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Is the quality of executive sponsorship falling?

by Mark P. McDonald  |  February 6, 2012  |  2 Comments

Every business book you read says that you need to have ‘executive sponsorship’ for any major initiative.  Fail to involve the executives and you are likely to fail.  That advice has become so prevalent that it is almost worthless.  Getting executive sponsorship is not what matters; it’s the quality of the sponsorship that makes all the difference in the world.


I had the honor of reviewing a transformation program and providing a health check.  The program is ambitious; technology intensive, process demanding, and can truly redefine the rules of the industry.  But there is a catch, the transformation program had progressed to a point where it had raised serious business issues, but the program and its sponsor did not have the authority to answer.

Sitting at this crossroads, the teams did what they could, keeping busy until there was a decision from the executive level.  The health check became necessary as the program sat stalled for more than six months and instead of creating pressure for decisions, it created calls to cancel the transformation.

It was clearly time for the executive team that sponsored the effort to step in and make some hard choices.  In the report recommending that action, among other recommendations, the Executive Team came back with the following reply:

“Why are you not telling us more about IT and where it has failed?  Why are you talking about where they are going wrong?  Why are you saying that we need clearer business direction, your just covering for IT and their failings.”

When I pointed out that there were several highly critical points in the report related to IT, which had little effect.  All the executive team heard was that there needed to be more business direction.  Their reply:

“If you say we haaave to be involved then please know that we are tired of having to make every decision.”

I was not surprised.

I was stunned.

Here was a major multi-multi million-dollar transformation program that had done the work, found the tough issues, gone as far as it could and now needed active executive sponsorship in the form of some hard decisions to go forward.

The executive team commented that their job was to be ‘above all of this’, to think strategically, and to be visionary rather than making operational level decisions.  The only problem was that the open issues were not just operational; they were strategic in the sense that the answers would determine the performance profile of the company in the future.

As I reflected on the meeting a few things became clear.

  • The executive team assumed that saying it is should be so is the same as making it so. “We said yes, so we consider it done.”
  • The executive team did not see making hard decisions as an expression of their leadership.  They wanted to remain ‘above it all’ and not create winners and losers on an issue.  They believed that you demonstrated leadership by guiding without getting their hands dirty.
  • The executive team was ready to criticize the decisions or direction others had taken but they did not have the time, energy or political will to lead in creating that future.  “I can tell you what your did wrong, but its not my job to help you make it right.”
  • The executive team did not welcome evidence to the contrary nor recommendations on how to move forward that required their active participation.  I will listen if you confirm my suspicion, your motives are suspicous if you do not say what I expect to hear.

These reflections give the impression of an incapable executive team.  But that is not the case, this team runs one of the most successful, global, industry leading companies in their market.

So what gives?

These executives were giving the level and type of sponsorship that had worked in the past.  Their responses, comments and attitude was appropriate for the type of relatively incremental, back office, administrative changes that have dominated the executive agenda for the past 10 years or so.

The level of sponsorship that worked when we talked about IT.

While the quality of that sponsorship was fine for then, it is totally in appropriate for the types of changes we are doing now.

The level of sponsorship required when technology becomes greater than IT.

Executive sponsorship needs a significant upgrade as the demands for transformation have outstripped current sponsorship models.  Enterprises are going through real and deep change, like this one, requires direct executive action, decisions and direction.  Not delegation.

If figuring out how your business needs to operate to create value is not part of the executive team’s job, then I do not know what is.

What are the changes, if any, you are seeing in the type, nature or level of executive sponsorship?  Not just for technology, but for any transformation.

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Category: 2012  change-on-the-cheap  it-governance  leadership  management  personal-observation  signs-of-weak-management  strategy  

Tags: 2012-planning  amplify  leadership  management  personal-observation  signs-of-weak-management  

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

Thoughts on Is the quality of executive sponsorship falling?

  1. Mark,

    The fact that people say every major initiative needs executive sponsorship is somewhat of a copout perhaps.

    First, execs have a finite amount of time, and I wonder if the quality issues you mention are a result of this.

    Second, if they are sponsoring all initiatives, then there is too little delegation going on.

    Finally, many initiatives can be started small and scaled. There is a post on my Treasury Cafe blog titled \Oops, We Made the Company Analytical\ about this.

    All that being said, you make some great points here – people can’t be afraid of making decisions and creating consequences because of them. That is what leadership and management are all about!


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