Change is good: L is for leadership courage

Slalom Consulting Roger Kastner

Roger Kastner

Successful change occurs when sponsors are actively engaged and committed to the change.

I recently conducted a Change Success Factor survey where 71% of the respondents said that active and engaged sponsorship is the #1 success factor for change projects. Interestingly, the next highest identified factor, change leadership, weighed in at 47% of the vote. Clearly, active and engaged sponsorship is the unanimous, crowd-favorite success factor.

By recognizing that our sponsors are very busy and that we also need them to successfully lead change, we can better prepare them by identifying the most effective activities they can engage in and identify the opportunities to exhibit their commitment for the change.

By identifying those key activities, we also need to assess how much leadership courage will be required by our sponsor to lead the change. Failure to adequately prepare the sponsor may result in surprises, unmet expectations, and sponsorship fatigue. To compound this, the unprepared sponsor facing a more challenging change effort than expected may opt to modify plans or reduce his/her involvement at the exact moment when what’s needed most is for the sponsor to stay the course and be more engaged.

Let me tell you a story that highlights the need to identify leadership courage required for successful change.

I give them a paycheck, so they will do this or they can find another job.

A colleague found himself one day in a meeting with his sponsor that didn’t end well. For months, he had worked with his sponsor and the team to develop change plans associated with a technology project. The change plans were based on a strong employee engagement focus, including engaging a representative group of impacted employees to test the new system, deliver training, and be evangelists to their peers during the roll-out phase. While most of these employees were good advocates for the change, there was a small but vocal group of employees who were resisting the change, and they were voicing new concerns just a couple weeks before the implementation date.

Nothing in the above should sound shocking—in fact, this is similar to a daily ritual in many households when the children complain the loudest about having to eat their vegetables not when the dinner menu is announced, but only once it is served in front of them. The point of change resistance is greatest at the moment of impact.

My colleague wanted to better understand the reasons behind the resistance, and suggested to the sponsor that they engage the identified resistors in a discussion to discover the source of push-back. Instead, the sponsor shot back a terse response, “I give them a paycheck, they will do this or they can find another job.”

Ultimately, the sponsor was not expecting this level of push resistance, nor at that moment willing to entertain a foundational principle of the change plan, which was to continue to engage employees in the change at one of the most important moments of the effort: the moment of impact.

My colleague seized the opportunity to have a very difficult conversation with his client. He reminded her that not only will her actions impact the success of this change, but will likely have an impact on her ability to affect change in the future. Talking about engagement is one thing, but if you don’t do it when it matters most, that is what people will remember most. And the impact is not just to the immediate effort, but to the credibility and efficacy of the leader to lead the team through future changes.

Fortunately, the client was able to back down from that confrontational position and agreed that a different message should be delivered to the resisting employees. While she did not have the patience to directly have that conversation with the resistors, she did agree to a facilitated conversation between a group of the resistors and some of the employees who were advocates for the change to discuss the concerns. The purpose of that conversation was to identify leading indicators that could warn of bigger problems caused by the change and for the employees to monitor those indicators during the rollout.

By listening to the concerns, the resistors felt like they were heard; the project was able to continue with their support; and new risk indicators were identified that later proved to be additional validation of a successful implementation. The impact of that hour of investment, i.e., the meeting, far outweighed the potential consequences of the sponsor’s original position.

Three steps for identifying leadership courage

Learning from this and other experiences, I’ve identified three key things that, when performed together, will enable you to appropriately prepare your sponsors and identify the amount of leadership courage your sponsor will need to drive successful change.

Step #1: set clear role expectations for the sponsor

In order for a sponsor to be active and committed to the project, the sponsor benefits from knowing what it mean to be “active” and “committed” in a way that positively impacts the effort. To ensure you’re both are on the same page, you should share your expectations for the role of the sponsor, covering not only the “what” of S=sponsorship, but also the “how”’—and especially the “why.”

  • The “what” are the specific activities and the opportunities to exhibit commitment and reinforce the case for the change.
  • The “how” is the way in which the sponsor performs those activities. It is in “how” they show up and behave when engaging employees and stakeholders; “how” they communicate and dialogue with people about the change; and “how” they address those who resist or question the change.
  • The “why” is critical because if the sponsor does not believe in what he or she is being asked to perform, they will likely not do it. Therefore, if your sponsor has not fully bought in to being “active and committed,” then please use the results of my Change Success Factor survey to illustrate why it’s so vital to the success of any project.

