A Leader’s Role in Change

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Leadership makes a difference. In fact, the data shows that leadership makes the biggest difference when it comes to change. Prosci, a global research firm and team of change fanatics with the largest body of change management data, has found that:

The #1 contributor to successful change is active and visible sponsorship from leaders.*

In fact, in each of the firm’s ten benchmarking studies conducted since 1998, leadership has topped the list of what drives positive change results. The breakdown on the correlation to success from the 2018 best practices survey shows this:

Percentage of projects that met or exceeded project objectives based on sponsor effectiveness:

  • 29% Very ineffective sponsors

  • 42% Ineffective sponsors

  • 54% Moderately effective sponsors

  • 72% Extremely effective sponsors

In our work with organizations where we strive to get maximum adoption and usage for strategic initiated change, we have found the same to be true. When leaders provide direction and guidance, and more importantly, are committed, the desired outcomes are much more likely to be achieved.

To be clear, this commitment sets a high bar, and part of it is embracing the role of executive sponsor of the change. To sponsor something usually requires taking action. Most often these actions include introducing, providing resources and/or supporting the thing you are sponsoring. The leader’s role in being an executive sponsor for change is no different. A leader must do three things to be an “effective sponsor” for a change:

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  1. Be active and visible throughout the change period. From the time a change is conceptualized, to when it is introduced, and through all the phases of the project, a leader must be present. Effective leadership is not saying “We need to make this change. Go make it happen” only to have others take over. Rather, leadership must continually provide direction, support, and resources, and ensure obstacles and barriers are removed. This requires active ongoing dialogue and a continuous visible presence.

  2. Build sponsorship with key stakeholders. Effective change doesn’t just happen because one leader decides it must take place. Change that involves people, processes, and systems happens most effectively when the executive leader and sponsor identifies others who will be crucial for support and execution and gets them on board. This role of influencer is critical to ensuring the success of desired business outcomes as a result of change.

  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  One of the most essential elements a leader must master during change is communication. At the business level, leadership must answer the question of “why” a change is important to the business. They must also be prepared to share the risks of remaining unchanged and explain the desired outcomes. These messages need to be regular and consistent throughout the life of the project. In our experience with coaching change, we have found that it’s difficult for leaders to communicate too much, especially surrounding changes that are complex. It is not uncommon for employees to start to question, refresh, or backtrack on a change midstream. It’s up to the leadership messaging to help them stay the course.

If you are initiating strategic change in your organization, take one simple step to set yourself up for success: be intentional in identifying an “executive sponsor” or leader for the change. It doesn’t have to be the CEO, but it does have to be someone with influence, respect, and a strong voice in the organization. Be sure that individual understands change management and the three key actions they must take.

Finally, set an expectation that this person sponsors the change from inception to implementation and holds everyone accountable. By taking actionable steps toward clear and present leadership for change, you can make a significant difference in your company with incredible results!