Job description for an Executive Sponsor
Executive sponsorship is an important prerequisite for the success of employee groups. The challenge is finding a great sponsor, so what should you look for? What would a job description for an executive sponsor look like? ‑ Here are some practical ideas that have worked.
Why executive sponsorship is critical
Employee groups consist of volunteers with good intentions. They work, typically, in addition to their day job and after hours driven by the desire to address a need close to their heart. Together with colleagues, they seize opportunities to complement the organization’s objectives and goals and to improve the workplace. In most cases, employee groups are not an integral part of the organization: they don’t show up in organizational charts and have no formal authority.
For most group members, this voluntary work is ‘on top’ of the regular job and not reflected in their professional goals or performance evaluation. What makes a difference is having a strong ally: the executive sponsor.
From the organization’s perspective, some governance is needed to:
- Prevent the employee group left to operate in a void or detach from the rest of the organization
- Align the goals of the group with the needs and strategy of the company in a complementing and synergistic way
- Ensure the group’s practices comply with company policies and other regulations.
The leaders of employee groups owe their members to:
- Focus the group’s work to make a meaningful impact on the organization (instead of wasting resources and the member’s time on projects or activities that do not create value, are meaningless or even harmful to the organization)
- Get funds, active support, and political backing in the organization.
Both, the organization and the employee group benefits from the connection with an executive sponsor.
No silver bullet
When you are looking for an executive sponsor, what are you looking for? What are the relevant criteria? – Executive sponsorship is a role, just like any other job, so what would a job description for an executive sponsor look like?
Bear in mind that there is no one right answer for the working relationship with an executive sponsor. The sponsor role and level of involvement varies and depends on many factors. It also shifts over time with the changing maturity of the group and its leadership, for example, or levels of involvement and autonomy of the group. A new group may turn to the sponsor for help with forming, direction, and funding where a mature group may seek business insights, refined success metrics, and leadership development opportunities.
Criteria for an Executive Sponsor
A perfect sponsor effectively leverages their personal brand, relationships, resources to enhance visibility and credibility of the group. Look to ‘recruit’ a well-known leader, who is well-connected within the leadership team and respected throughout the organization. In an earlier post, we briefly touched on “How to attract an executive sponsor?”
Ideally, the sponsor is a top-level executive ‑ you hit the jackpot if you can get the CEO!
Overall, the group’s expectations to the sponsor’s role usually include that the sponsor:
- Serves as a champion of the group
- Gives strategic direction to align with the organization’s business strategy
- Helps to identify measurable success criteria that support business goals
- Provides advice and counsel to guide the group’s development
- Connects to a broad network of relationships
- Liaises with the executive team and accepts accountability
- Helps actively to identify and overcome obstacles and resistance within the organization
- Supports the group through communication and visibility.
The stronger your sponsor, the stronger the group! A strong sponsor shares valuable business knowledge, demonstrates leadership, and is genuinely willing to help others. A good sponsor encourages people to focus on how to engage others and improve communication, enhance the members’ leadership qualities and developing partnerships while helping to overcome barriers.
The sponsor you do NOT want
On the other end of the spectrum, there are also people you should avoid as executive sponsors for the group. This category includes people who:
- Provide lip-service over taking action
- Use the group for selfish reasons; for example, by claiming and promoting achievements of group members as their own
- Do not see the potential and value that the group can add to the organization and its businesses
- Do not make enough time to work with the group
- Are ineffective or unwilling to support and protect the group from opposing forces.
Finally, if you have the choice, avoid the temptation to have a group of executives ‘share’ responsibility and ‘champion’ the group collectively. This tends to dilute accountability and action while increasing communication and coordination overhead.
There is much truth in the saying: ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’
One of us?
Often enough, sponsors are chosen or step up because they originate from the group’s affinity core, i.e. they are of the same ethnicity that ethic-focused group represents, a female for a women’s group, a gay or lesbian for an LGBT group, and so on ‑ you get the picture. I advocate against this practice for two reasons, in particular: First, with an ‘outsider’ you achieve more diversity and mutual learning experiences in the group as well as for the sponsor. Secondly, the group becomes more believable as a business driver that attracts a broader membership base instead of risking to be perceived as an ‘insider club’ limited to members with a certain ‘diversity ticket’.
For the same reasons, you may also consider rotating sponsors every few years.
Quid pro quo
What you want is an involved and effective executive sponsor. Now, this sponsor role comes with additional work, responsibility, and risks for the senior leader’s reputation and career. Therefore, this ‘job opening’ must be compelling enough to attract a senior executive to step forward and sign up.
It is important to offer a value proposition that makes clear what is in it for the executive sponsor to make this symbiosis work. It is quite similar as discussed in “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) for the group members.
Know your sponsor
Sponsors are humans too, so here are some thoughts on how to approach them: Get to know your sponsor first, just as you would prepare and approach to meet any other very important customer or external business partner. Find out their goals, interests, beliefs, priorities, constraints of the political and economic environment, and personal work-style. What exactly is the sponsor’s interest in your group?
Clarify your expectations mutually. Once you know your sponsor and built rapport, it becomes easy to offer what is important to them and helping the sponsor to achieve their goals too.
A value proposition that addresses the (financial) bottom line is powerful and convincing. It also enables the sponsor to communicate the benefits with the leadership team in a (business) language that everyone understands. It takes business acumen, though, to specify and articulate the financial impact. If this is not your strong suit, you need to find other compelling upsides or values that the group can bring to the business and that is close to a sponsor’s heart.
Do and Don’t: How to work with the executive sponsor
Here is some practical advice on working with an executive sponsor.
On the Do side, preparation and focus are key. Remember, this is a business meeting. The executive’s time is valuable, so be respectful of it and do not waste it. You want the sponsor to remain approachable and willing to meet with you in the future whenever you need to see them urgently.
- Schedule appointments regularly (monthly, for example, if the sponsor agrees) with an agenda of topics to discuss
- Provide background information on meeting topics ahead of time and come well prepared
- Be on time and keep meetings on schedule
- Present any problems with a proposed solution
- Inform of issues in the workplace that affect the group and propose what the sponsor can to mitigate or resolve the issues
- Be honest with your sponsor – do not sugarcoat, blame others, or cover-up mistakes
- Give your sponsor a heads-up also before taking more public and visible action so they will not get caught by surprise – if there is bad news, share it with the sponsor first
- Discuss key goals and ask them for guidance, advice or assistance – allow your sponsor to help you and the group
- Reserve your requests for sponsor appearances and events to where it counts most. For example, as a speaker at a ‘headline’ event to draw a crowd, attract new members, and demonstrate the group’s value for the business. Ask if the sponsor is willing to recruit other executives or respected business partners and customers as guest speakers or participants.
- The sponsor could host a luncheon or dinner for the group’s leadership once or twice a year to meet everyone in person, discuss, and recognize achievements of the group and individual members.
As for the Don’ts, try to avoid these pitfalls:
- Don’t come with a hidden personal agenda – it’s strictly about the group
- Don’t bother the sponsor with petty day-to-day issues – focus on the meaningful impact on the business and the group
- Don’t ask for general funding or support – be specific and have data and facts ready to support your case
- Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and advice – but also don’t come just to commiserate.
Beyond the job description
Don’t underestimate the importance of the right chemistry between the group leader(s) and the exec sponsor; it is crucial to establish and foster a trustful, constructive, and pleasant work relationship.
For an employee group, executive sponsorship is more than the group’s endorsement by senior management: a strong sponsor becomes the lifeline when times get rough.
So when you go out to ‘hire’ your executive sponsor, also hire for the right attitude.