What Does It Mean to Be an Executive Sponsor?

Change doesn’t stick without solid executive sponsorship. Projects fail when there’s no visible leader who provides strategic direction, ownership, authority, credibility, resources, coaching or defense against organizational resistance. The most effective executive sponsors treat their project as an extension of themselves.

While the project leader/project manager is also a critical role, executive sponsorship is different. Harvard Business Review contrasts a project leader as the one who focuses on the tactical day-to-day execution, while the executive sponsor provides strategic direction, commitment and the conditions to ensure success.

Don’t assume your executive sponsor inherently knows how to be successful in the role. A project sponsor once confided to me, “I didn’t realize how critical my role was beyond securing resources and kicking off the initiative. It wasn’t until I started seeing and hearing all the push-back for the change did I understand that I had to be more strategic and involved.”

If your project is experiencing a void of executive sponsorship, is it because the sponsor:

  • Does not see the change as a priority?
  • Fails to remain visible and engaged throughout the project?
  • Was not actively involved in the project from the beginning and doesn’t understand the background and issues?
  • Does not demonstrate support for the project in words and actions?
  • Is not effectively communicating about the need for change and the risks of not changing?
  • Is unclear about what it means to be a sponsor?

One team I work with created an “Executive Sponsor Contract.” At the beginning of every project, the project leadership team sits down with the executive sponsor and uses the contract to discuss 1) expectations, 2) what they need from the sponsor and each other, 3) the consequences of invisible sponsorship and 4) what the team will do to make the sponsor’s job easier.

Sample Executive Sponsor Contract

As Executive Sponsor, our project needs you to:

  • Consistently and clearly communicate how the change supports the business strategy, and why the change is necessary
  • Endorse the business case for change through words and actions – especially when resistance and risks arise
  • Hold self and others accountable for implementing the change and adopting the required behaviors to sustain the change
  • Understand how the change will be viewed by ALL levels of the organization
  • Make timely decisions so momentum does not stall
  • Commit the necessary resources to support the change

Executive sponsors bear much of the responsibility for successful change. What can we do to help them continue to be more visible, engaged and effective?

Marta Steele is a partner at PeopleResults. Connect with her on Twitter @MartaSteele.