It’s Lonely at the Top. There are plenty of ways for Sponsors to approach their pivotal role in change. It can be said that every leader has their style and every style has its limits. Push too hard and people quit. Give them too much leeway and they wander or worse yet- they mutiny…
The solitary leadership dilemma is reflected in Coldplay’s hit song Viva La Vida from a couple years ago:
“I used to rule the world; Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own…
… One minute I held the key; Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.”
How can Sponsors of Change prepare for their role, avoid the pitfalls and execute once they are handed a change to lead? Here’s a brief toolkit that might help:
Sponsorship Toolkit: I’ve noticed a few common characteristics shared by those who are the most effective at sponsoring change. They tend to:
- Establish a Few Good Rules: Try to avoid dictating too much behavior, but it can be very helpful to have a few of what I call “Guiding Principles”. A very good friend of mine has been an Executive for a long time and still carries with him a short list of such maxims that we generated several years ago when he took over a new position.Our list included such standing guidance as “Listen First, Talk Second“, “Manage By the Facts“, “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate“, “A Dollar is a Dollar“, etc… These rules didn’t automatically make the decisions for people, but they gave the team clear starting points and boundaries to drive each problem-solving discussion. The team knew the Boss’s expectations because they were written on every wall and applied consistently.
- Use a 2:1 Ears to Mouth Ratio: Just as a good mechanic can often diagnose what’s wrong with your car by merely listening to it, a good Sponsor can learn a lot by saying nothing while intently listening to the dialogue. I once sat in a group meeting with a Sponsor who admitted: “I’m stumped on how to solve this one. Help me sort it out… What would you do?” He then facilitated a full dialogue and listened to all of our ideas. He didn’t promise to make us all happy and he didn’t abdicate his responsibility for making the ultimate decision, but he demonstrated a great listening approach that garnered him respect for the rest of the project.
- Build Relationships: Let’s talk about that office door. While it’s tempting to
close the door and enjoy one of the most prized perks of being “The Boss”, it can also be a dangerous trap. Too much “holing up in your office” to “focus on getting the work done” takes away from time you could spend cultivating real relationships with the rest of the team. There once was a business fad called “management by walking around“… That’s kind of where I’m going here.
I realize a Sponsor cannot spend their entire day on the shop floor. But I have seen the lack of trust that comes with trying to exercise authority in the absence of human relationships. Before you complain that you have far too many employees to even think of mingling with them, consider that there are Sponsors with thousands of employees who’ve built rapport with the Average Joe simply by walking around a different floor of the building for 20 minutes each day, scheduling an extra half hour of each plant visit to “do nothing” or intentionally coming to “your place” to have “my meeting“.
- Keep a Hammer Handy: The best Sponsors make the tough calls when such action is absolutely needed – but they use that hammer rarely and thoughtfully.
Appropriate uses include resolving stalemated issues that have been thoroughly vetted and escalated through a regular process. Yes, there will be times when you will need to tell them to just do it… but a word of caution: It’s especially damaging if the Sponsor’s hammer is used a lot early in a project – it stifles the team’s willingness to bring you bad news. It can also contribute to your gaining a reputation for “shooting from the hip”.
- Be Consistent – And Inconsistent: All of the stuff above works better if you stick with it over time. Reinforcement and repetition brings familiarity and the ability of team members to take risks knowing the Boss “has their back“. Unfortunately, it can also bring a risk of team members assuming they know what you want and only giving you the answers you’d like. Mix it up a little. If you are a directive leader, try a listening approach once in awhile. If you are a natural consensus-builder – try occasionally using a more directive approach to solving a problem. Varying your style a bit keeps people on their toes. It also appeals to those who may not share your style – and have been trying to tell you that all along. (Hint: You may have mistaken this for “resistance”?)
Style Points: Meanwhile back at the castle, things didn’t work out so well for the lyrical leader mentioned earlier:
“Revolutionaries wait; For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be King?”
The answer is: Lots of people. Many leaders are given the role of Change Sponsor by choice and others by org chart position. Some are natural leaders and some grow into it. The best ones avoid the risks and work through the challenges by having an effective sponsorship approach.
To repeat: Every leader has their style. Every style has its limits. The more consistent you are as a Sponsor, the more apt the team is to trust you and learn to work for you. Mix it up a little to keep them from getting getting complacent, but most of all, establish human relationships in advance of challenges whenever possible.
Questions for Chatter:
- Describe a time when a new Sponsor/Boss refused to adapt to the culture or the group struggled to adapt to the new leader. What problems did it cause?
- What fresh approaches to leadership have you seen from the Sponsors of your projects?