Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

“Change leadership” is not THE silver bullet. The Silver Bullet series.

Seems like many organizations are looking for the secret to effective strategic execution―the one thing that will fix the so-called 70% failure rate. The problem is (and we all know it deep down), there are no simple solutions for complex problems.  In this series, I will look at the conventional “silver bullets” and explore why none work alone and each is only moderately effective in its common form.

“Change leadership” is a favorite clarion call among change practitioners.  And, don’t get me wrong, I too believe that “it” (once we can agree on what “it” is) is important.  However, I believe that by promoting change leadership as a panacea we are setting ourselves up for failure.  I realize that this is a bit of a controversial position to take―I may be asking you to think differently about what you know.  I will look at three points:

  1. “Change leadership” is not “leadership”
  2. Why is sponsorship regularly rated as the most important element for successful change if it’s not a silver bullet?
  3. The punch line

Note: the context for this discussion is “strategic” change or “transformational” change.  Our firm’s definition: “Transformational change is highly disruptive to the way people do their work. It generally affects a large portion of an organization, shifts the power dynamic, and requires changes in mindset and behaviors to be realized.” (1) This is very different than the more common incremental change.

1.  “Change leadership” sounds like “leadership”

Yes, strategy is set by the leaders of the organization and, yes, they are accountable for its successful execution.  And in that broad sense they inherit accountability for change leadership.

Most strategy requires leadership, not change leadership

The term “change leadership”, in most publicly available literature, tends to leverage great leadership practices and high-level processes ─ as if leading change is about leadership on steroids.  And, despite the fact that many add “change management” to position descriptions as if it were only a competency, this does not automatically mean that leading this level of change is an extension of what the incumbent regularly does.

In mature industries, the largest organizations are like supertankers ─ many executives onboard during “business as usual” and are involved with incremental change only (e.g., implementing a product extension, a new technology within a single department, negotiating a big sale or outsourcing contract).  They may be great “leaders” (great at motivating their teams, optimizing resources, running their part of the world, etc.), but many have never been a part of a complex, high-risk, company-wide strategic change.

Furthermore, the emphasis suggests that success is all about the leader.  For me, the emphasis is backwards ─ great leaders recognize that the real power lies in their people.  Here’s an interesting ratio: if leaders need a year to analyse strategic options, why do they assume that their people need only a couple of town halls, webcasts, or emails?

Transformational change, requiring real change leadership, is rare

Transformational change happens maybe once or twice in a senior executive’s career.  Many great leaders have never implemented, or even been a part of, transformational change.  Please re-read this statement―I am not kidding.

Transformational change is disruptive―it requires leaders to change how they think about the market, changing customer needs and demographics, competitive disruptions, the organization’s competitive strengths, product offering and development strategies, and distribution channels. Sometimes they have to consider these concurrently. Then they must help others change their own mindsets and move out of their comfort zones to work differently.

Sounds easy? It’s deceptively difficult―just ask a battle-worn turn-around specialist. Consider the increasing complexity of strategies that:

  • Turn order-takers into passionate sales professionals or de-sensitized call center operators into empowered problem solvers
  • Drive Lean Six Sigma capability and benefits
  • Move hundreds of middle managers and clerks from an entrenched spaghetti mess of 20-yr-old systems over to ERP
  • Bring competitors together in a merger or acquisition
  • Transition from an “operational excellence” mindset to a “fail fast” innovation culture

It is true that the number of transformational strategies is increasing in response to seismic market shifts; however, they are still relatively rare. Examples of trends and companies affected would be:

  • Wholesale business model shifts in response to US Health Care Reform
  • Accelerated product cycles in technology and communications, (e.g ., FACEBOOK, RIM, Nokia and Kodak)
  • Aggressive consolidations (e.g., in consumer products―Kraft’s acquisition of Cadbury)

Change leadership has to go beyond great leadership

The competencies and processes for leading transformational change are far from business as usual.  Some will argue that the competencies are the same, just advanced.  I am not convinced. Rather, I believe they are so advanced as to be different. Furthermore, there is advantage in separating change leadership out as a role (sponsorship) where the competencies and responsibilities can be clearly defined, discussed and contracted for.

