The Key to Change Is You

I was talking with a client recently about a change effort they were undertaking that had significant implications for the company. If it was successful, the project would dramatically improve customer service, revenue growth and profitability. My client said that without his constant ‘cheerleading’ and oversight, he felt the project would coast to a slow stop. In over 20 years of consulting, I’ve seen this role in change efforts make the difference between successful and failure.

Looking back on similar projects, I wondered, “What were the common factors in the ones that achieved stellar results?” The answer echoed my client’s comments: there was always an executive level sponsor who drove the project, and there was a middle level manager who championed the change effort. In the projects where both were missing, the result was always less than the client and I had hoped for.

Change is Hard

Middle managers are under constant pressures to get things done – shipping orders, producing product or helping customers. In some cases, they see change efforts as a fad that management is forcing onto the organization. Addressing change while meeting day-to-day objectives pushes the change efforts down to second (or even lower) priority.

Two people in the organization can drive dramatic results in change efforts: the project sponsor and the project champion.

The Project Sponsor

Typically a C-level executive with the power to drive the project, the sponsor says, “We’re going to do this and it’s important.” They provide resources and encouragement, and they hold people accountable for results. One of their essential contributions is a clear project vision that states the objectives in clear, measurable goals and timelines. The sponsor needs to be engaged enough to recognize when the project is beginning to lose momentum. Entropy happens, and the sponsor’s job is to ensure it doesn’t.

The Project Champion

Usually an upper mid-level manager, the champion owns the project’s day-to-day activities. This person needs to be empowered to take action and move things forward. They need to be closely aligned with the sponsor and feel free to call on the sponsor for support, especially when there are cross departmental issues.

In my consulting engagements at Company A, the CFO was the project sponsor and the Director of Supply Chain was the project champion. They shared a vision of what they wanted to accomplish and the effort moved forward quickly, resulting in millions of dollars of savings, dramatically reduced inventory, improved customer service, and better field team efficiency.

In another engagement at Company B, the sponsor was the company owner and the champion was the purchasing manager. In six months, they reduced inventory by two thirds, increased production efficiency, and improved customer service.

The sponsor’s and champion’s work continues even after the project ends. Both roles are essential for sustaining results, even if the titles and responsibilities are transferred to someone else. A few years after my engagement with Company A, the sponsor and champion both left the company, no new sponsor emerged, and the newly assigned champion wasn’t effective. Over a brief period of time, the initial accomplishments were completely reversed.

Other Key Considerations

  • Projects need to for the right resources to be successful. This may include an outside consultant or guide who has the knowledge and experience to help the sponsor and champion execute their roles. The right resources foster success, often much more quickly than a trial and error approach.
  • Things will get worse before they get better. Many sponsors panic when they see the numbers going in the wrong direction at first. This happens because it is often much easier to correct some things that make the numbers initially look bad. For example, if I am engaged to reduce inventory, one of the first things we attack is excess and obsolete. If it has to be written off, it negatively impacts profitability and cash flow. Later, as the changes we’re implementing take effect, inventory turns improve, materials costs go down, and revenues often go up. It is important to understand this so the sponsor and champion don’t give up before the results can be achieved.

The Take Away

As an executive, your role in change efforts is critical to their success.

1) Set objectives to guide the teams

2) Assign a strong project champion

3) Provide encouragement and oversight

4) Celebrate success


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