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:
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.