What to Do When Your Sponsors are Your Biggest Obstacle to Success

Posted by Don Harrison on Wed, Jun 12, 2019 @ 02:27 PM

When most people think about change management, they automatically assume preparing targets is the most important activity a Change Agent should be doing. But we all know you should never assume (and we all know why, too!) The fact is, having visible and active Sponsors at all levels of the organization who are actively demonstrating their Sponsorshipcommitment to a change, both publicly and privately, is the most important factor in a fast and successful implementation. 

That’s why Next Generation Change Agents need to spend less time looking down the organization at the Targets of the change, and more of their time looking up, working with their Sponsors to ensure they are actively Expressing, Modeling, and Reinforcing their commitment to the change.

So, when your Senior Managers, Directors, and VP’s are difficult to manage, are sources of resistance themselves, or become just outright hard to pin down, you definitely have a problem!


The Great Paradox of Transformational Change

A common mistake during any change implementation is when Change Agents look for resistance to change deep down in the organization. After all, you would expect to find the most resistance at the front lines of the change, right? But in my 40+ years of Change Management Consulting experience, I’ve discovered it's usually the senior managers, directors, and VPs that have the greatest resistance to a change.

One of the key principles I teach in my Change Management Training sessions is to expect the highest level of resistance from the people that have the greatest motivation for things to remain the same. Often, this is your mid to upper-level managers, because in the end, they are the ones who have the most to lose in terms of current and future power and prestige.

This is more than just an interesting fact; it's highly problematic because these are the very people that you need as Reinforcing Sponsors. So herein lies the great paradox of change: many times, the people you actually seek to Sponsor a change, and who have the most impact on driving the initiative, also have the most resistance because you are asking them to fly in the face of their previous success!


Managing Your Sponsors’ Resistance

So, what do you do when your Sponsors are not completely on board? Here are 3 best practice tips based on the AIM Change Management Methodology on how to manage your Sponsors:


  • Educate Your Sponsors
    Many Sponsors are simply not aware of what it takes to be a good Sponsor! Some may think implementation is the responsibility of Change Agents, and they can sit back and just assume it is happening “out there,” without realizing that in reality, it is their actions of Express, Model and Reinforce that control the speed of the implementation.
  • Treat Sponsors as Targets First
    It is critical to treat every level of the organization, from the senior leadership down, as Targets first. There is absolutely no point in trying to create readiness at the lower levels of the organization if the people in power are resisting the change. Instead, readiness needs to be cascaded through the organization level by level. In fact, no Target is more important than the Sponsors who must provide demonstrated commitment to the change. These Sponsors need to have the same two questions answered as any other Target: what's this change mean to me and what's in it for me? Once the answers to these questions have been provided, managers can potentially begin to move from Target to Sponsor mode.
  • Make Certain There Are New Reinforcements in Place
    Managers are just like everyone else-- they do something because they are reinforced for it in some way. Ask yourself: What happens to those mid to upper-level managers who do the right things? What happens to those who don't? How often are the executives providing consequences for the behavior of their own direct reports? New reinforcements need to be in place to change the current state behaviors of these mid to upper-level managers. The new reinforcements must be aligned with getting these Sponsors to "express, model, and reinforce" their demonstrated commitment to the transformational change.


Change management is a daily exercise in power and politics. As a Change Agent you need to be able to influence both Sponsors and Targets of a change. But because Sponsors control the rate of change through their actions, your #1 priority needs to be ensuring they are on board. 

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PS - For more information about how to work with your Sponsors, read the article The Most Important Change Agent Skill? Contracting with Sponsors for What You Need!

Topics: Sponsorship, Change Agents, Leadership