Every business improvement initiative needs Executive Sponsorship because every improvement initiative involves change. To effect the change you will need resources, decisions, insights, influence and leadership, however, the big question is “What is the Executive Sponsor actually supposed to do?” Don’t make the assumption that this additional role is hardwired into their DNA and don’t assume they will ask if they are not sure. If you get an experienced sponsor with a track record of success then you are well on your way. If you get a sponsor who is too time poor, doesn’t fully understand the real benefits of the initiative, has a personal point to prove or overestimates their real understanding, then beware.
Executive buy-in has long been recognised as an essential component for the success of any significant program or initiative within an organisation. While most initiatives have an Executive Sponsor, how the role is performed varies significantly. Is the sponsor part of the team or part of governance? How actively involved should they be? Is it the role of the Executive Sponsor to work both up and down the organisation to preserve peer and organisational commitment? How well should they understand the initiative, as well as influence staff motivation, to pursue the benefits that are expected from the initiative: doing so productively and effectively? This post is for anyone who has the responsibility to make an improvement initiative work.
The Executive Sponsor is rarely the CEO and usually a direct report or at the next level down, depending on the significance of the improvement initiative. Consider the following:
- Imagine an organisation that has 25 regional entities, operating under the leadership of individual CEOs. There is a need to unify the management of certain assets, and doing so will deliver significant improvements in effectiveness and efficiency across the group. Unfortunately, the group CEO has indicated that they don’t want to over ride local authority and dictate the adoption of the new approach. What is the Executive Sponsor to do? Clearly influence and selling the potential benefits is uppermost to get the buy-in of your peers. Active engagement, communicating in a tailored way to ensure that people can comprehend what is being asked of them and not forcing them to fill in the gaps themselves. This requires preparation, understanding of the situation to be addressed and a team approach to demonstrate collaboration and depth in understanding.
- Now imagine an organisation where the most senior executive is a micro manager, inspecting every step, such that people can’t move without approval. How can the Executive Sponsor ensure that the change initiative progresses in a timely and productive manner? Here the focus could be on consistent performance, frequency of progress communication, benefits being realised and the next steps. You need the regular updates, you need to be proactive and you need to establish trust and confidence to take bigger steps.
Obviously, these are two extremes, with significant challenge, but they do also emphasise the importance of having the right person in place to be the Executive Sponsor. In our experience, there are 6 essential parts to the role of the Executive Sponsor:
- Be the leadership face of the initiative, providing visible and active support for the initiative and its success;
- Ensure the resources needed are available: the financial investments; human resources; and customer focus; all being essential for the success of the initiative;
- Understand what the change represents as an improvement for the organisation and what the successful outcome looks like. What will it do for the organisation?;
- Maintain the commitment of executive peers and above to the success of the initiative;
- Frame decision making and governance;
- Communicate benefits and understand the emerging factors that might impact the initiative.
Any activity that seeks to vary work practices, behaviours, and processes requires an Executive Sponsor who can clear away issues, roadblocks or problems and who has a sound understanding of what is being changed and why it will improve the outcomes expected by all other stakeholders. The Executive Sponsor needs to be organisationally credible, a problem solver, well rounded, a good communicator and a leader.
There are 6 things that an Executive Sponsor has to produce if an improvement initiative is to be successful:
- Timely decisions
- Managed scope
- Adequate resourcing
- Issues and roadblocks resolved
- A consistent approach to accountability, both personally and within the whole team
- Engaged communication and recognition of outstanding work.
Understanding the improvement initiative through the eyes of your customers is what matters most for both the sponsor and the improvement team. The realpolitik of most organisations is that consensus around this and other points will need to be built. There is not doubt that an improvement initiative team will suffer if the Executive Sponsor is unclear on what is to be delivered, does not understand the benefits or shares accountability for the same outcome with other peers. There are strong opinions at the senior levels, hard heads and agendas, so having the right person in place for the role of Executive Sponsor is critical.