The ASK of Sponsorship

By Renée M Dineen

The role of a change sponsor is well studied and documented. Sponsors are expected to adopt specific mindsets and display a long list of behaviors that have been defined and refined over many years by organizations and consulting firms alike. Yet there are so few sponsors that live up to these expectations. Why?

For over 20 years I have led and lived transformational change at high tech and biotech companies in the Silicon Valley. Working oversees for five years and consulting with companies in a variety of industries and life cycles, I have come to see that the major failure is this: a complication of the role. 

We ask for too much. We are unrealistic and overly optimistic without viable and stated agreements. Ultimately, most change sponsors are set up for failure.

This article simplifies sponsorship into three main roles—the ASK of sponsorship.

  • Advocate for the change 
  • Secure the change lead’s success
  • Know the landscape 

ADVOCATE for the Change 

The first and most important role of change sponsors, assuming they have the credibility to legitimize the change, is to visibly advocate for and support the team. They are in the best position to influence up and across, to leverage their network proactively. The best sponsors spend planned time presenting and selling the change(s). They motivate leaders and stakeholders to actively work towards the defined future state.  

Ultimately, change sponsors validate the change. By doing this they become advocates for the team—the employees and supporters who are doing everything they can to ensure the change is successful.

SECURE the Change Lead’s Success

Change sponsors are in the best position to secure the change lead’s success. Great sponsors coach and support the change lead and lead change agents. They set clear expectations including scope and timeframe. They provide regular and timely feedback and offer perspectives from inside and outside the project.  

Sponsors must be fully invested. If the change lead is successful, the sponsor is successful, and vice versa. It is a mindset of mutual commitment and ownership that differentiates good from great sponsors—sponsors that future change leads seek to work with. 

KNOW the Landscape 

Great sponsors proactively stay in touch to know what is going on for the change lead and the team. Part of keeping the role simple is not getting mired down in details or getting too far ahead of the team. Instead, it is about focusing on the team’s day-to-day experience.  

The best sponsors are attuned to the challenges of change—be it systems, technology, processes, culture or people. They review progress at defined milestones or ‘gates’, and only allow continuation if milestone criteria are met.

They hold the budget for changes and pay only for activities and supporting projects that meet the change criteria. They act to remove resistance and other organizational barriers that hinder the changes being implemented.

In summary, they stay close enough to the change to bring value across the entire lifecycle. 

Reflection Questions for Sponsors

Advocate for the Change 

  • Do I proactively look for ways to advocate for the change team formally and informally?
  • Do I make time for the change leader and team?
  • Are my peers motivated to support the team and change as a result of my actions?
  • Does the team feel my support in practical ways? How do I know?

Secure the Change Lead’s Success

  • Am I equally invested in the success of the change? 
  • Do I coach as opposed to tell the change lead what to do? Do I trust them?
  • Have I been clear enough on what success looks like, what I expect and how the change lead and team can best utilize me?
  • Do I speak the truth? Am I willing to tell the change lead and team what they want and may not want to hear?

Know the Landscape 

  • Do I know enough about what is going on within this change to deliver value day-to-day?
  • Am I focused on the right things at the right time?
  • When a challenge arises, do I equally take it on or assume it belongs to the change lead or change team?
  • Do I help the change lead and team make tough choices to ensure they stay focused and on track?

Reflecting on these, what kind of sponsor are you? How can you be better?

If you are a change lead or change agent, what kind of sponsor do you have? Most importantly, how can you simplify their role and get what you really need? 

What is your ASK of Sponsorship?


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