Leaders are key to driving change in organizations. More specifically, the effectiveness of the primary sponsor can determine whether a change initiative sticks or fails. A primary sponsor is the leader responsible for moving a change forward within an organization and ensuring its success.
Prosci’s change methodology emphasizes the importance of a primary sponsor: “They give the change credibility, authorize funding and resources, and perform important employee-facing activities.”
Employees and other leaders rely on the primary sponsor to demonstrate why a change is necessary. How effectively a sponsor communicates and builds cross-functional momentum for the change can be the difference between change success or failure.
Research on change management backs up the significance of primary sponsors. Prosci has found visible sponsorship to be the top contributor to change success since Prosci began conducting its benchmarking studies in 1998. The most recent edition of the study also found a lack of executive support and sponsorship to be the biggest obstacle to success. No matter the angle you view it from, sponsorship matters.
The ABCs of change sponsorship
Not surprisingly, ineffective sponsors face more change resistance and stalled progress toward the desired outcome. To counteract this, Prosci identified the ABCs of sponsorship. This framework identifies the three most critical roles a sponsor plays when leading change in an organization.
1. Active and visible participation throughout the project
Change initiatives often fail because sponsors don’t stay committed to the change management process. Employees and other leaders are unlikely to buy into the change if they notice disengaged sponsors. They’ll sense a lack of commitment and hesitate to get onboard — possibly jeopardizing the success of the change.
The sponsor’s role extends far beyond planning and announcing the change. They need to stay tightly engaged to ensure the change achieves desired business outcomes. This involvement includes frequently communicating why the change is important and publicly modeling the change through their behavior and expectations. Change isn’t quick. Even when supported by consistent and frequent communication, it can take months or years to fully implement.
Change management activities, including the sponsor’s involvement, should start early and continue until the change has been widely adopted.
2. Build a coalition of sponsorship
A primary sponsor typically can’t lead a change to success by themselves. They need support. Employees value their relationships with their managers, and many employees prefer to hear important messages not just from senior executives but also from their managers.
Primary sponsors must build a coalition of other leaders, people managers, project managers and influential employees to advocate for the change. This coalition can help build momentum and credibility. It can also legitimize the importance of the change across cross-functional teams. We recommend reviewing the Prosci Change Triangle (PCT) to learn more about change leaders’ interconnected roles and responsibilities.
Manager-employee conversations during change are also an opportunity for people managers to deepen trust, loyalty and connection with their employees. This is especially true in work from anywhere and hybrid work environments where managers must more intentionally create opportunities for connection.
3. Communicate support and promote the change to impacted groups
Employees impacted by change first need to understand why a change is necessary before they’re likely to change their behavior. Communicating openly, clearly and consistently with employees is especially crucial during times of change.
Sponsors should keep communication at the forefront of every step of the change process and approach communication with flexibility. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to communication. Channel, format and timing will likely need to shift based on who’s receiving the message (e.g., other leaders, frontline employees, office workers, remote or hybrid workers).
It’s also essential that sponsors provide opportunities for employees to ask questions and provide input. Sponsors then need to acknowledge the input and explain how they plan to address it.
Beehive aligns its change management communication planning with Prosci’s ADKAR model (Awareness → Desire → Knowledge → Ability → Reinforcement). Regardless of which change model an organization uses, change management communication plans should always begin with the following steps:
- Learn, listen and agree on the strategic communication approach
- Understand the organization’s culture and assess its readiness for change
- Gather input from executive leaders and the core change project team
- Agree on the rationale — the “why” — for the change
- Audit existing communication channels and tools
Organizations that implement an effective change management communication plan with a change sponsor at its helm will experience greater success. This success creates a healthy environment that is ready to navigate the next change to come its way.
Leading change in an organization is no easy feat. Change sponsors will face obstacles, but adopting tools like Prosci’s ABCs of Sponsorship can increase the likelihood of change success. Sponsors must stay active and visible, backed by a coalition of support. They must communicate frequently to inspire teams to embrace the change.
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