So what’s so different about “sponsorship”?  

Many methodologies support a similar definition of Sponsorship as noted here.  I will not go so far as to call it an industry standard although it might be emerging as such. Sponsorship recognizes the unique requirements of the leader(s) of the change. The following just scratches the surface as examples:

  • Sponsorship cannot be delegated―it is organic. A sponsor is accountable for transitioning the targets (the people whose job is changing, without whom the results cannot be generated of through the change efficiently and effectively. Role maps are often used to track who the change targets are, who their managers are, and on up to the single manager who has oversight over all of the change targets. We define this person the Initiating Sponsor. Without going into too much detail, there are also roles for Primary Sustaining Sponsors and Local Sustaining Sponsors. This map lets us see who has actual leverage in the organization―who controls consequences over the change targets.
  • Sponsors are targets first.  Until a sponsor is committed to the change, he/she cannot authentically engage others. By defining sponsorship as a role, separate from leadership, we can treat it differently.
  • Our research indicates that there are specific mindsets of successful sponsors. Here are three examples (paraphrased) (2):
    • Start with yourself―Incumbent sponsors can’t transform their organizations unless they are willing to be transformed themselves.
    • Discomfort―The job of sponsors isn’t to keep people happy during change, it’s to help them succeed despite their discomfort.
    • Change is messy―It requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, managing paradox instead of contradictions, making tough decisions with insufficient data, and learning from failure.

There are deep bodies of work on this subject. This is just a sampling of the richness of thinking that can happen when “sponsorship” is recognized as a unique role.

And, still, sponsorship alone is not enough.

2.  So why does research identify sponsorship (or leadership, if you must), as the #1 requirement?

The question usually goes along the lines of, “What is the most important element of implementing change?” Respondents say, almost in unison, “sponsorship”. The problem I have here is that both the question and the answer are naively interpreted:

  1. The question leans in the direction of implying that if you do this one thing right everything else will flow. We all want to believe this and fall into this trap.
  2. We have all been conditioned to believe that the most important thing is sponsorship.  It is conventional wisdom―everybody says it.

Why is it so easy to fall into this assumption?  Well, it’s because both the question and the answer are partly right. However, the real power is in the white space, in what is omitted:

  • There is an optimal sequence but no single element is more important than the others. Sponsorship is one of several critical elements.
  • The elements are symbiotic (3).

It is true that contracting early for full sponsorship is one of the patterns of successful transformation,  but there are implicit assumptions in this statement that need to be understood to be leveraged:

  • The usual assumption is this:  If we get sponsorship right then he/she can make all the other elements happen, can “roll out the red carpet”, as it were. If this were true then transformational change should be easy.  In reality, sponsors (even the “leader”) face constraints in their organizations and in their markets. Experienced sponsors and agents anticipate, analyse and navigate these compromises deliberately.
  • “Full sponsorship” alludes to the full array of the role.  Sponsors really need to understand what is required of them before they can fully commit to that role.
  • There are gems in the phrase “contracting”.  The optimal relationship between sponsor and change agent is a true partnership, with the change agent supporting the sponsor from the shadows. Such a relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, where the sponsor relies on the agent to be an expert in strategy execution, to inform and then to support.

So, yes, you can see that I agree sponsorship is important and it must happen early. However, there are many other foundational elements.  Our research has identified 15 risk factors―Sponsorship is #6.  Others include: deep understanding and alignment around the real intent and impact of this particular strategic change, understanding and willingness to address the culture of the organization, and integrated management of the delivery of the whole portfolio of change.

3.  The punch line

Executing strategy is highly complex and requires integrated thinking.  The temptation to rely on the “top of the house” or to simplify as “most important” is a misguided, sometimes self-serving, deception.

