I wasn’t expecting the phone call. I had been traveling cross-country every week for over three months. We seemed to be making progress on a transformational change initiative. It wasn’t easy. Along the way, I had had to deliver some difficult messages to the sponsor, but we seemed to be working well together. So I was caught by surprise when I picked up the phone that Sunday to be told, “Don’t fly out. The client doesn’t want you back.”

At the time, it was a blow to my ego. On reflection, I knew I had done the right thing: I had told the client what he needed to know even though he wasn’t ready to hear some of the risks the project was facing. A year later, the client called my employer to say, “Brian was right. We should have listened to him.” It saddened me because I wished he had listened to me for his sake and that of the initiative, and because I wondered whether I could have communicated the message in a more effective way.

Have You Failed Your Change Sponsor?

Ultimately, the success or failure of a change initiative rests on the sponsor’s shoulders. Whatever statistics you want to believe about success rates, the reality is that too many of these projects fail to deliver on their promise. Much of that failure is due to sponsors who, however good they are at running an organization, don’t know how to change it.

As practitioners, our job is to help ensure the success of the initiative. All too often, we fail at that. And our sponsors fail because we have failed them.

We fail to educate them on how they need to change themselves to successfully sponsor change. We allow them to lead change initiatives the way they lead the ongoing business. Many leaders are Type A personalities who want others to see them as having all the answers and never making mistakes. We, in turn, cover up the mistakes, try to fix them, or work around them. We don’t tell the sponsor he is about to make a mistake, or that he has made one. We don’t help him learn from a mistake; instead, we help undermine his credibility by failing to acknowledge errors that everyone in the organization has already recognized.

We fail by trying to keep the sponsor comfortable even during turbulent change. During one engagement as a change practitioner in the consulting division of a major accounting firm, an audit partner called me into his office. “Our clients like this change stuff you are doing,” he said, “but you have to stop making them uncomfortable.” Change is inherently uncomfortable and messy. We fail our sponsors when we attempt to shield them from that reality. The sponsor’s role during a change process isn’t to keep employees happy—it is to help them succeed despite their discomfort. Our role is to help sponsors understand that, and challenge them when they continue to focus on employee satisfaction during the change initiative.

Too many of us fail to tell our sponsors when problems arise, hoping they can be corrected before the sponsors become aware of them. We fail by leading our sponsors to believe we are so good that nothing will go wrong. The fact that these projects don’t always go according to plan is not an inherent sign of failure; it is more often a reality of change. We let down our sponsors when we don’t prepare them for the likelihood of problems.

Finally, we fail when we lose faith in a sponsor who doesn’t follow our counsel and we become half-hearted in our support.

Prepare for the Inevitable

As practitioners, we will make mistakes; so will sponsors. But we can prepare for them. Perhaps the best way to prepare is to have a candid conversation with your sponsor when you first start working together. (If you’re already working together, now may be the best time for that conversation.) Don’t wait until things go wrong. Talk about the fact that they will. Talk about how and when you will share that news with one another. Help her understand the importance of an “early warning system” when issues begin to surface. Prepare her to deal with the challenges that will arise. I failed to do this in the situation I described earlier; ultimately it led to the sponsor being unable to hear my message.

Discuss the fact that the best way you can serve her is by providing the unvarnished truth, telling her what she needs to hear even when it isn’t what she wants to hear. Your ability to do so—and her willingness to hear you—may make the difference in the outcome of the change.

Be honest about the limits of your capability. If necessary, seek approval to obtain additional change practitioner support. Sometimes the sponsor will act in alignment with your counsel; sometimes she won’t. Commit to remaining supportive of her, even when you do not agree with decisions she makes, then live up to your word. Have the courage to be truthful with bad news as well as good, and have the discipline to do so every time.

It’s still possible that the change initiative will fail. But at least you will not have failed your sponsor; you will not have failed the organization.

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