The Challenge of Coaching Executives to Effectively Lead Change

Executives and senior managers now know that they need to apply a structured change management approach to organizational change initiatives so that organizational objectives and sustainable change can be achieved. Thanks to thought leaders, conferences and publications, organizational leaders are equipped now more than ever with information on how to guide and lead their organization through change. However, these same business leaders are struggling to fulfill their critical role of being personally active and visibly engaged throughout the life of their change initiatives.

In Prosci’s 2012 Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report, 650 organizations identified ineffective change management sponsorship from senior leaders as the primary obstacle to project success. Common problems included:

  • Inactive or invisible sponsors
  • Poor alignment between organizational direction and the objectives of the change
  • Lack of sponsor commitment to change management
  • Sponsors with competing priorities or changes in sponsorship
  • Sponsors at the wrong level
  • Little or no access to the primary sponsor
  • Failure to build a coalition of sponsors

I have personally observed these change leadership deficiencies on several change implementations spanning from medium-sized departmental changes to organization-wide transformations. While each project had additional factors that inhibited project success, the common denominator amongst all projects was the lack of ongoing, active and visible executive sponsorship. In each of these instances, the primary sponsor provided funding for the project, commissioned project teams and spoke at initial kick-off events but quickly retreated and either stopped or delegated their sponsorship roles and responsibilities to subordinates. This lack of effective sponsorship resulted in missed milestones, extended project timelines, increased project cost, frustrated employees and lower than expected ROI.

In my role as a change management coach, there are a few steps that I take to overcome ineffective leadership issues. I inform sponsors how their own participation – or lack of it – can impact the change process and the implications for business results. I share with them the data from best practice benchmarking studies, provide change management training, and perform sponsorship assessments to evaluate strengths and weaknesses. Plus I provide sponsorship action plans and ongoing coaching sessions to better position them to successfully fulfill their sponsorship role.

Even when change leadership education and awareness training is provided along with clear direction, tangible activities and continued coaching, the results can be uneven. The biggest challenge for executive leaders sponsoring change initiatives is staying engaged throughout the life of the project. Unless sponsors have high personal motivation and discipline or have a senior manager above them to coach, guide and hold them accountable, competing roles, responsibilities, duties and priorities compete for their time and attention. As these competing influences gain pull the sponsors are more likely to disengage from their role and engage where they are more familiar with their role and expected results. The fallout of poor sponsorship can be significant, including increasing employee resistance and reducing acceptance and participation the next time a change is introduced.

Lessons Learned

Here are a few things that experience has taught me about coaching executives to lead change effectively:

  • Don’t overload the executive sponsor by placing too much emphasis on activities and direction. The sponsor may get stretched too thin and not be effective in fulfilling sponsor roles and responsibilities. Identify the “critical few” sponsor activities that visibly demonstrate to the organization that the sponsor is personally committed to the change while still manageable on a daily basis.
  • Don’t assume that just because the sponsor caries a leadership title that they know how to effectively sponsor change. For most business leaders you will need to provide at least some training and coaching on their roles and responsibilities since effective sponsorship during change is a new leadership competency they may not be familiar with. 
  • Effective sponsorship requires time and effort. Make sure that the executive leader of the change is in a sufficiently senior position that she can control her schedule and not get continually pulled into competing projects. She will need to have enough personal bandwidth to actively and visibly sponsor change.
  • Provide feedback and continued reinforcement of successful sponsorship behaviors. Sponsors need to be acknowledged on successful change leadership just like employees need to be acknowledged on the behavior changes they are being required to make. Positive reinforcement fosters the desire to continue and increases the likelihood that that the behavior will occur again.

When preparing and working with sponsors always remember that sponsors are employees first and they may need to make the personal transition during change (just like everyone else in the organization) before being able to effectively sponsor change. As a sponsor’s coach, take into account these individual needs and then craft a coaching strategy and a sponsor action plan that develops their sponsorship knowledge and skills while enabling them to actively and visibly lead change.

As Senior Consultant for Life Cycle Engineering, Jeff  Nevenhoven thoroughly analyzes and develops solutions that align organizational systems, structures, controls and leadership styles with a company’s business vision and performance objectives. Jeff’s experience enables him to work effectively with employees throughout an organization to implement solutions that remove functional barriers and prepare and lead people through sustaining change. You can reach Jeff at jnevenhoven@LCE.com.      

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