Implementing Your Growth Zone Plan Step 2: Selecting the Executive Sponsor

executive sponsor

This is the second in a five-post series on how to build a cross-functional team that delivers.  If you missed the first post in this series, you can find it here. If you have done your homework using the process we’ve discussed in previous newsletters, you are now ready to put your plans into place.

Now that you’ve chosen your leader, the second step in this process is selecting your executive sponsor.  This person is usually a member of the management board, with tenure and gravitas to pull together key executives from all functions to make key decisions. As I’m helping to untangle innovation processes in firms, one of the pieces that is most often overlooked is that the executive sponsor is the second most important member of the innovation team.  Their presence allows the team to be heads down and focused, without having to work the senior leader issues that are above their pay grade.  Lacking this resource, it is easy for the team to get absorbed in repeatedly re-justifying the importance of their efforts, rather than making progress.

Why is this?  Let’s explore together by clearly defining the executive sponsor’s role.

First, the executive sponsor needs to have the organizational gravitas to create air cover for the team.  What many miss, is that by definition all innovation at the outset is inefficient.  The group charged with working on the innovation activity will be working hard, but their output is not easily measured in the terms of the core business model.  This means in the metrics for the organization, having people coming offline will show as a productivity loss (that will eventually be paid back many times over).  It is during this investment cycle that a senior leader who both understands this, and can set more appropriate milestones for the innovation team (while also keeping the organization at bay), is essential. This includes running interference on activities like quality and financial compliance tools that are very important for the core organization, but are out scale for a small start up in the firm.

Second, the executive sponsor needs to be influential enough to guarantee that there are no cold spots of executive support.  Cold spots are executives who are lukewarm on the activity, and though they shake their heads’ yes at meetings, they quietly submarine the team’s progress when they leave.  An effective executive sponsor is able to form an effective board of directors of their peers (more on this in a future post) to make sure no pocket vetoes occur.

Third, she needs to be extremely and specifically influential in the portion of the organization that will provide the greatest resistance to the innovation.  Every innovation effort looks like a disaster at some point in the cycle, and it takes a steady hand on the tiller to keep everyone in the boat during vulnerable moments.  Having a respected voice step in behind the team leader at these moments is priceless, and can avoid an early end to promising projects.  Innovation teams are always low-hanging fruit for influential critics to point to and say, these are resources we could put to good use.

Fourth, they need to be great mentors and closers for the team leader – mentors from the point of view of helping the team leader chart an effective path for the innovation team.  This will involve highly creative activity to de-risk, then a move to implement and scale the innovation within the firm.  Closers, from the point of view of helping the team leader gather the best talent both internally and externally – which usually includes lunch with a key senior executive.

I get questions all the time from growth leaders inside firms who would like to execute a program, but have not been able to secure a senior-level sponsor with the above characteristics.  In that case, you can use the above as a shopping list to find the best sponsor for your program or project.  Grassroots innovation at some point will need to engage the entire firm, and that is when this step becomes critical.

If you are coming into this article in the middle of the series, be sure to start here on the business model work that needs to underlie this process.

I would like to hear about your experiences, both good and bad, regarding senior sponsors for innovation programs.  Please feel free to drop me an email or tweet me.

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