Who’s got your back? Why good sponsorship is critical and how to identify it


By Gordon Baisley

Early in my career, I attended a workshop on ITIL processes, and during the Q&A session at the end, there was an exchange that has stuck with me ever since.

An enthusiastic Support Manager in the audience explained the challenge he faced: “We know we need to improve the IT Service we deliver to our customers and recognise that means improving our Service Management processes. Many of my colleagues and I think ITIL provides a framework to work to. But my manager and the CIO above him aren’t interested, preferring to work to a company specific model. I’ve presented the benefits of ITIL, we’ve piloted ideas and shown improvements, but still they don’t want to align to ITIL. How can we persuade them? What should I DO?”

There was hush as the Chair reflected a second, he was one of the originators of ITIL from the CCTA, a respected ITIL contributor. The audience was expecting a silver bullet sales line that would make converts of the senior managers and see alignment to ITIL become company strategy.

“Leave,” said the Chair, surprising the audience.

“Are you saying I should leave the company?” checked the questioner, tentatively.

“Yes,” he affirmed. “Of course, it’s not the only thing you could do. But what I’m encouraging you to recognise is that sometimes when you’re not the decision maker, you’ll never manage to change the mind of the people above you. It sounds like you’ve done sensible things to try and influence them and they don’t want to change direction; they might never want to. The most reliable way of getting to do what you want to is going somewhere that has already decided it wants to do the same thing. There’re plenty of companies have decided they want to adopt ITIL. If you want to work in an ITIL environment your more likely to get to do so if you move to one of them.”

As my career has developed, I’ve found QA and Testing to be the area that holds the same passion for me as Service Management held for that Support Manager. Nevertheless, swap the best practice from ITIL to ISTQB and the exact same scenario applies to testing. The lesson I’ve taken isn’t specific to Service Management, it applies to any role. You are most likely to succeed and achieve most if you have engagement and backing of those above you.

Having taken the lesson on board the next question is how to apply it. The key is to select the right work environment and the time you do that is when you job hunt. If I’m looking at roles there’s now a few things I look out for as signs that the role isn’t well sponsored and it will be difficult to be successful. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Why does the role exist?

The most reliable situation is probably if you’re filling a pre-existing role that is deemed successful, required and important. In this situation, the role is a known entity and the vacancy existing means there’s been a conscious choice to retain the role rather than restructure.

Where there is a new role I find it can be one of two situations:

First, a positive, proactive choice where the company has grown or is changing and there is a commitment to a new role. This is likely to be a well-sponsored role.

Secondly, a defensive appointment, where QA or Testing is seen as ‘failing’ and the new role is based on bringing someone more senior to fix the problem. This situation can be difficult. While there is the commitment on behalf of the hiring manager to make the new role work initially, this situation can suggest a lack of real engagement previously that will soon revert to being the norm again.

Where does the role sit in the organisation? Who is the sponsor?

At a risk of being simplistic, the higher in the organisation a role and the person recruiting it sits the more you’ll manage to do. Higher grades imply more authority and mean fewer approval layers above.

The World Quality Report  – a global report on IT Quality Assurance and Testing jointly produced by HP, Capgemini and Sogeti – found that in 2015, 35% of IT budget was spent on QA and Testing. This has risen sharply in recent years showing an increasing recognition of the importance of Quality of your IT product. Technology has matured sufficiently that being first to market is starting to be displaced by product quality as the major differentiator. While the survey doesn’t report spend on other IT functions, I would suggest, given the many roles involved in IT delivery, that no other function has more spent on it, and for the first time QA/Testing has overtaken Development as the highest proportion of IT budget. The point being, at this level of spend and importance, CIO’s should increasingly be looking to have QA/Testing reporting directly to them. This isn’t yet the norm but it is happening and it’s something I look for in a role.

You can apply similar thinking to other functions. For IT as a whole, it used to be common for IT to sit under a Finance Director. I’d suggest that implies a company that sees IT as a cost to be controlled rather than an important part of their offering and your experience in that department will correspond to this.

Structures differ between companies. There isn’t one, right model. But the point is to assess whether where the role sits suggests the sponsorship, authority, visibility and relationships you’ll need to deliver on the job description.

How did the interview feel?

Is the interviewer engaged, interested, interactive? The hiring manager is likely to be your main sponsor. They will agree your objectives with you, remove barriers and support you, and equally set constraints and boundaries. You are looking for signs of real interest in your area, passion for the topic, that this is someone that is motivated to help you be successful, giving support and time if needed, or equally freedom to get on with it – whatever is required.

On the flip side, look out for signs of disinterest or priorities elsewhere. It is likely that a hiring manager will have more than just the role you are applying for reporting to them. The manager may see your function as a necessary evil; something they inherited in a re-org and want to do the minimum with while spending time elsewhere; or even something they are interested in, but just not as focussed on as their other responsibilities, meaning priority calls will always go elsewhere. Signs that the hiring manager might not be a good sponsor can be obvious or more subtle. I’ve seen managers take calls and send texts during an interview! I can think of one instance where everything I said seemed new and visionary. If this was a new responsibility you could see that as enthusiasm to learn, but it wasn’t and I read it as not engaging with the department sufficiently before.

How quickly do things move?

Recruitment is a complex process in most companies. There are many stakeholders and gatekeepers, particularly Finance and HR, but also including peers and customers of a role. It doesn’t necessarily follow then that a long gap from initial application to final offer is a bad thing. However, by the time you’ve been through the interview process and it’s a matter of offer or reject I believe things should move fast. By this point there should be an internal commitment to the role, anyone invited to interview should have done so, and it’s just a matter of agreeing the offer within constraints that were defined upfront.

It’s a good sign that the company and manager are committed to the role and you if things move fast. It suggests prioritisation of the role, commitment to you, and an ability to make decisions and make things happen.

Delayed offer suggests one of three things. Either the manager isn’t focussed on making things happen so it can get done; the manager or company isn’t committed to you; or, other internal stakeholders are controlling or constraining the decision. None of these are good signs: either the manager isn’t prioritising the appointment; they have doubts about you (which will translate into tentative support), or the manager may not be sufficiently empowered to be a good sponsor for you once in. More generally, I tend to think to taking a long time to offer is taking the candidate for granted.

What does it all mean?

Let me reflect back on the workshop discussion I started with. Life is short and our career is a large part of it. We naturally want to maximise what we can achieve within our career. When we are in a role we are encouraged to take responsibility for our own delivery and development. What the discussion very simply highlighted is that your success is related to the environment in which your role operates. In particular, the support or sponsorship you have from decision makers above you will play a major role in what you are able to achieve. You have limited time and if it takes four times longer to get approval to do something because of lack of backing up from the right people, you have much less time to do everything else. We must, of course, look in the mirror; challenging ourselves to develop, grow and do things better. But we should also be open to reflect on whether we are aligned with the organisation around us and if there is sponsorship for what we want to achieve. If the answer is no it may be a good idea to move on. Given how important our environment is in our success, I believe we need to be more discerning in applying for roles, and specifically we should consider whether the roles we are applying for have the sponsorship we need to achieve what we want. The four areas I’ve discussed are things I’ve started to look for. Hopefully, they help you.