities in order to enhance the project’s outcomes.

How to “Onboard” Executives into a Sponsorship Role

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when an executive agrees to sponsor a project:

  • Align expectations. At the outset, it is crucial to be very thorough about the executive’s role and expectations. As with any project, ambiguity can lead to miscommunications, errors, and inefficiencies, or worse. 
  • Allocate responsibilities and resources. The entire project scope should be laid out in advance, along with resource requirements. Those resources can include funding, teams, time commitments, technology, and more.
  • Create a change team. A change team, or a “guiding coalition,” as it is called in the Kotter change model, is essential for leading change. This coalition will perform most of the project’s key tasks, one of which will be to report to and stay in continual contact with the sponsor.
  • Ensure the executive will actively represent the project. Visible change leadership means several things, as noted earlier. A sponsor should, among other things, communicate change to employees, educate stakeholders on the project’s value, maintain accountability among subordinates in the change project, and represent the project in executive meetings.

If sponsors make mistakes or fail to adhere to their commitment, then those problems can easily have a ripple effect on the rest of the project. Therefore, project managers and executive sponsors should ensure that they are fulfilling their roles to the best of their abilities.

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