Do you have my back?

Yesterday, I started a series of posts that will offer advice, suggestions and ideas for tackling the challenges and issues faced by web professionals just trying to do the right thing in higher ed. Today, consistent with the motto Be Prepared, the topic is identifying and training your executive sponsor.

It’s hard to go it alone. Even in ideal circumstances, it helps to know that at least one executive on your campus has your back. If you can clearly visualize a face when you read the words executive sponsor, you’re good. If not, here are some suggestions for identifying a person who will support your campus web strategy:

  • Choose a person with built-in influence; but that’s not enough.
    An executive sponsor, by definition, has influence. People are often “at the table” because they hold a certain position. Accept this fact and move on. Still, built-in influence is not enough. You want a sponsor who has enough interest and background in web strategy to represent and support your goals while seated at that table.
  • You don’t need a web expert.
    The right sponsor can make your case with only basic familiarity about the web. After all, you have the web expertise, what you need from your executive sponsor is investment; someone who will clear obstacles, commit resources, and put themselves between you and the heat that could come your way.
  • Look for someone who will speak up and show up.
    The best sponsors will make your point for you at just the right time. During a full faculty meeting on my campus, then William & Mary Provost Geoff Feiss highlighted the re.web project during his opening remarks and declared prospective students the audience for the new site.
    Often, the mere presence of a sponsor at all the right meetings is all you need. More than once, I got a call from Geoff’s office when he was between appointments but wanted me to know that he was “on the way” to a meeting where he knew we’d be making key decisions about beastly topics like colors and global navigation.
  • Ask.
    An excellent sponsor is going to be a busy person. (If they have a lot of time for you, they may not have the stature you’re going to need.) Depending on the circumstances, it might make sense to say out loud, “I will need your support to be successful. Would you mind if I call on you if I get into a tight spot or need your advice?” You’re going to need access and it’s best to make that clear up front.

You’re not done. Once identified, you should begin educating and informing your executive sponsor. If you’re old enough for the cultural reference, act like Jiminy Cricket (you are the bug on the shoulder, providing wise counsel by whispering in the ear). Here are some things to consider when training your executive sponsor:

  • Give them the short version.
    Be clear and concise, providing just enough information to explain the challenge or gain support for what you want. We often assume resistance and gear up for a soup to nuts presentation of our case. My current boss, VP for Strategic Initiatives Jim Golden, once told me I was “charging through an open door.” I appreciated that counsel from my boss/executive sponsor and the phrase still reminds me to say just enough.
  • Prep them for critical meetings.
    Don’t leave it to chance. Perhaps a bulleted list in an email message will do, but you definitely want your sponsor to have the kernels of the situation before attending a relevant meeting. In fact, it is not a bad idea to preview what the meeting discussion will be like. Let your sponsor know who supports your strategy and who doesn’t; offer candid detail about the source of resistance or concern. Sometimes, you should even be specific about what you’d like your sponsor to do or say.
  • Provide evidence that you’ll only ask for help when you need it.
    If you’re the director of web communications on your campus or the project manager for a web redesign, most of the leadership should come from you. Step into the role. Make decisions, consult broadly, inform stakeholders. It is not feasible to rely on your executive sponsor in every tough spot. Whenever possible, you should resolve debates or satisfy concerns on your own. An executive sponsor has your back, you’re not supposed to be hiding behind them.
  • Say things worth repeating.
    Realize that the words you use in explanations to your sponsor might get repeated; and that’s a good thing. The first time I heard my former boss, CIO Courtney Carpenter, use my verbatim words in a meeting, I was a bit taken aback. Upon reflection, I realized that this meant 100% support from him on the issue at hand. If you hear your executive sponsor saying what you said, be glad about it.

Executive sponsors aren’t the only source of support in the area of web communications. My next post will address getting the most from web governance and advisory committees.

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