Covid-19 has changed "effective sponsorship". Here is how.

22 October 2020

Crisis-led change demands even more and better sponsorship. But Covid-19 presents leaders with new challenges.

author picture Article written by Morten Kamp Andersen

Do you know what #1 success factor is for any change initiative? I bet you guessed it. It is having a fully committed and visible sponsor. This has been true for as long as it has been researched. Sponsors can make or break a change. And Covid-19 will significantly amplify their impact, for better or for worse.

Successful change demands effective sponsorship. Crisis-led change demands even more and better sponsorship. We know that sponsors must be Active, Build coalitions and Communicate directly with employees. That has not changed. But Covid-19 presents leaders with new challenges. Let’s look at what they are … without overlooking the fact that disruption also brings opportunity.

New skills, same roles … and more important

Some behaviours have become more critical than others in a world grappling with uncertainty and operating on new hybrid ground. Effective sponsors must mirror the traits of “adaptive leaders”. Luckely, there is a great overlap with the ABC of sponsorship (see graph by PROSCI below).

Adaptive leaders are honest, enthusiastic, and lead from the front. It is even more crucial, in times of crisis, to make sure everyone understands who is making decisions, and what is informing them[1]. Strategic messages should always come from leaders and executive seniors. They are the trusted source and must therefore take centre stage. Adaptive leaders show a great deal of energy and “convey a high level of enthusiasm”. They also tell like it is. No one was trained to navigate such turbulent waters. Honesty and transparency will keep people for the long-haul.

Adaptive leaders are not lone leaders. The best way to deal with a crisis is precisely to avoid adopting a top-down approach towards solving problems. Adaptive leaders seek to mobilise collective action, which results in more cohesion and better engagement rates. They build change coalitions with peers and managers, also stepping up efforts to communicate with employees.

Adaptive leaders communicate more, with greater clarity. In other words, they have a clear list of priorities that they communicate often. A good rule of thumb is to “say something 10 times in 10 different ways for people to retain 10%”. That may sound like a lot, but unclear rules and poor guidelines are enemies of change. Disruptions always bring their fair share of conflicting information and rumours, hence the need to take the (virtual) floor as many times as needed.

We can see how sponsors of change are expected to be more Active, more visible, Build stronger coalitions, and Communicate more directly with employees. Sponsorship is not just a matter of greenlighting activities and funding changes. This was true in the past and will be even more so in the future. But the backdrop against which those dynamics play out has changed. Let’s have a look at the new setting before we dive into the nuts and bolts of virtual sponsorship.


Effective sponsorship is different in a virtual world

Beyond the crisis itself, beyond the sense of confusion and chaos, the way people work and interact has profoundly changed. If sponsorship is the art of driving engagement, then we need to understand how the so-called hybrid workplace might affect and transform it – for the better.

Disengagement? Not with proper support. Lockdowns and staged returns have disrupted working habits on a scale never seen before. Yet, the dreaded productivity slump did not materialise. According to a worldwide survey conducted by Zengerfolkman, more than 80 % of respondents report that they enjoy working from home, 60% that they feel less stressed, and 65% more productive. A better work/life balance explains much of these results. But satisfaction and engagement rates are also very much tied to the “extent to which they have secured a positive connection with their supervisors”. The takeaway? Remote work may create win-win situations, on one condition: collaborators need active and supportive leaders.

An opportunity to re-engage. Like it or not, the virtualisation process is redefining the boundaries between the professional and the personal spheres. Zoom, Microsoft Team, and Skype meetings have quickly reshaped the way we interact with each other. Puzzling guest appearances of family members - human or else -, and small talk, are features of the new normal. Without downplaying the challenges and difficulties that such a virtualised environment brings to all of us, we can say that people are somehow learning to re-connect[2]. The sweeping changes affecting the workplace have opened up new avenues to create engagement. And that is something for sponsors to ponder.

Here is how to start redeploying sponsorship efforts in a virtual environment (Prosci 2020).

Be Active: show up on virtual platforms. The multiplicity of virtual platforms can feel disorienting, but they offer plenty of opportunities to be visible and supportive towards your collaborators. Actively participate in kick-off meetings, training sessions, team meetings and celebrations, … all from the comfort of your home or office. Decrease the commuting time and increase the time spent on sponsoring the change.

Build a coalition of sponsors: rotate participation. It is one thing to align sponsors; it is quite another to demonstrate commitment. Both the leadership and executive team must take an active part in the virtual activities. Alternate participation. Keep track of who did what and when for coordination purposes. Circulate information and feedback among sponsors to make the coalition more cohesive.

Communicate directly with employees: leverage technology for greater flexibility. You want to keep in touch with smaller groups, with those working from remote areas and those operating from different time zones, … etc. Using Zoom and Teams are not the only way to reach out. Offer flexibility using other platforms and collaboration apps/chats that allow for delayed reading and response. Change happens one person at a time, and no one can be left behind.


[1] Ramalingam, B. et al. (2020) 5 principles to guide adaptive leadership, Harvard Business Review, 11/09/2020.

[2] This last part draws on Prosci (2020), How to succeed as a virtual sponsor of change today. 

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