Executive sponsors and internal politics

There are no shortcuts

To make change in bureaucracies, it is widely accepted that you need an “executive sponsor.” To pass legislation, you need a “champion.” The argument goes that, if any change is going to happen, there will be friction, outright blockers, and various forces that arise to counteract the change. So, you need an empowered insider who can smooth the process, remove the blockers, and combat the “antibodies to change.”

For real change, though, executive sponsorship is not a sufficient condition. That is because executives and champions operate within their own political environments, and those environments may be hostile to change under certain conditions.

Consider, for example, the change of sponsoring a new program in an organization. In some environments where innovation is encouraged, an executive sponsor may be enough; there will be a process for proposing, testing, evaluating, and implementing new ideas. In other environments hostile to innovation, sponsoring a new program likely involves a zero-sum calculus; if one program moves, another can’t. In those environments, executive sponsors will vie for power and themselves avoid conflict on others’ behalf. In other words, in places where executive sponsorship is the most necessary, it is often because it is so scarce.

Some of my biggest failures have been the result of overreliance on executive sponsors to make change. Some of my biggest successes happened without any executive involvement at all.

Change does not have a formula or shortcuts, because change needs to happen at multiple layers in the organization. Change requires a thorough understanding of the environment, and using the leverage that is appropriate at each layer in the environment. If you have an executive sponsor, that’s fantastic! Your work has just begun.