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General support means no support

by Mark P. McDonald  |  May 3, 2010  |  1 Comment

Executive sponsorship for technology related initiatives is a persistent need of CIOs and IT leaders.  Executive sponsorship is a key ingredient in change management activities.  Executive sponsorship is something just about every CIO asks for as part of the IT strategy.

The reason I am bringing this up is that CIOs and IT executives ask for executive support all the time.  Recently I was in a meeting with the CIO and all of their peers, the CIO was presenting their vision and strategy for the next three years.  At the end of the presentation, the CFO – the main sponsor – asked, “Is there anything you need from us?”  The CIOs response was, “I need your sponsorship but beyond that, no, I think we have it in hand.”

I almost fell out of my chair.

Here it was the CFO, in front of the entire leadership team offered their support and asked what they needed to do to help the CIO be successful and the answer was to be a sponsor.

By not specifying what the leadership team could do, the CIO said that I need you to be generally supportive of the strategy.  The CFO who had been engaged in the conversation visibly sat back in his chair and disengaged from the rest of the meeting.  It became blindingly clear that:

General support means no support

Being generally supportive is the operational definition for executive sponsorship.

Huh?  Generally supportive, well I am generally supportive of many things.  I generally support things like: traffic laws, hotel checkout times, airline baggage limits and the like.

As I think about this I see a pattern.  Things I generally support are things I know about but require very little effort to support.  This is in marked contrast to either things I care less about which are generally ignored, or things that are a passion which shape my decisions, actions and where I invest my time.

Now before you get started, this is not a Tom Peter’s style rant about how executives should become passionate about being sponsors – while nice that is often unrealistic.

To go beyond general support, you need to actually have to do something.  That is where this CIO and many others miss a tremendous opportunity to engage the executive team in specific things that can help the entire enterprise.  Without those things, those sponsorship tasks, executives can lean back in their chairs and be generally supportive.  When this happens, executives have permission to view IT with the same level of interest as they have when driving their car in moderate city traffic.

Here are a few thoughts on what it takes to go beyond general support.

  • Have the Executives attend the CIO leadership team meetings on a quarterly basis to share company performance and issues.
  • Ask that the CIOs direct reports attend every other meeting between the CIO and their boss.  They attend to listen to the issues and better understand the context
  • Engage the executive in interviewing and assessing the change readiness of their executives and departments throughout the stages of a change initiative.
  • Involve the executive in governance and steering committees that do actual work, rather than just rubber stamping decisions made at a lower level
  • Have an executive take on direct responsibility for a major part of a major initiative.  The best example I heard of was from a company that had their Chief Corporate Council be the leader of the ERP Risk Management Team.  Corporate council dedicated three half days per week to sit with the risk management team, they had assigned deliverables and had to report team status at program management meetings.

The investment of enterprise treasure in executing change initiatives and strategies is too great to be left to passive support.  However, too often we do not let people know what that support needs to look like.  General statements of support either in the company newsletter or all company meetings is exactly that – general.

It is a weakness to ask for general help.  It is strength to know what you need, why you need it and to ask.  Recognize that when you say that you need this person to do that, you are demonstrating your knowledge and mastery of the challenges ahead.  You are also recognizing the contribution, talent and value of the executive, their criticality to success.

When you don’t ask for specific support, you tell your peers that the project does not really matter.  You tell them that this work is no more important to the company than all the other things they can feel lukewarm about.

Related posts: The Nature of Change is Changing

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Category: change-on-the-cheap  leadership  tools  

Tags: business-leadership  change-leadership  change-management  cio-leadership  

Mark McDonald
VP Analyst
12 years at Gartner
33 years IT Industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program. Read Full Bio


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