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Effective Executive Project Management: What Great Sponsors Do Differently

For projects to be successful and run smoothly, effective executive leadership is critical. We’ve read studies and heard from many course participants who cite a lack of management support as a key reason for project failure. One way to eliminate this pesky variable is by assigning an executive leader to a role specifically called Project Sponsor.

Sometimes an executive naturally assumes the role because she has an idea that she'd like to see come to life. Other times, some external factor (e.g., the government, a competitor, a disaster) forces a company to do something and no executive really wants to devote the time to it. Whatever the situation, it’s true that one reliable leader at the right level of the organization is needed to guide the project through its entire journey: from start to finish and even beyond, as whatever the project delivered becomes the fabric of the way the organization operates moving forward.

Unfortunately, no executive goes to project sponsor school and gets an education in how to be a great one. Well, unless they are working with us. Most project sponsors are terrific executives and leaders who find themselves in the role by accident. Just like it would be a mistake to assume the same rules apply in outer space as on earth, many well-meaning executives have no idea that there are different rules in “projectland” than in the operational leadership roles they've been successful in to date. Their lack of awareness of this fact can result in their becoming their own project’s worst nightmare. We have seen far too many sponsors unknowingly shoot their own projects in the foot, and then watch stressed out project managers perform damage control that could have been avoided. Time is money and in projectland (like life) there is never enough of it.

In an effort to avoid metaphorical trips to the “projectland” emergency room, let’s run through some basics – who the sponsor is, what a great project sponsor does and their typical top ten responsibilities.

Who is the project sponsor?

The Project Management Institute says that the sponsor is often the person who provides the financial resources, in cash or in kind, for the project, or is the representative of the group who does.

Sometimes you’ll hear something like “finance is sponsoring the project.” This does not mean that we encourage management by committee. In fact, we insist on ONE person being the sponsor who is best suited to make decisions and invest the time required to be a positive steward. Having more than one sponsor is impractical, slows things down, and makes the project manager’s job infinitely more difficult and unnecessarily complex. Any other candidates for the sponsor role can be on the steering team.

The project sponsor operates a lot like the owner of a sports team. They are not the coach on the sidelines, totally focused and calling the plays. That’s the project manager. Like respected team owners, great sponsors are accessible when they are needed and show support with a regularly engaged presence. But, during the game, s/he is up in the luxury box, watching over everything and making sure the top influencers are happy. The team owner trusts the coach, who knows the players and their strengths, to do the best job s/he can given the situation that is rapidly changing moment by moment. They do not meddle and give advice to the players individually, as anything they say will be redundant or counter to the coach's direction. If things are going particularly off course, a private moment with the coach could be in order at half time.

Sponsoring is a “full contact” sport

from start to finish and beyond.

You are the team owner, not the head coach on the field.

This brings us to...

What does a great project sponsor do?

In the beginning…When a project is first conceived, the sponsor champions the project to get it approved. This includes playing a significant role in developing the business case/cost justification and/or charter and leading the project through the engagement or selection process until formally authorized. It is a best practice to do this work, even if the Sponsor has the sole authority to approve a project. The sponsor serves as the top spokesperson to higher levels of management, gathering support throughout the organization and promoting the benefits that the project will bring. If needed, the sponsor recruits the right leaders to be on the steering team.

Throughout the project…Great sponsors accept that “stuff happens” on projects and stay calm. For issues that are beyond the control of the project manager, the sponsor serves as an escalation path. The sponsor should be involved in important issues such as thoughtfully authorizing changes in scope, phase-end reviews, and go/no-go decisions when risks are particularly high. If there is a steering team, the sponsor chairs it and while s/he makes “80%” of the decisions, s/he calls upon steering team members to engage in the other “20%” as needed and communicates the final decision to the project manager per the project schedule.

At the end…Everything that was done earlier in the project was to prepare everyone for final delivery of the project’s product, service and/or result and to set the organization up to achieve the benefits promised in the beginning. Sponsors play a key role in helping the organization strike a balance between pushing through to the end even if things aren’t entirely perfect OR having the courage to stop barreling toward the end when what you are likely facing is a cliff. Thelma & Louise is now considered a classic movie but that ending was painful.

What are the project sponsor’s typical top 10 responsibilities?

  1. Provide majority of project funding, in cash or kind

  2. Gather support for the project and promote benefits

  3. Visibly lead as top spokesperson

  4. Set the direction and ensure successful delivery

  5. Recruit steering team (if appropriate) and chair meetings

  6. Make “80%” of key decisions beyond the control of the project manager and engage the steering team, as appropriate

  7. Clear roadblocks

  8. Advise project manager on culture and potential impacts outside the project

  9. Review progress on a regular basis and support ruthless management of change

  10. Ensure benefits realization plan is in place and lead benefits realization

While all of this probably sounds like common sense, it must not be. We’ve seen super smart and savvy executive sponsors make major mistakes that in some cases have cost them their jobs. But, by naming the role formally and keeping in mind that there are different things to focus on throughout the project lifecycle, you can go a long way to making sure that “lack of management support” isn’t the reason your project failed.

To chat about how we can help project sponsors and their teams succeed, schedule a 30-minute complimentary consultation with us today.


About the Author: Dawn Mahan, PMP, is the Founder & CEO of PMOtraining, LLC., and loves helping savvy executives become great project sponsors. Ask us about The Driving Coach Program which helps executives and their organizations avoid pulling a stunt likeThelma & Louise and driving their projects off a cliff. Our simple, practical, just-in-time, bite-sized virtual training with live human coaching approach ensures your projects get done right the first time while developing your internal talent.

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