Successful Digital Transformation Needs an Executive Sponsor

This crucial role is much more than a figurehead. Here are the do’s and don’ts.

Are the results of your digital transformation projects uneven? Is the project threatening to tarnish your carefully burnished reputation? Are the cost-benefits of some projects disappointing?

Digital transformation is often complex. Without determined leadership, digital transformation projects usually fizzle or fail. Success is achievable only when projects are sponsored by a senior executive who understands their benefits and can champion them in the C-suite.

An executive sponsor is much more than a figurehead. Executive sponsors have a specific role to play in digital transformation, and there’s a right and wrong way to do the job properly.

How to Find an Executive Sponsor for Digital Transformation

An executive sponsor provides budget dollars, business staff, and facilities. Without these resources, no digital transformation project can succeed. Therefore, the executive sponsor must be high enough on the organization chart to allocate resources.

For example, VPs or Executive VPs are great executive sponsors because their authority to allocate staff and budgets is a critical success factor for projects. Managers and supervisors are not because their authority is insufficient.

Executive sponsors do not need digital transformation technical expertise or experience related to the project deliverables. Senior management selects executive sponsors for their significant business experience and senior leadership credibility within the organization.

For example, executive sponsors do not need to know about simulation technologies, software development methodologies or the capabilities of specific cloud service providers.

The technical expertise and experience that digital transformation projects require come from the project manager, the team, supporting departments in the organization, and vendors and service providers contracted by the team.

When executive sponsors wade into the technical detail, they may irritate the project team and undermine their own reputations.

Executive Sponsors Champion Digital Transformation

The executive sponsor validates the digital transformation project’s business case. It doesn’t matter how valuable others think the project is to the organization. There is no project if the executive sponsor doesn’t believe the business case.

For example, suppose the business case is about slicing weeks or months out of the product development timeline by using digital twins. The executive sponsor must believe this is both achievable and valuable.

The executive sponsor is accountable to the CEO and other senior executives for achieving the business goal of the project. Given this significant role, the executive sponsor chairs the project steering committee.

Ducking the role is always a disservice to the organization and can limit the executive sponsor’s career prospects.

The executive sponsor and the other steering committee members must enthusiastically communicate, sell and defend the digital transformation project benefits in informal discussions throughout the organization. They remind the organization of the project’s value proposition and maintain its commitment to the project. If these individuals fail to champion the benefits, challenge the benefits or criticize the project, the project is doomed.

For example, the executive sponsor must include the project status in meetings with other senior managers and remind them of its value proposition.

Executive sponsors’ silence about the value of digital transformation projects causes the organization to assume they’re not essential and gradually decommit resources.

Executive Sponsors Support Project Managers

One crucial role of the executive sponsor is to offer organizational insights to the project manager, who often does not have enough seniority and reputation for the organization to accept necessary but unwelcome recommendations.

For example, the executive sponsor may say, “Thanks for indicating that the support of the South American Division seems tepid. I’ll go with you to approach the VP about the staffing shortage issue we’ve been discussing.”

The executive sponsor should:

  1. Commit to a firm schedule of meetings with the project manager. The frequency is usually weekly or bi-weekly.
  2. Respect the project manager’s mandate and delegation.
  3. Provide open, frank feedback to the project manager on project observations and how improvements could be made.
  4. Demand honest opinions from the project manager about project status and issues.
  5. Guide the project manager in helpful areas such as internal politics, corporate history, and prejudices held by various stakeholders.
  6. Not create pressure to provide a false, overly optimistic project status.
  7. Operate the project manager relationship based on mutual trust.
  8. Ensure the project manager receives leadership coaching if needed.

When the project manager feels ignored or unappreciated by the executive sponsor, productivity and morale deteriorate.

The executive sponsor occasionally speaks to the entire digital transformation team to publicly provide kudos, encouragement and boost morale. For example, the executive sponsor can share some senior management scuttlebutt that would be good for the team to hear to reinforce the importance of the team’s work for the organization.

Occasionally, the executive sponsor may meet individually with team members to confirm morale and address issues team members will be reluctant to share in a public forum.

When executive sponsors are distant or unavailable, the project team starts to believe the project is not essential to the organization. That conclusion leads to increased staff turnover, lower productivity and quality lapses.

Executive Sponsors Keep Digital Transformation on Track

Every digital transformation project develops issues related to scope, priorities and approach. Only the executive sponsor can resolve or lead the resolution of the most significant issues that cross organizational boundaries. It’s up to the project manager to raise these issues with the executive sponsor for resolution.

For example, say the project’s data analytics work depends on manufacturing data, and the data quality is low. Only the executive sponsor can march into the office of the VP of Manufacturing to ask that the data be cleaned up and extract a commitment that the data will remain high quality into the future.

When the digital transformation project was approved, various stakeholders accepted resource commitments to work with the project. However, as the project proceeds, the stakeholders are typically hit with new resource demands and gradually de-commit from the project. Only the executive sponsor can reverse this trend. Once again, it’s up to the project manager to point out this failure to fulfill commitments to the executive sponsor for resolution.

To the greatest extent possible, the executive sponsor shields the team from distracting and harmful internal politics and defends the project. Conversely, when executive sponsors remain aloof, project progress slows.

The Dos and Don’ts of Executive Sponsorship

Digital transformation projects can deliver exciting benefits for engineering organizations when the executive sponsor proactively participates and avoids common pitfalls.

Executive sponsors should:

  1. Believe the project business case is sound.
  2. Believe the project goal aligns with and adds value to the organization’s business strategy.
  3. Be available for and oriented about their role.
  4. Have a clear view of their role in the project.

Executive sponsors should not:

  1. Fail to take their role seriously.
  2. Be hesitant about their actions due to a lack of experience with the role.
  3. Be distracted from fulfilling their role.
  4. Become unsure about their role when they recognize their lack of direct technology expertise or experience.
  5. View the role as being a figurehead.
  6. Interfere with the work of the project manager.
Written by

Yogi Schulz

Yogi Schulz has over 40 years of Information Technology experience in various industries. He writes for ITWorldCanada and other trade publications. Yogi works extensively in the petroleum industry to select and implement financial, production revenue accounting, land & contracts, and geotechnical systems. He manages projects that arise from changes in business requirements, from the need to leverage technology opportunities and from mergers. His specialties include IT strategy, web strategy, and systems project management.