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Executives and senior leaders provide the authority and credibility needed for a change to be successful. Whether the change involves new processes, new systems, new job roles or new organization structures senior leaders must be present to demonstrate the organization's  as well as their own commitment to the change.

Research on the Role of Executive Sponsors

Top contributor of success

When asked to identity the top contributor to success of their change, participants from Best Practices in Change Management - 2016 Edition identified active and visible executive sponsorship as number one on the list. Sponsorship was at the top of the list in all nine of Prosci's benchmarking reports. While much has changed in the field of change management over the last decade, the importance of sponsorship has remained constant.

The biggest obstacle to success

When asked to identify the biggest obstacle to success, participants in Best Practices report identified ineffective change sponsorship from senior leaders as their primary obstacle. Sponsors were inactive or invisible, not at the right level, not aligning other leaders around the change and wavering in their support. Ineffective sponsorship resulted in more resistance and slower progress for the effort.

Senior involvement and timely change management activities

Research shows that starting change management activities early has a significant positive impact on change management effectiveness. However, only 40% of study participants were able to start change management work at project initiation. When asked what enabled this preferred approach, over half of respondents cited senior leadership involvement. Senior leaders with knowledge and experience in leading change insisted on change management inclusion from the start of the project.

Preferred senders for a change

Employees have preferred senders of messages about change. There are two people in the organization employees want to hear from about the change: the person they report to and a leader at the top.

So, not only are senior leaders important at the macro-level, they play a key role in supporting the application of change management and in communicating directly to employees about why a change is needed.

Role of the Sponsor

In Prosci’s benchmarking studies, participants outlined a consistent set of roles for senior leaders and executives in times of change:

1. Participate visibly throughout the project

The role of active and visible participation for the primary sponsor was cited more frequently than any other sponsor activity. Study participants identified a list of activities that constituted active and visible sponsorship from allocating the necessary funding to participating in change activities. Sponsors cannot disappear once they've attended the kick-off meeting for a project. Their sustained presence is necessary to build and maintain momentum for a change.

2. Communicate support and promote the change

As noted above, employees want to hear about why a change is important from someone either at the very top of the organization or at the top of their department or division. Senior leaders must deliver messages about why the change is being made and the risks or costs if no change is made.

2. Build a coalition of sponsorship 

Participants stated the need for the primary sponsor to take a lead role in building and maintaining a healthy coalition in support of the change. The sponsor must mobilize other key business leaders and stakeholders so they can take the change back to their part of the organization. The coalition is especially important for changes that stretch across multiple parts of the organization.

While these three roles are critical to the success of any change effort, the reality is that not all executives and senior leaders are fulfilling these roles effectively. The figure below shows the percentage of participants that stated their sponsors were either extremely ineffective or ineffective for the three roles outlined above. Of the 1,120 participants in the 2016 Edition of Best Practices in Change Management, the role that sponsors struggled with the most was building a coalition of sponsorship. Many do not know that this is expected of them and do not make the time to build this coalition.

ieffective sponsor role fulfillment

Attitude toward Sponsorship

Participants in the latest research report described their sponsors at the beginning of the project. The data shows that most senior leaders were easy to engage in the role of sponsor. Over one-third were proactive and enthusiastic about sponsoring change and nearly 40% were ready to do what was asked. Only one-quarter of participants indicated some hesitation, resistance or indifference from their sponsor.

sponsor at the beginning of a project graph

Understanding of Role

While participants said their executives and senior leaders were generally willing to be sponsors of change, many did not know what that actually meant. The figure below shows how well sponsors understood their role and responsibilities. Over 50% of participants reported that their sponsors did not have an adequate understanding of the role of a sponsor.

sponsor's understanding of their role

This is where the role of enabler comes in for change management specialists. The change management team or resource must provide the guidance and specific action steps required of sponsors. Executives and senior leaders need direction and focus, and the change management specialist can enable them to be successful sponsors of change.