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Sponsorship: the key to success in change management

May 3, 2021
Cristian Viguera
Sponsorship: the key to success in change management

At a high level, change management defines, integrates and facilitates the adoption and use of specific skills by all employees of an organization. This includes both technical (design, development, delivery) and human (buy-in, adoption, use) aspects. In this context, leaders must first take ownership of the changes themselves and set an example. Then, they must put their weight behind the changes to encourage internal buy-in. Good change management includes processes, culture, employees, managers, etc. in order to put in place a dynamic driven by and for people. It is a matter of preparing, equipping and supporting employees in the journey that will be theirs during the change that the company is experiencing.

The sponsor can be the one who makes the link between all these elements, thus ensuring the adoption and maintenance of change.

Project management vs. change management

Project management focuses on the technical aspects of a project, such as respecting the budget, schedule, requirements and risks. Whereas change management articulates how to support and accompany the transition on the human side of the organization. The two are different, but both are linked, even interdependent: there is no change management in a vacuum. It must always be associated with an organizational project with a defined scope. Change management should therefore always be linked to the expected results of the project, in terms of benefits and ROI.

A sponsor? Which sponsor?

Although sponsorship is the most important success factor for organizational change, it is too often neglected. This explains, at least in part, why so many change management projects fail, or do not achieve the desired results.

Very often it is the leader (or a member of the management team) who is called upon to play the role of sponsor, without it being clearly defined what is expected of him or her! This paradox is all the more incomprehensible given that one of the essential functions of the sponsor is to federate the adoption of change, to encourage his troops to adhere to it, to use it and ultimately to master it.

How do you do this well when you don't know the rules of the game? The answer is simple: you can't. That's why we still see sponsors who simply make an announcement at the beginning of the project and a thank you note at the end. And if the change was well implemented despite their lack of involvement, it is because there was a substitute sponsor or a team that knew how to "catch balls" on the fly...

There are 3 main reasons for sponsorship failures:

  1. Too much change: if the sponsor is involved in many change projects, prioritization can quickly become a risk factor. If the sponsor offers reduced availability, his or her involvement will be fragmented, thus diminishing the effectiveness of the project. As a result, the project is no longer as high a priority among organizational decision-makers.
  2. Lack of knowledge of the role: the sponsor thinks that his role is mainly figurative and that he is not expected to be concretely involved in the project.
  3. Lack of knowledge: Being a good manager does not mean that one will be a good sponsor, with the necessary skills from the start. Many sponsors will need support and coaching.

If you have any doubts, here is the data issued by PROSCI in 2020 on the direct link between Sponsor Involvement and Goals Achieved.

Prosci - Best practices in change management

Does the ideal sponsor exist?

Being an ideal sponsor can be summarized in 3 key elements:

1. Be active throughout the project:

Be visible throughout the process, at all levels of the company, and be aware of the progress and issues, thus able to help resolve them. He or she must be the best representative of the change and, as such, able to allocate the necessary budgets and/or resources. It's a question of credibility.

This is where the Momentum for Change begins and must be maintained to the end.

2. Build an internal alliance

Change can be vast in an organization, and therefore prone to failure. Successful sponsors are those who have built (more or less) informal relationships with their peers and senior management, so that they can help them in their process. Especially since they too will live with the change or be impacted during its implementation. This coalition work implies that the sponsor will have to promote and legitimize the "WHY" of the change so that it is prioritized by the organization. In concrete terms, the sponsor will be involved in the communication rounds, in the continuous alignment of mitigation activities and in the management of resistance that may generate obstacles to the success of the project. By mobilizing key managers, he or she turns them into promoters supporting "the cause".

The sponsor must be able to rely on his or her interpersonal skills to forge these links with the stakeholders concerned, often behind the scenes. It is important that he or she is able to do this, as these sponsors will complement his or her contribution in their respective parts of the organization. Building this alliance is the most difficult part of sponsorship. There are some steps that can help with this:

a. Presenting the case
The sponsor must offer the managers he or she wants to "recruit" an explicit case, based on facts, data and expected results (benefits, issues of not changing, etc.).

b. Adapting to the reality of the person you are dealing with
Not all managers are familiar with the concepts of change management. It is up to the sponsor to be clear and limpid and to integrate the reality of the person he or she wants to convince into his or her speech and therefore to adopt the operational language of the person he or she is talking to (for one person, it will be a matter of emphasizing the strategic approach, for another the gain in skills, for a third the competitive advantage, etc.).

c. Building an alliance diagram
Starting from the company's organizational chart, it is possible to identify the departments affected, their level of support, the areas of risk... and the measures to be taken accordingly.

d. Remind them of their role and responsibilities
The sponsor is normally aware of the importance of his or her role and is therefore usually committed to carrying out the assignment. However, he or she may not know what this entails in concrete terms. It is important to take the time to explain the role of the sponsor in the implementation of the change and therefore in the performance of the company.

e. Coaching the mentor
Occasional coaching sessions can help transform the knowledge of change management acquired by the sponsor into real skills to lead the change and into measurable action.

3. Communicate frequently:

From the beginning and regularly throughout the process, so that everyone is aware of the victories as well as the challenges. Communicating well also means taking care beforehand to identify the key recipients, the most appropriate communication channels and the optimal rhythm of the messages. The model sponsor is the one who will be able to communicate (and live) in a convincing and sustained way the following points

  • Why change?
  • Why now
  • What will happen if we don't change

I support the change (ideally with passion)
All of these components together will result in an ideal sponsor, who displays qualities that are also reminiscent of those attributed to leadership...

Today's leaders must rely on a developed emotional intelligence. It allows them to have a better understanding of their emotions, to control their behavior and to step back from their impulses. Their emotional intelligence also allows them to have a better understanding of the emotions of others and how they act.

The bond of trust... so delicate to maintain

The sponsor's ability to build and lead a supportive coalition depends on his or her ability to build and maintain trust with other leaders in the organization. Without this trust, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to create the necessary collaborative opportunities. Nor will it be possible to ensure a smooth rollout that confirms the expected benefits that have been communicated to the various stakeholders.


While there probably isn't a perfect sponsor in the company with all the ideal characteristics and necessary skills... it is possible to come close with the elements mentioned above: active in the project, able to build relationships internally, and communicates appropriately. This underlines the importance of interpersonal skills and the ability to influence, inspire and legitimize the change project with the entire organization.

This is the adventure that change management embarks on during transformation projects, with the commitment of sponsors, a neuralgic component of the bond of trust between employees and organizational change.

To learn more about this:

Change Management: A Methodical Approach to Optimize Your Transformation Projects


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To learn more about our new services or to talk to us about your skills development needs, contact Cyrielle Renard at 514-380-8237 or by email: crenard@technologia.ca.

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