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Executives and senior leaders: importance and role

The first two tutorials in the job roles series focused on the role of the change management specialist and a high-level overview of the five roles in change management. The next tutorials will look specifically at the two critical employee-facing roles in times of change:

  1. Executives and senior leaders

  2. Managers and supervisors

These two roles are critical because employees look to and listen to the person at the top of the organization and their direct supervisor.

This tutorial focuses on the importance and role of executives and senior leaders as sponsors of change. It shares the three roles of sponsors in times of change, based on previous benchmarking studies, and looks at which roles sponsors are struggling to fill based on 2009 benchmarking data. The tutorial also includes a first look at 2009 data on sponsor characterization and understanding of role.


Prosci has developed tools to support each of the change management roles. Find out more in the bookstore or call 970-203-9332 to speak with an analyst.

The importance of executives and senior leaders in times of change

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 - or all of the above - senior leaders must be present to demonstrate their own and the organization's commitment to the change.

Four benchmarking findings, including the first glimpse at findings from the 2009 study, illustrate the importance of senior leaders:

  • When asked to identity the top contributor to success of their change, participants in the 2009 benchmarking study identified active and visible executive sponsorship as number one on the list, by a four-to-one margin. Sponsorship was at the top of the list in all six of Prosci's benchmarking studies: 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. While much has changed in the field of change management over the last decade, the importance of sponsorship has remained constant.

  • When asked to identify the biggest obstacle to success, participants in the 2009 benchmarking study 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.

  • Participants who were able to start change management at the initiation of the project were asked to identify what enabled this preferred approach. The factor that was most cited as responsible for ensuring change management started at the onset of the project: senior leadership involvement. Senior leaders with knowledge and experience in leading change insisted on change management inclusion from the start of the project.

  • 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 (this will be addressed in the next tutorial) 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.


The role of the sponsor

In the 2005 and 2007 benchmarking studies, participants outlined a consistent set of roles that needed to be filled by senior leaders and executives in times of change. The three roles identified in these studies were:

  1. Participate actively and 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 attending project review meetings. The other important word in this role is "throughout" - 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. Build a coalition of sponsorship and manage resistance - 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.

  3. Communicate directly with employees - As noted above, employees want to hear about why a change is important from someone at the top - either at the very top of the organization or at the top of their department or division (i.e. someone from the sponsor coalition). Senior leaders are looked to for messages about why the change is being made and the risks or costs if no change is made.


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. Figure 1 below shows the percentage of participants that stated their sponsors were either "extremely ineffective" or "ineffective" for the three roles outlined above. Of the 575 participants in the 2009 study, over one-fifth were struggling with sponsors in all of the roles. The role that sponsors were the worst at was communicating directly with employees. Many do not know that this is expected of them and do not make the time to build a compelling case to their employees for why the change is happening.


Figure 1 - Sponsor role fulfillment benchmarking findings



Attitude toward sponsorship

For the first time, participants in the 2009 study were asked to characterize 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.


Figure 2 - Executives' and senior leaders' attitude toward their role



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. Figure 3 shows the results from participants rating how well their 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.


Figure 3 - Level of understanding of what it means to sponsor a change


So, while senior leaders were willing to be sponsors, they did not have a necessary understanding of what was really expected of them. 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.


Prosci's executive program

Prosci's Change Management Sponsor Program is designed for executives and senior leaders that serve as sponsors of change. This 4 to 6 hour program will help your leaders embrace their role in the change process. They will discover that "visible and active sponsorship" is more than simply authorizing resources or providing funding. In this interactive program, senior leaders are charged with becoming great sponsors and evaluate their own previous performance.

In the program, participants will:

  • Learn the critical connection between change management and business results.
  • Fully understand the role of effective executive sponsorship.
  • Be able to build support among key business leaders.
  • Strategically position their projects for success.


Prosci also uses data collection and a presentation of the change portfolio in the Sponsor Program. The portfolio allows Prosci to present the concepts and principles of change management while speaking directly to what matters to the audience - the success of their own change initiatives. The change portfolio includes a look at the major projects underway, how much is invested in each of them, the people risk and how well the projects are positioned for success.


Topics covered in the sponsor program:

Setting the stage for change management

Correlation of project success and effective change management
Financial implications of effectively managing change
Prosci Project Change Triangle - three critical components
States of change
ROI of change management
Definition of change management
Case for change management
Connecting change management to business results
Risk/flight model
Benchmarking overview

Position your projects for strategic success

Closing gaps in project health
Change management methodology overview
Change characteristics assessment
Organization attributes assessment
Risk analysis

Position yourself for sponsorship success

Role of sponsors in times of change - what the data tells us
What messages employees want to hear from you
Root cause of failure
Sponsor competency assessment
Sponsor coalition and diagram

Position your organization for change success

Equip managers and supervisors
Roles of managers and supervisors
ADKAR as a model for change

Your action steps and responsibilities


Call an account manager at +1-970-203-9332 or email a Prosci analyst to learn more about Prosci's sponsor program or to schedule your session today.



Coming next: a look at the role of managers and supervisors







Offerings for applying Prosci's change management methodologies:


  • Change management certification ($2800)- 3-day program where you bring a project you are working on and apply all of the assessments and tools as you learn them - taught by former fortune 500 executives at locations across the US - includes over $1000 in products, including the Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report, the Change Management Toolkit and the Change Management Pilot 2010
  • Train-the-trainer ($3500) - learn how to teach Prosci change management training programs in your organization
  • Onsite training - bring Prosci to your location for 3-day certification programs, 4-6 hour executive briefings, 1-day manager programs or 1-day employee programs - call +1-970-203-9332 for more information

Methodology tools:

  • Change Management Toolkit ($389) - hardcopy 3-ring binder presenting Prosci's change management methodology, includes templates, checklists and assessments for managing the people side of change (includes USB drive)
  • Change Management Pilot Pro 2010 ($449) - online tool including Prosci's change management methodology, eLearning modules and downloadable templates, assessments, presentations and checklists
  • Change Management Guide for Managers and Supervisors ($189) - tools to help supervisors engage and coach their direct reports through change (includes 4 copies of the Employee's Survival Guide)
  • PCT Analyzer ($149/$349) - web-based tool for collecting PCT Assessment data, analyzing results, identifying risks and developing action steps

References and books:

  • Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report ($289 / quantity discounts available) - journal-style report with lessons learned and best practices from 650 participants, presented in an easy-to-use format - reads as a checklist of what to do and what not to do
  • Change Management: the people side of change ($18.95 / quantity discounts available) - a primer for anyone involved in organizational change that addresses why manage change, individual change management and organizational change management
  • ADKAR: a model for change ($18.95 / quantity discounts available) - the definitive work on Prosci's ADKAR® Model
  • Employee's Survival Guide to Change ($14.95 / quantity discounts available) - a handbook to help employees survive and thrive during change, answers frequently asked questions and empowers employees to take charge of change



*** Prosci also offers leadership packages - groupings of products at discounts that offer you some of the most helpful and common combinations of Prosci change management resources


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Email a Prosci analyst or call 970-203-9332 with questions about the methodology, its application, or finding the right resources to support your change management activities.




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