executive sponsor

Help! My Executive Sponsor Is Missing! How to Find One (or a New One)

It was a dark and stormy night.

The phone rang out in the darkness. I picked up. “Joe,” whispered the guy at the other end of the line, “he’s gone!” It was Frank, our project manager.

“Who’s gone?” I said.

“Fredricks.” Fredricks was our Chief Innovation Officer. Made some great strides around here since he showed up. Cool ideas. Nice guy. Almost too nice. Frank continued:” We went to meet with him on the next phase of the program and he was gone. Office cleaned out and everything. Except for one thing.”

Damn, I thought. Not another one. My lighter clicked as I was thinking. I decided not to light up. Had quit years ago, but playing with my dad’s old Zippo calmed my nerves. “What?” This had happened before. That time they’d just relocated him to another office in another building. It may have happened again.

“His Top Innovator award” he said quietly.

Damn. It was a missing persons case after all. “I’ll take the case, Frank” I said.

Missing: One Executive Sponsor

As an intrapreneur, you rely on your executive sponsor to fight the good fight for your program. Your sponsor is your voice in the C-Suite, the guy or gal who ensures that you have the budget, the resources, the people, and the ability to keep moving forward. To keep innovating.

You know that you need an executive sponsor.  You probably already know that this is non-negotiable. In fact, you really could use more than one executive sponsor. Based on my experience, the #1 killer of innovation labs and innovation programs is losing their executive sponsor. I have seen this far too many times.

You might ask why. When everyone keeps saying that innovation is so important to an organization, you might think, so do I really need a sponsor?

The issue is that, no matter how well you attempt to integrate your innovation function into the culture of your organization, there will always be factions within your company who are ready to kick you out of the organization or shut you down. These are sometimes known as your “corporate immune system”. The organizations which find all innovation non-threatening are few are far between. You can always tell those organizations because even their own organizational structures can be innovative. If you are seeing a standard org chart in your organization, then there is a good chance that someone out there still wants to shut you down.

It doesn’t matter if your program is doing well or failing – without an executive sponsor, your program’s days are numbered.

Don’t have a sponsor? Or just lost one?

It’s time to go to work. Grab your trusty fedora, and let’s burn some shoe leather. You need to become part startup founder and part detective to get the job done.

Think of tracking down an executive sponsor for your program just like you would track down an investor or the perp in a case – 1) Define your target, 2) Get your story straight and 3) Connect.

Open a text file or an Excel sheet and let’s get to work.

Find Candidates (or track down the suspects!)

They should be a) highly placed or very well connected within the organization b) are interested in innovation c) have a future focus d) are driven and motivated to succeed.

  1. Troll your internal address book. Most every enterprise has an internal address book. Search through for terms like “innovation” or “strategy” in job titles. Look for clusters of individuals within a group with that title. Move up through the levels of the organization until you find someone senior enough in that group. Get those names and contact information and paste them into your document. More good titles to look for can include “new product development”, “labs” or “research”. This could be different for each organization so you may need to expand your search to more terms.
  2. Troll through your internal communications tools. Most enterprises use tools like SharePoint, Jive, Hipchat, Yammer, Slack or bespoke homegrown internal communications software for employees to post updates, share links, blog, and other kinds of internal communications. Look for people posting on innovation, new products, interesting startups, external companies that look interesting etc. Grab those names and copy them into your Excel sheet as well.
  3. Troll through LinkedIn. Do a company search and find everyone in your organization by searching for your company name and “innovation” and some of the search terms above. This will look through their profiles and highlight anyone who has used those terms. Copy those in too.
  4. Depending on your industry, there may be other sites that you can go to. Look for anyone at your company who speaks at conferences on any of the topics above. These are typically good candidates for your sponsor.
  5. Take the names on the list and order them by how often they come up in the above. If they come up in all the above, meet the criteria, then those are good candidates.
  6. Finally, do a straight-up Google search on the best ones to help flesh out their profile. Make notes in the Excel that you feel are appropriate.

Get your Pitch Together – It’s Shark Tank Time (or get your story straight!)

  1. Depending on the culture of your organization, this may be an easy or a hard sell. Put together a “pitch deck” or “pitch document” describing the program that you have – or the program that you want to run, if you don’t already have one.
  2. The document should cover what you want out of the program, how you will design it to fit into your culture, the kinds of challenges that you intend to tackle, the kind of outputs you are looking to get and over what timeframe. Think about the kinds of engagements you want to do – small workshops, big enterprise programs. Think about all the stakeholders involved and their roles. Think about the process that you will take to review candidate ideas, what will happen to them. Think about any incentives that you might like to provide. In short, develop a pitch deck. Put all of that in, then review and review until your plan is tight.
  3. Once you have your pitch deck, distil it down to an elevator pitch. Think of it like a startup – your internal innovation program – and you are looking for your leader or new CEO.

