One of the first pieces of advice I heard as a change agent was “don’t work harder than your sponsor.” Whenever I’ve shared this, the main responses I get are groans and eye-rolls. It’s definitely easier said than done. These days, when I repeat this advice, I frame it a little differently: Don’t be more committed to the success of the change than your sponsor is.

Whether you are an internal or an external change agent, you work in service to sponsors—those who control the organization’s resources and wield formal authority.

Virtually every model of organizational change identifies sponsorship as a critical success factor.

As agents, we know there’s a lot more to successful change than the role of leadership. We are masters at planning, orchestration, communication, and the use of informal influence strategies to motivate people. Many of us take great pride at our ability to get things done in situations where we’re not in charge. However, I think we often fall into the trap of taking pride in our ability to succeed in the face of challenges—including poor sponsorship. We cover for leaders when they can’t attend important meetings, fail to confront them when they don’t model the desired behavior, and burn our own political capital convincing people to try new ways of doing things. This is a natural trap to fall into, especially when we are highly committed to the goals of the change ourselves and become advocates and champions in addition to being agents.

Agent-driven change can work pretty well when things are going smoothly. However, sponsorship becomes critical when obstacles and challenges arise. Sustainable major change requires leaders to make tough decisions, remove roadblocks, and align consequences with behavior. It also requires them to show the way by displaying new behaviors, creating an environment that supports experimenting and learning, and following through to make sure the desired results are delivered.

If you wait until problems arise to engage sponsors, you put yourself and your projects at risk. You need them involved from the very beginning. Furthermore, you need to recognize when you are outrunning your sponsorship and know what to do about it. Here are several strategies that I have found helpful in this area:

  1. Educating/Contracting. There is no substitute for taking time up front to clearly and explicitly talk to your sponsor(s) about what they can expect from you and what you need from them. You should make sure that each of you has clear responsibilities, and acknowledge your interdependence and mutual accountability for the success of the initiative. Many change agents have checklists they use to support these conversations; some create a formal document signed by both parties. Contracting is sometimes easier when you are an external consultant, but I have seen internal resources do a fabulous job as well.
  1. Observing/Articulating. Although change agents are usually very good at guiding sponsors through the key events and activities involved in change initiatives, the best guide to a sponsor’s true level of commitment is what they do without being reminded, invited, or prompted. Do they make time on their calendar for you? Ask you how things are going? Try out new mindsets and behaviors? Request feedback?See what happens if you step back a little and stop pushing. If the sponsor disengages from your initiative unless you remind them to step in, pay attention to what they are spending their time and energy on.

    Find ways to speak about your observations that are honest and clear, and seek to understand the sponsor’s perspective. For example: “When I began working with you on this project, you indicated that it was one of the most critical initiatives taking place in the organization. Yet I notice that you have been distracted during our last couple of meetings and your chief of staff has stepped in for you at several events. Are there other priorities that are increasing in urgency for you?” Your job is not to judge the sponsor, but rather to put your point of view on the table and see where it leads. It may get things back on track; it may surface issues and competing commitments that put your project at risk—either way, you have greater clarity about what to do next. 

  1. Deciding/Acting. If you become clear that the sponsor is not prepared to put in the effort required to succeed on the initiative, you need to figure out how to proceed. Do you have a tough discussion with the sponsor? Adjust project goals or timelines to align with the level of sponsorship available? Help the organization prepare for potential failure? Each of these calls for specific (and often difficult) actions and conversations. The alternative is to pick up the slack and knowingly work harder than your sponsor in the hope that you can drive success through your own efforts.It’s very easy to take the path of least resistance. Tackling sponsorship challenges is tough. But it’s one of the most critical things a change agent can do. When agents pick up the slack for sponsors, they allow sponsors to avoid difficult decisions about priorities. This is one of the primary contributors to the levels of change-related overload and change agent burnout that are all too common in organizations today.

These three steps are not easy, but they are important, and they need to be done in order. What discussions do you need to have today to ensure that you and your sponsor are working hard—together—for the success of your initiative?