Setting clear expectations for the sponsor and ensuring that you are both on the same page (and yes, literally, put this on paper) is critical to ensuring your sponsor understands what is required of him/her.

Step 2: “Tell me what the courage quotient is that I will need to expend”

At the 2013 Change Connect Symposium, Sue Hennessy from Kaiser Permanente participated on a panel forum addressing the topic of change leadership. While she was listing out what she needs from change managers when initiating any change effort, she said, “Tell me what the courage quotient is that I will need to expend [in order to make the change a success].”

By setting expectations with your sponsor, he or she will understand what it will personally take to drive the transformation. By identifying the “courage quotient,” you will help the sponsor assess how much political capital and goodwill needs to be expended, and how brave the sponsor needs to be during the course of the transformation. More important, you will help your sponsor assess the risk involved in doing so.

To identify the courage quotient, I recommend assessing the following four inputs, which also happen to be some of the first things you should already perform on any change initiative:

Assessment Objective How used for leadership courage
  • Identify volume and degree of change which employees must consume
  • Identify impact to stakeholders’ ability
  • Inform amount of activities, engagement, and measurement required for employee adoption
  • Inform amount of sponsor attention to stakeholder impact is required
  • Identify the posture of the organization toward this change; the positives and negatives; and potential areas of resistance, if any


  • Inform the degree of support and resistance
  • Inform amount of activities, engagement, and measurement required for employee adoption
Change History
  • Identify the recent history with change in the organization to assess change capability
  • Identify ability of leadership to lead change
  • Inform the level and degree of coaching and capability development required to lead the change
  • Identify the values and relevant behaviors which are relevant to the change
  • Informs the degree of change and alignment to organizational culture

These four assessment areas will not only greatly improve the understanding of the landscape for change for the initiative, but are four dimensions upon which you can assess how much leadership courage your sponsor can expect to exhibit in the pursuit of successful change.

The information from the combined assessments will paint a topographic map which helps to inform the sponsor’s expectations for the peaks and valleys along the journey; when and where to shift into low gear to be able to overcome the challenges; and to visually recognize that the effort goes beyond the summit and well into the reinforcement and sustainability of the change. Lastly, this leadership courage quotient map will lend itself to your sponsor’s confidence in your ability to support him/her throughout the effort.

Step #3: Swing through

One of the more important aspects of the golf swing is the follow-through, because the continued speed of the swing and the twisting motion of the body reinforces the elements of the swing before impact with the ball. The same properties are in effect with change, and the sponsor’s commitment to the change is demonstrated in their actions to reinforce the change after the moment of impact.

Just as the four assessments are used to inform the sponsor activities and commitment required to support the change, they can also inform what activities and commitment are required immediately after the change has been rolled out.

Doing so not only increases the likelihood of success of the change, it also reinforces employees’ perceptions about the sponsor’s level of commitment that will contribute to accelerating the rate of acceptance for future change projects.

Calculating leadership courage

Once you have set the expectation for the role of the sponsor, performed the assessments and have a multi-dimensional picture of the change journey, and have made it clear the sponsorship effort goes on well after the change has taken place, you are now ready to identify how much work this will take on the sponsor’s part and how much leadership courage they will have to expend during and after the change has taken place.

If you find the sponsor is not willing to expend the minimal level of leadership courage to make the effort successful, and you do not have adequate leadership support from stakeholders to overcome this lack of leadership courage, you should seriously consider asking to be removed from the project. If 71% of our colleagues say that “active and committed sponsorship” is the #1 change success factor, clearly this is a key success factor that cannot be ignored, just as a failed project on your resume will be hard to ignore too.

Wrap: FORE!

Wait, that should be “four!” as in the key assessment areas which help inform the leadership courage quotient, or degree to which your Sponsor will be required to engage and demonstrate commitment to the change initiative.

Before that, however, you and your sponsor should be crystal clear on the expectations of the role of the sponsor. This will not only help inform how much courage the sponsor already brings to the table, it will also help you identify how much coaching you are going to need to perform during the project to ensure your sponsor stays “active and committed.”

Lastly, you need to ensure your sponsor is aware of how they need to stay focused on reinforcing the change after the moment of impact. Not only does this exhibit commitment to the change, it bolsters the sponsor’s credibility and it greases the wheels for future change.

It’s just that simple.

About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

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