It is not that the leader’s role is so important or difficult (although it is both). It is that this role comes first and is foundational.  It is a part of a larger approach, like the chassis of a car or the hull of a boat. If all you had was great sponsorship, would your strategy be executed quickly, deeply, and sustainably? Of course not. Like most choices in life, it is not “either/or”.


(1)    Daryl Conner, Change Thinking Glossary

(2)    “Realization Mindsets for Sponsors: Separating Success from Failure during Transformational Change”, Conner Partners White Paper, 2010-2012.

(3)    Symbiotic here refers to “the association of two different organisms living attached to each other or one within the other”, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1983, 1982.

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6 Comments so far
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Gail, it strikes me that the difference between leadership (in all its various flavors) and sponsorship is the sponsor’s deep belief that the needed/desired/required future really matters, and that the sponsor really cares that the future will be made present. This implies (for me) that the sponsor is as skilled as s/he is willing to take risk.

I am not implying that leaders lack these attributes; I am implying that they may not be able (for legitimate reasons) to give the future the intense attention it needs to become real in the present.

As usual, sponsors who do not have leaders covering their backs will struggle no matter their passion for what really matters.

Comment by billbraun

Bill, you always bring greater insight. Appreciate it. Gail

Comment by Gail Severini ©


This post is worth a re read- and I did, twice!

The small group of senior change practitioners out there (I certainly count you as one of them) who truly understand change management at the highest levels needs to keep speaking out, clarifying and explaining.

Your take on “Change Leadership” is a good push in the right direction.

I would add that very few actual PRACTITIONERS have been involved with transformation at the level that they can represent the whole and understand the pieces.

Our time is right around the corner, if not now. Things are picking up and senior executives are seeing they need some trusted advisory help.

Change management may just make it out of its infancy this year…

My own takes on this topic (I hope it is OK to add links):

and for more tactical leadership divided into roles:

Comment by Garrett Gitchell (@ggitchell)

Delighted that you are here, Garrett. Thank you for taking time to read and comment. I always appreciate your point of view and am pleased to see your links here. You keep me thinking about change, change management and change leadership in fresh ways. Keep it coming. Gail

Comment by Gail Severini ©

Interesting, indeed, Gail. As with your thinking here and many other discussions on change, there is a central role for courage and overcoming fear. So here’s a contrast that extends your argument…Leadership, even in its ‘transformational’ or ‘servant’ forms, (deep listening, selflessness, etc.) is a wonder (standing out as such because it seems such a rarity). Still, such leadership is really just good citizenship in key roles is it not? Further, leadership is a collection of behaviors comprising a point of influence that can be distributed amongst many (i.e., “leadership at many levels”). Popular “change leader(ship) models” do not address the different forms of change leadership required by the project lead, peer-influencer, process owner, change architect (designer), implementation lead, or sponsor. You raise the bar here by noting that change leadership is important, but distributed and maybe not the fulcrum on which sustainability rests…

We all want the support of others (mgrs, peers, etc. as leaders) who listen and provide constructive guidance, but what makes a difference in breakthrough change?…Courageous SPONSORSHIP. I reserve the influence on the heaviest lifting in change (realignment of org priorities, resources, and norms) as the role of the sponsor(s). Much of the work I do to get changing companies “unstuck” goes quickly to re-setting the role of sponsors and getting them to be active influencers (leaders).

Comment by tvannest

Hi Todd! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think we vigorously agree on the importance of sponsorship. The point I was getting at in this blog post was that, as important as sponsorship is, it is not the only important element of strategy execution.

I am intrigued by your references to courage – this has never resonated with me personally before but I sense that I am in a minority. In February I have been spending some time reflecting on this with my colleagues. Daryl Conner shared this quote with us which did really resonate with me: “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends.” —J. K. Rowling. This strikes me as very relevant in that leaders must “stand up to” their colleagues (enemies and friends) in order to make change happen in the organization and this really does require conviction, resilience, diplomacy … and courage. Thanks for adding your voice, continuing the discussion and, what I most appreciate, thinking together.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

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