Section 3.2. Establishing Executive Sponsorship

3.2. Establishing Executive Sponsorship

Establishing executive sponsorship is an activity that is typically cited as a key success factor in the fields of process improvement and quality management. It is specially emphasized in ISO 9001:2000, the Capability Maturity Model Integration, and Six Sigma. These kinds of programs thrive when the broad workforce adopts them and backs them up, but they can only get to that point through a top-down organizational commitment.

Most corporate and IT initiatives work through executive sponsorship. The team that's charged with selecting a new automated test tool will usually answer to some type of sponsor. Committees put together to explore new market potentials or new product lines will usually operate through the guidance of a sponsor. The people who help promote the annual blood drive do so with the help of an executive sponsor. If there's a need for a special effort, if it's going to cost money, if it's going to require dedicated resources, the company will probably want to manage that, and that is typically done by appointing an executive sponsor. The same holds true for process improvement programs.

The executive sponsor is the arm of management that steps up to the plate to shepherd the program into the organization, to give the program the backing and the visibility it needs, and to intervene when necessary to make sure that the program's design and implementation activities are progressing along acceptable lines.

You could make a logical argument that those responsibilities could be handled by someone less senior in the organization. And, logically, that might be right. But the appointment of an executive to the job adds an element of clout that's hard to replicate in any other way. So when you begin down the path of process improvement, ensure that you have executive sponsorship on your side.

3.2.1. The Need for Executive Sponsorship

Executive sponsorship works best when the executive occupies a position of deep authority in the company. The sponsor should probably not occupy a block on the org chart that has a crowded view of the sky. If you are able to influence this decision, try to promote sponsorship at as high a level as you can communicate. Seek out a sponsor with broad authority, a track record with the IT group, and an ability to bring off strategic initiatives. Capable, empowered sponsorship is essential for three clear (but often unappreciated) reasons:

  • First, executive sponsorship demonstrates that the organization's leadership sees the importance and value that a quality program will bring to the company. Through sponsorship, it shows that it has adopted this vision and is now moving to share it with the rest of the company. This may be a subtle point, but it's one that runs below the surface, influencing the climate of the culture. Process management and quality can sometimes become set-aside concepts, overshadowed by deadlines, competitive pressures, or strained resources. When the executive arm of the organization raises the importance of quality to a level visible to all, the focus sharpens and appreciation for its value rises. An active sponsor, committed to the cause, is able to push this vision in a way that makes the vision tangible.

  • Second, executive sponsorship shows commitment to the nuts and bolts of your emerging process program. The value here is that sponsorship is able to communicate to the organization that the executive level is backing this initiative with confidence. With proper commitment, the program will less likely be viewed as a trial, a test, or a proof-of-concept (unless you intentionally shape it to be that); it will promote endorsement for the concept of quality, and for the company's ability to master its quality goals. That's a message that travels well. The executive sponsor should not only demonstrate belief in the principles of quality management, but should be seen to visibly move to make those principles part of the organizational culture.

  • Third, executive sponsorship will be required to govern the resources required to plan, design, create, and implement the program. This may be the single most important role of the sponsor. Your process initiative is going to need an independent existence within the organization, and it's going to need to be well integrated at the same time. This will require people (full-time or part-time) who will conduct program activities; money for payroll, computers, and tools; facilities; and time to carry the job through. The scope of your program will shape the type of resources you'll need, but you are going to need the backing of executive management to release those resources toward your goal.

All three of these reasons demonstrate the importance of having an executive sponsor to back your program.

3.2.2. A Leadership Assignment

In my work, I'm often called on to help organizations shape process programs that are starting from the ground up. These kinds of clean-slate assignments carry a lot of appeal because they can be carefully shaped with the foundation for long-term success. And one of things I like to contribute here is a sense of what executive sponsorship will mean to the program, what kind of person in the organization might be best suited to this role. Sometimes it takes a bit of reminding to management that this is not a toss-off job. Its purpose is not simply to connect a line up the organizational chart. In fact, together with the decision to move forward on a process improvement initiative, it may be the most important decision management will make regarding the program.

Last fall, I was working with Guy Bevente, an AVP of Information Technology at SBC who's done some impressive process work over the course of his career. He mentioned the importance of executive sponsorship and the criticality of executive involvement.

His point was that the issue of executive sponsorship, vital as it is to the success of a process initiative, should be seen as management making the choice to move the program forward. It becomes one of the first demonstrations of management's commitment to the vision. "It's a leadership function," Guy said. "The program sponsor is going to need a level of authority and visibility to shepherd the program through. More than that, though, the sponsor is going to have to possess the expertise to be the 'voice' of the initiative; and that requires the ability to live the commitment in the eyes of the organization."

For many, especially those new to process improvement programs, that's not an intuitive understanding. And so Guy made a recommendation to me that was obvious once I heard it: for someone engaged in a new process initiative and seeking the right kind of sponsorship, try creating a job description for the executive sponsor. Put this description down on paper and introduce it to management as early into the program as possible.

I like that idea. And I have found that management, even if they don't adopt the description in toto, more often than not uses it as starting point for appointing a sponsor.

You might want to try creating a job description for the kind of sponsor you think your program will need.

There is no generic template for this job. The description will need to reflect the specific needs of your program and your organization. But there is a general set of capabilities that may help you shape such a job description. I describe these next.


Guy Bevente, AVP of Information Technology at SBC, talked about the importance of executive sponsorship for any process program. And because the appointment of the right person to the job can be a crucial move in program success, he recommends creating a basic job description of the role. Following are some of the traits you might want the sponsor to possess:

Stand as a leader

Executive sponsorship demonstrates organizational commitment to the process program at the highest levels of management. In light of this, executive sponsorship is a leadership role. The sponsor needs to be an individual with the visibility, authority, and respect to move the vision forward. This is not a sideline job. It's not a backroom assignment. It requires active participation, an ability to communicate effectively up and down the chain, and talent for articulating the mission, goals, and values of the program.

Know the value

Another desirable trait is for the sponsor to possess knowledge of the field of process improvement. Effective sponsors understand the principles of continuous improvement and quality management. As an added plus, they might have a walking knowledge of popular programs like ISO 9001, CMMI, and Six Sigma. It's not critical that the sponsor be an expert in this field (the right staff will take care of that). But this understanding is clearly a plus when you consider that sponsors may well be called on to explain the programs in the field, what they're based on, and how they can help the business.

Carry the weight

Your process program represents an investment in the quality capabilities of your organization. And all investments require an allocation of resources. The executive sponsor needs to be that person who can carry this weight, someone with the authority and budgetary reach to deliver the funding, tools, and facilities you'll need to see your plans through. The sponsor should also be the kind of person who can carry a different sort of weight: the weight of progress. As we've mentioned before, process programs don't gel into success stories overnight. They take time and commitment to mature. The sponsor will need to be able to keep the organization focused on the long-term vision for this program, to help navigate over bumps in the road, and to keep the momentum of the process team moving forward.

Walk the walk

Executive sponsorship should not be a benign appointment. Sponsors should be the type who can walk the walk of the program. They should know the detail of where the program stands; they should have a finger on the pulse of how the program is affecting impacted work groups. They should follow progress closely so they can promote early successes and be prepared for any course corrections that might be approaching.

Process Improvement Essentials
Process Improvement Essentials: CMMI, Six SIGMA, and ISO 9001
ISBN: 0596102178
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 116

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