Transitioning leaders could catalyze the change they wish to bring about in the organization by sponsoring others to lead change initiatives aligned to key objectives. Yet few systematically think about how to use executive sponsorship meaningfully. Here are a few tips for new executives on what to sponsor and how to do it.
Incoming CXOs, in their roles as leaders in a company, should consider what they will likely sponsor. Unlike direct leadership of a project or initiative, sponsorship is more subtle and indirect. It often takes the form of shaping the context where others lead and drive an initiative to success.
Sponsorship could include the provision of tangible resources to make a project more successful. For example, as a leader, you may be able to provide capital, people, customer connections, or subject matter resources to enable an innovation to be prototyped, tested, and brought to the market. Sponsorship could also be more symbolic and less tangible. It could be the provision of specific job and project opportunities for high-potential individuals so that they can learn and extend their skills from new experiences. It could be about bringing the prestige of your office or your personal commitment to recognize and give visibility to a project or an individual. It could even be giving room for and tolerating the failure of a high-risk project because the team dared to try to engage the unknown or do something truly difficult to accomplish.
Sponsorship can be an important activity for C-suite leaders. It can catalyze new behaviors you wish to manifest in your company. It can also be an amplifier of the changes you wish to bring about by having others lead change initiatives aligned to your objectives. Yet, I find that few executives systematically think about how to use sponsorship as a means to catalyze change.
In our Transition Labs, I find that there are four specific sponsorships that incoming leaders should consider focusing on. These are: innovation, collaboration, leadership development, and brand. Each of these ties to the four faces of the CXO as strategist, catalyst, steward, and operator.1 The four sponsorships, which lie at the intersections of the four faces of CXO leadership, are illustrated and discussed below:
As we found in our 2009 study of women chief financial officers (CFOs) at leading companies, sponsorship is far more important than mentorship.3 While mentors can counsel an individual, sponsors can deliver opportunities that accelerate individual careers. One way for CEOs and other C-suite members to sponsor leadership opportunities is to create chief of staff roles into which high-potential individuals rotate for a year or two. In such roles, the professional directly assists the CEO or, for instance, the CFO can give the individual broad exposure to the kind of complex problems, decision-making, and the key stakeholders they would likely work with in the future. Other sponsorship models may include selecting individuals for stretch assignments within the company.
I find many CXOs in my Transition Labs do not have an explicit sponsorship strategy. From the observations in our labs, those leaders who stand out as sponsors commit to focus, plan commitments, and communicate as a means of increasing returns from their sponsorship investments. These are discussed below.
Managing time and attention are often the greatest constraints for leaders. Given the demands of C-suite roles, many executives in these positions can only commit between 5 and 10 percent of their workweek to sponsorship. For a 60-hour target workweek, this ranges between three and six hours a week. Thus, for your sponsorship to translate into meaningful outcomes, it should be focused on a few key choices. Perhaps, of the four key sponsorships, you could choose to focus initially on one or two of them—such as innovation and leadership.
It is important to be clear and tangible about the results you expect from each sponsorship. For example, on innovation, some leaders may say they want to hear the “best innovative ideas” and run a suggestion box in their company as an attempt to demonstrate sponsorship of innovation. This may have some use in surfacing an opportunity, but is generally meaningless unless substantive resources or commitments are then made to turn a specific idea into reality. Effective sponsorship is choosing to focus on and enabling specific initiatives with tangible objectives and results. As the old adage goes, people judge you by what they see you do versus what you say. Broad statements about innovation, collaboration, leadership, or brand without substantive and tangible commitment and actions do not demonstrate leadership as a sponsor.
Generally the CEO role has the greatest breadth of sponsorship choices. Other CXO roles usually have fewer choices and will likely want to align their choices with the priorities of their CEO and company.
Beyond focus, it is important to make commitments to what you sponsor to enable it to be successful. The first and the most important commitment is the choice of the initiative and, especially, its leader. Does the leader have a track record of delivering other projects in the space? Do they have the qualities that are likely to make them and your sponsorship successful? Choose weak candidates as leaders, and you are likely to lose your own credibility.
Second, establish a plan and resource commitments for your sponsorship. If you are going to sponsor leadership by having a chief of staff role, get the headcount for that role by acquiring new headcount permissions or restructuring your organization to free up headcount. Also, work with HR to find high-potential candidates and think through the experience you will offer that candidate to make the program successful. If you are going to sponsor collaboration across organizational silos, evaluate the commitments you will make to restructure goals and incentives that enable collaboration. By thinking through your sponsorship and making commitments to set context, you can enhance the likelihood of successful sponsorship.
Third, once a leader is selected for an initiative and a forward-looking context is shaped, it is useful to work with the leader to frame how you can support them through different stages of their initiative and establish mutual expectations of each other.
Tangible plans and commitments enhance the likelihood of sponsorship success.
Your sponsorship activities ideally complement and amplify the impact of your other priority initiatives. To amplify the impact, it is critical to communicate your efforts across the organization. This requires integrating your sponsorship activities with your overall communication plan. Sometimes you will drive the communications, for example, making those and what you sponsor visible. At other times, it is those whom you sponsor who communicate their programs and your sponsorship systemically at different levels of the organization. A strong communications strategy can complement your sponsorship strategy.4
Sponsorship is an essential responsibility of C-suite leaders. Yet, many first-time CXOs as well as serial CXOs often do not have a clear plan for sponsorship undertakings. Focusing on selecting what to sponsor from the four types of sponsorship—innovation, collaboration, leadership, and brand—and aligning it to your priority initiatives can help you amplify your impact across the organization. Successful sponsorship often requires focus, planning, tangible commitments, and a communications strategy to drive impact.