/ Data-Driven Success Rests On The Shoulders Of A Strong Executive Sponsor (Part 2)

The difference between success and failure often comes down to a sponsor’s level of commitment and involvement. Without commitment, an involved executive sponsor may attend every meeting but only provide lip service— never backing up the initiative with the resources, budget or political influence it needs to be successful. Without involvement, a committed executive sponsor becomes an absentee cheerleader who is too busy to contribute to the initiative’s success. To safeguard against selecting an ineffective executive sponsor who isn’t supportive and engaged, there are three steps you can take:

  1. Understand what criteria make someone a good candidate for sponsoring a data initiative.
  2. Provide a clear sense of what will be expected of the executive sponsor.
  3. Perform an honest assessment of a potential sponsor’s bandwidth before making an assignment.

Qualities of an effective sponsor for data-related initiativesAside from the basic qualities that most successful executives possess—
leadership abilities, strategic thinking, relationship-building skills, communication skills, integrity and so on—there are certain criteria that you should look for in an executive sponsor when it comes to data-related projects or programs.

  • Business leader: Having someone from the business side as the
    sponsor will ground the initiative in what’s really needed and increase the likelihood that it will deliver business value. The data initiative should help address a real business problem or opportunity. If your IT or BI team doesn’t partner adequately with the business, you may end up with a “solution looking for a problem.”
  • Primary beneficiary: You want an executive whose group stands to
    benefit significantly from the data initiative. If better data or insights will resolve a major pain point or blind spot for a particular senior executive, it’s more likely that the leader will be invested in the initiative’s success.
  • Data believer: If there are two religions—data and intuition—you want
    someone who has demonstrated their faith in data. Whether they’re a recent convert or a long-time data disciple, you need someone who has shown an aptitude and passion to be data-driven. This individual is more likely to appreciate the vision and potential value of your data initiative
  • Influence & authority: It can be difficult to align the necessary
    resources and secure management buy-in. A well-respected, well-positioned executive can help rally internal support and add credibility to a new data initiative. He or she can also help navigate the initiative through competing priorities and internal politics. The scope of your analytics initiative will determine how senior the sponsor needs to be— the wider the scope, the higher the executive.
  • Continuity: You need a sponsor who’s committed for the long haul—not
    just the first 3-6 months. In most cases, analytics and BI initiatives are more akin to programs than projects. Once an analytics platform is implemented, the work has only just begun as your company must figure out how to consistently generate value from it. In countless cases, the early hard-fought accomplishments of a capable sponsor unraveled when he or she transitioned out of the role too soon. Eventually, as a data initiative builds momentum and expands its scope over time, it may outgrow its original sponsor. The baton may need to pass to another executive who has a greater span of influence—however, sponsor continuity will be critical up until that point

As an example, many of these criteria were checked off when a consumer-packaged goods company selected its analytics executive sponsor. He was a digital marketing VP who reported to the CMO. The leader was long-tenured and well-regarded at his company. His top priority was to establish a “performance-driven” marketing organization. He invested in various new technologies and steadily grew the size of the analytics team. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it turned out he was more interested in the idea of analytics than the reality of analytics. When the data revealed just how poorly specific marketing channels and activities performed, he tended to disappear and ignore his stated priority. Rather than working with his analytics team to address performance issues, his silence and inaction sent a clear message—he was a data pretender, not a data believer.

In some situations, a highly-engaged data believer can lead to micromanagement, which can interfere with an initiative’s progress and success. Ideally, you’d like to have someone who possesses the ability or expertise to micromanage the data initiative but not the tendency to do so. Once you’ve identified a good candidate that meets the aforementioned criteria, the next step is to be clear about what the sponsor’s responsibilities are.

Core responsibilities of the executive sponsor

While most leaders are familiar with the role of an executive sponsor, many don’t know what this role’s specific responsibilities are. Prosci found that while most leaders (73%) were willing to act as executive sponsors for projects only 32% had an adequate understanding of the executive sponsor’s role and responsibilities. Misaligned expectations can trip up well-intentioned sponsors so it’s important to clarify what tasks they’ll need to perform. To ensure a successful data initiative, an executive sponsor should be prepared to own the following

  • Take responsibility for the initiative’s overall success (part of their annual
  • Define or refine the scope, charter and business case of the data
  • Provide strategic direction and clarify business priorities
  • Secure and maintain necessary funding and resources for the initiative
  • Remove internal roadblocks and resistance
  • Participate actively in regular status reviews (bi-weekly/monthly)
  • Evaluate key deliverables of the initiative and provide feedback
  • Communicate the urgency, benefits and expectations throughout the
  • Champion the initiative at the executive level repeatedly to secure
    management buy-in
  • Motivate the initiative team and recognize their contributions
  • Share status updates and successes with key stakeholders and
  • Seek visible ways to apply or leverage the data or tool—ideally using his
    or her own organization as a showcase (“walk the talk”)

As this list of responsibilities shows, being an executive sponsor can be a demanding assignment for busy executives. The Project Management Institute (PMI) reported that sponsors were “working on three projects at a time, spending an average of 13 hours per week on each project they sponsor—in addition to their regular jobs.” When you have a limited number of senior executives and multiple initiatives vying for their attention, the workload of each executive should be considered before making a sponsor assignment.

Every project or program manager would love to have the support of the CEO or another C-level executive—that includes those who lead analytics or BI initiatives. However, if the C-level executive is spread too thin and unable to fulfill the essential duties of an executive sponsor, it would be better if someone equally capable but less senior were assigned. If executives have a clear sense for what’s expected and perform a realistic self-assessment of their bandwidth, it should be acceptable for a leader to turn down a new sponsorship opportunity or reprioritize which ones they focus on. Nobody wins if an executive attempts to sponsor more strategic initiatives than he or she can reasonably manage.

If data initiatives are as imperative to organizations as they are professed to be, they demand strong executive sponsorship. They need an executive with the right qualities who has a clear understanding of the role’s responsibilities and with sufficient bandwidth to fulfill them. If you’re struggling to get your data-driven transformation off the ground, you don’t need to look any further than your current sponsor (or lack thereof). If your executive sponsor isn’t appropriately engaged, you can’t expect the rest of your organization to be either. Everything can fall in place with an effective sponsor and fall apart without one.

**This article was originally published on Forbes.com on August 24, 2016.