Change management sponsors are the executives or senior leaders with authority to drive change forward in an organization. Active and visible sponsorship tops the list of key contributors to successful change initiatives, according to Prosci, a global leader in change management. Prosci has studied these contributors in all 11 editions of its Best Practices in Change Management report, and sponsorship came out on top in every single one. Sponsorship is so important that it beat out the second contributor (a structured change management approach) by a 4:1 margin in the most recent report.
We cannot overstate the role change management sponsors play in effectively managing change in organizations. They are responsible for building support, enlisting help from other leaders and motivating change participants. Purposeful and consistent communication is the tool sponsors must use to provide context for the change and bring employees on board.
Employees and leaders are far more likely to engage in a change when they understand what it means to them and why it’s necessary. Ineffective sponsors often rush through change, failing to facilitate understanding and build support through frequent and clear communication.
Communication considerations for change management sponsors
Communication helps change management sponsors explain the vision for the change to create necessary buy-in. Sponsors that adopt the following communication practices can better articulate the why, what and so what of the change, increasing the chances that employees will understand and activate the behaviors needed for success.
1. Communicate the “why”
People, by nature, are resistant to change. They first need convincing that the change is important and worth the energy it will take to implement it. Prosci’s ADKAR model, Beehive’s change model of choice, identifies Awareness as the first phase of change. This phase requires organizations and sponsors to communicate early and often why a change is necessary, including what the risk is to the business and employees if they don’t change.
Sponsors that first embrace the change on a personal level can better predict potential employee resistance and use these insights to more effectively communicate why the desired change is necessary and worth the effort. Only after employees understand the reason for a change will they consider adopting it themselves.
2. Stay active and visible throughout the change
Change initiatives frequently fail because sponsors and leaders don’t stay committed to the change management process. Employees notice disengaged leaders and believe the change isn’t that important for them to pay attention to or adopt. They are more hesitant to get on board, sensing a lack of commitment and possibility the change won’t take root.
Change, supported by consistent and frequent communication, can take months or years to implement fully. The sponsor’s role extends far beyond logistical planning and announcing the change. They must stay engaged and committed, consistently communicating why the change is important and publicly modeling it through their own behavior and expectations.
3. Give employees a voice
Successful change happens only when individual people embrace change and alter their behavior. Employees are active, not passive, participants in change. Sponsors and leaders should identify critical feedback opportunities for employees during change initiatives. Common feedback and listening methods include surveys, town hall meetings, and dedicated email inboxes or online forms.
Most importantly, change management sponsors should listen and learn from employee input. Are there signs of change resistance in the organization that require more consistent and thorough communication to overcome? Do employees not understand how to implement a particular aspect of the change and need better training? Listening to employees is only the first step. Taking action on the input and insights promotes trust and creates a greater willingness among employees to adopt the change.
4. Enlist support from other people and project leaders
The change management sponsor alone cannot lead an organization through change. Other sponsors, people managers, project managers and change practitioners play critical supporting roles. Successful change requires engagement from all of these internal leaders to drive momentum, credibility and trust.
The Prosci Change Triangle (PCT) illustrates the interconnected roles of these leaders. The triangle defines roles, responsibilities and expectations for the three legs of change: Leadership/sponsorship, Project management and Change management. How effectively people managing these change functions collaborate with each other and communicate with employees determines the success of the change:
- Leadership/sponsorship: Responsible for defining and communicating the “Why” for the change
- Change management: Responsible for communicating with and engaging employees to ensure they have the information and resources needed to adopt the change
- Project management: Responsible for communicating with the other two disciplines on the progress of the technical side of the change
Prosci further defines five key roles of people managers: Communicator, Liaison, Advocate, Resistance Manager and Coach.
Prepare with a change management communication plan
Organizations can prepare for change by helping leaders understand their role and equipping the business with a change management methodology. Beehive aligns its change management communication planning with Prosci’s ADKAR model. Other popular models include Kotter’s Change Model, Lewin’s Change Management Model and the McKinsey 7-S Framework.
Change management communication plans should always begin with the following steps, regardless of which change model an organization uses:
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 — creating a healthy environment ready to take on the next change that comes its way.