It’s Your Fault, Again

Improper leadership is the number one cause of large, failed efforts. I bet this is not the first time you have heard that, and yet large efforts continue to fail, and the culprit is always the leader (or leaders) in charge. There is no question that you, as the head person in charge, are accountable for any outcome that you initiate and lead. But this implication of fault extends far beyond accountability. What leaders are blamed for in these circumstances is their actions (or lack thereof). And they should be. Research shows that this largely held belief about leaders is tenable. That is, if leaders in these unfortunate circumstances had done something different, there would have been a better outcome. But what? Ah, that’s the $64,000 question that I will gladly address today. To behave like a good leader of a transformational effort, you must know what good looks like.

“The cause of transformational debacles is deeply rooted in organizational change management.

You Better Behave

The cause of transformational debacles is deeply rooted in organizational change management (OCM). Many studies have shown that benefit realization on any project plummets when OCM is absent or poorly managed. And other studies have shown that leader behavior is the largest contributor to OCM success or failure. With organizational transformations, these causation coefficients are extremely high due to the interconnected nature between culture and the rest of your operating model.

As a leader, you must be acutely aware of how you are perceived by your employees. They are closely watching everything you do and making assumptions and forming opinions based on the way you behave. I find that most leaders are not as self-aware as they should be. I remember the first time seeing myself on videotape (yes, I know I am dating myself) delivering a speech to a crowd. I was taken aback. I knew that was me, but I did not think I looked or sounded like that. A similar experience happens with leaders. Without the benefit of having a good sounding board, leader perception and workforce reality are discordant. This is very dangerous during an organizational transformation! This is a good reason to surround yourself with trusted advisors who will tell the emperor the truth when unclothed.

Another aspect of leader behavior that is critical during a major change is, what I call, anti-behavior.  Anti-behavior is the absence of a behavior that should be there. An intentional focus on what you do not do, is just as important as a focus on what you do. If you sit quietly while one of your direct reports sets a direction that is antithetical to your vision, you implicitly endorse what is happening. Management of anti-behaviors is often difficult for behavior scientists like me to deploy, because one of the inviolable tenets of behavior change management is to focus only on observable behavior. While true, I would concomitantly submit anti-behaviors warrant equivalent attention. You can do the right things and still fail because you did not do all of the right things.

I’ll Sponsor That

It is important to work with your change advisor on a Sponsorship Plan. Sponsorship is the term OCM practitioners use to define all the behaviors required by leaders and other influencers to support any change effort. All of the ideas we have been talking about so far are nice, but meaningless without an action plan. I highly recommend you enlist that aid of an OCM expert unless you have a background and direct experience with behavioral science. Most leaders are overconfident in their ability to determine all the right behaviors to perform during a change effort, especially one that is transformational. They end up either not doing enough or actually doing the wrong things! Do not let this happen to you.

Although every major effort has its own fingerprint, we can talk about a few general ideas for putting together a Sponsorship Plan. The first thing to consider is a Stakeholder Influence map. The goal with this map is to identify the people in the organization who have the most influence. Of course, you will find clues in the org chart, but do not automatically assume top leaders have the most influence in the organization. In fact, often times this is not the case. While leading change on a recent organizational design project, I performed a social network analysis to identify key influencers in the organization. I found middle management had much more influence on the individual contributors than top leadership because they had more natural engagement and culturally garnered a lot of respect. This put them in the best position to shift the hearts and minds of the general workforce and help them navigate their emotional journey. Once I realized this, I developed a key element of our change strategy that exploited middle management’s power. It worked very well.

“In my experience, the biggest reason why Sponsorship fails on a major effort, is because it was not thoroughly planned.

Once you understand the landscape of your Sponsor environment — your key players and supporting players — then you must determine how they will generally behave and what they will specifically do at any point in time throughout your implementation and subsequent sustaining efforts. Your key players (i.e., the ones who carry the most influence) will be very busy with both scheduled and unscheduled engagement sessions: town halls, team meetings, one-on-one meetings, walking the halls, etc. They need to be set up for success with guidance, messaging, and resources (e.g., presentations, job aids,etc.). The activity required by your key players will dictate the behaviors that are needed by your supporting players. During the project mentioned above, it was important that top leadership (supporting players) set the right expectations and priorities for middle management (key players) and afforded them the time necessary to perform all the change activities that were ahead of them. It is essential that everything is intentional, organized, planned, and scheduled. Of course, your plan will change, and leaders understand that. But do not enroll sponsors without a solid plan. In my experience, the biggest reason why Sponsorship fails on a major effort, is because it was not thoroughly planned.


Leader behaviors are a deal-breaker on any transformation or major change effort. This axiom has haunted the halls of management quarters for decades, but there is more to it than just lore. Many studies have confirmed this theory and my personal experience after running large change efforts for decades buttresses this assertion. But it is not so much about leader incompetence as leader preparedness. If you keep asking, “why?” enough times (think five whys), you will find the root cause for transformational disasters is an underwhelming Sponsorship Plan. If you are considering a major change with your organization, start working with your change lead today on a Sponsorship Plan. The latent power in the influence architecture of your organization will astound you. You would be remiss if you ran a major initiative without properly tapping into it.

Contact us and we can help you better understand the complexities of your organization’s transformation.