Approaching Your Prospective Sponsors (or put them in the lineup!)

  1. Now that you have all the above, you are ready to pinpoint your future sponsor. Start with the most senior person, and work your way down.
  2. Look at your list: you can probably see some outstanding candidates based on a cross reference of those who are interested in innovation, startups and the future with those whose charge is delivering innovation, new products, and services.
  3. Time to reach out: develop an outreach program. Depending on your personal communications style, reach out with a phone call or an email. This is the best way to start. If you are not getting responses that way, try connecting via LinkedIn: read their profile, make a comment on something that they have done which you find innovative, then mention that you are “always interested in connecting with other innovators, especially those at [insert company name here]”
  4. Introduce yourself in the communication. Tell him or her that you are interested in connecting with other innovators within the organization. Ask if you could meet sometime in the next two weeks. If they are remote, see if you can set up a call.
  5. If you get through to them by phone, or via a positive reply to your email, depending on how interested they seem at your first touchpoint, decide how deep into the discussion you want to go: if they seem cool, set up a call. If they seem hot, you can go ahead and describe the program:
    1. If you don’t have a program yet, describe the program you are planning to set up. Answer any questions they might have – draw from the deck you have already prepared – no need to show it yet
    2. If you already have a program, talk about the program’s successes, lead with metrics if possible.
  6. If they are hot and have bought in, ask if they would like to help support the program, then leave it at that. You can get back to them later with the kind of support that you are looking for. Set up meetings to get into it in more detail.
  7. As always, go by their seeming interest in the program. Use your judgment. Act like you are in sales and you are pitching a prospect: if they are cool, stretch out the communications over a few calls or meetings. If they are very interested, tell them more.
  8. If you are unsuccessful on the first choice, keep moving down the organization. If you start to reach individuals who only have responsibility over a specific area, such as a region or division (for example APAC or Logistics) then you may need to tweak your message specifically for that audience and reduce the scope of the program, targeting it to that specific group. Better a smaller program which can grow, than none.

Now that you have one or two of them “on the hook”, it’s time to reel them in. Use your judgment, but at some point, ask them if they would be interested in being the program’s executive sponsor. Tell them what that entails, and how you will make it easy for them by providing them with whatever information they need to make their jobs as the sponsor successful, and in return, they will be (or join) the voices spearheading innovation within your organization.

Be persistent, and eventually, you should find an executive sponsor. If you can’t find one in the C-Suite, you still may have a chance to start a smaller program, but your chances of success are lower. If you can’t find a sponsor no matter how hard you try, then I have some bad news for you. Your company may not be ready or able to run an innovation program. If you are still interested in running an innovation program, you may need to scale it down to just your group.

Hate to say this, but you may even have to leave your company. There is nothing more frustrating than attempting to drag a company into a more innovative culture if the leadership is not ready for it. It’s your final option, but let’s hope you don’t have to go there.

If your program is already running and you have a sponsor, that’s great. Take my advice: get more. These days, in fact in any days, in my experience the moment there is any uncertainty about the markets, the company, or its future, the first thing to go is the innovation program. Innovation is considered a “nice to have” and only seems to flourish in good times and is almost always cut in lean times, (or even if lean times are on the horizon). If you really want your program or lab to carry on, no matter what happens, you will need to spread the sponsorship duties across several people. Additionally, with all the M&A activity and executive shuffling that tends to go on in some larger organizations, it is always a good idea to have more than one sponsor at the top.

So, there you have it – your executive sponsor is missing, but with a good pitch, and a good plan, and the persistence of a good startup founder (or detective) you too can find and leverage a great executive sponsor for your program.

“Well, Frank, we found your new gal.” I said as we walked down the hall away from CSO Marissa Spenser’s office, the new executive sponsor for the innovation program. She was just as passionate about innovation as Fredricks had been, and was even more of a go-getter than he was. Everything had worked out for the best.

“Thanks for all your help, Joe, we couldn’t have done it without you.”

“All in a week’s pay. Which reminds me…you got my fee?” I winked at Jim.

“Sure. Let me buy you that coffee” said Frank.