Never Work Harder Than Your Change Sponsor

Never Work Harder Than Your Change Sponsor

I’ve have had the opportunity to train hundreds of change management practitioners during my career. As you would expect, they are passionate about the people side of change. They are committed to ensuring that the changes they are supporting will be successfully implemented. This passion can be a powerful motivator for change practitioners, but also a potential liability.  

Passion for a change becomes a liability if practitioners assume that their sponsors believe as strongly as they do in the need for the changes. While this is often the case, I’ve also learned through painful experience that just because a change has a sponsor, it doesn’t mean that the person is committed to that change. For example, your sponsor may:

  • Not view the change as having the same priority as you do. 
  • Have been selected to lead the change based on their position in the organization structure.
  • Have assumed the sponsorship role for the change as a result of taking on a new role.   

I’ve also seen situations where change practitioners believe that their initiatives can be successful, even when their sponsors are neutral with respect to the need for the changes. While you may be able to support the implementation of the changes, it’s unlikely that the results will be sustained over time. Prosci’s Best Practices Research is very clear on the importance of sponsorship. Active and visible executive sponsorship has been the greatest contributor to change success through ten studies conducted over a period of twenty years.  

It’s important to remember that change practitioners play an enabling role in the change process. While it’s rewarding to work on changes that you are passionate about, you also need to recognize the limits of your influence in making those changes happen. If you are in a situation where you feel more strongly about the need for a change than your sponsor does, you should realistically evaluate the potential for the success of the change. 

My advice to change practitioners is to “never work harder than your sponsor”. I don’t mean in terms of the time and effort you commit to ensuring the achievement of the desired results from a change. I’m referring to the commitment to the need for the change. If you believe more strongly in the need for the change than your sponsor, you should not proceed with developing detailed change plans until the lack of sponsor commitment has been addressed. If you proceed when your sponsor is neutral or opposed to the change, you will likely face significant frustration in implementing the change and the change will likely fail.   

So, what can you do if you find yourself believing more strongly in the need for the change than your sponsor? The actions you take should be based on the strength of your relationship with your sponsor. If you feel comfortable enough to challenge your sponsor, some of your actions might include:

  • Sharing your observations of behaviours and/or actions that you believe show that your sponsor is neutral or opposed to the change;
  • Confirming with your sponsor whether the behaviours reflect a lack of commitment to the need for the change or a lack of familiarity with performing the sponsor role; 
  • Using questions to determine what might be contributing to the sponsor’s lack of commitment;
  • Suggesting actions the sponsor could take to confirm the need for the change;
  • Sharing the risks of proceeding, both financial and reputational, if the sponsor isn’t committed to the change. 

As a former internal consultant, I can appreciate that many internal change practitioners may not feel comfortable having this type of conversation with their sponsors. In those situations, I recommend you consider other approaches for influencing your sponsor’s commitment to the change. Those approaches could include:

  • Providing additional information that validates the business case for the change. The information needs to be presented in a way that you believe will be influential with your sponsor.
  • Identifying another leader, at a peer level with the sponsor, who believes in the need for the change and shares your concern about the low level of commitment from the sponsor. Ask that leader to have the challenging conversation I’ve described above.  

Avoid the temptation to over-function in your role. Never work harder than your sponsor.