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Every project needs a sponsor. In this article, we’ll look at why that is and how you can work with a project sponsor as a project manager. You’ll learn tips and techniques for engaging senior leaders in the role so you can build effective working relationships and act as a team.
A project sponsor is someone who champions the project, providing resources and support. They are accountable for the success (or failure) of the work.
Eddie Obeng in his book Perfect Projects defines the sponsor as a person who:
- invented the idea and really wants to do it
- controls the money
- wants the end product or will end up living with it
- can provide effective high-level representation, and smooth out the political battles before you get to them
- ‘owns’ the resources
- acts as an effective sounding board/mentor.’*
There is no single, perfect definition of a project sponsor that all the professional bodies like APM and PMI agree on. However, we generally know what we are looking for in a sponsor.
Peter Taylor, co-author of Strategies for Project Sponsorship, says, “a good project sponsor will happily act as advisor to the project manager and will focus on removing obstacles in the path of project success.”
That’s basically it, but there is a bit more to the role.
The main responsibilities of a project sponsor are to:
- set the vision and direction for the project, ensuring it aligns to corporate strategy and the business objectives
- represent the project at a senior management level
- keep the project manager informed of any changes or developments that may have an impact on the project
- put their name to and help with communications about the work
- offer advice and make decisions
- deal with escalations outside the project manager’s authority level e.g. significant issues
- put forward and/or support the case for a comprehensive budget for resources
- chair the steering group or project board, providing governance and assurance
- read, understand and sign off relevant documents
- anything else (within reason!) to support the team at the request of the project manager.
That’s what they should be doing. Let’s look now at how that breaks down during the project lifecycle so you can see what their role is as project owner throughout.
During kick off
During the initiation phase, the project sponsor will present the business case, and lobby to get the project selected. They will articulate the project objectives and goals to the PMO and anyone else who will listen!
Normally they will assign a project manager and give that person a clear mandate to do the work. If your project management methodology includes writing a project charter, then they may write it or draft it at this point ready to handover to the team.
During planning and preparation
During the planning phase, the person in the sponsorship role will provide the business context, and support the team to create a realistic plan. They will help secure the people required to do the work and any financial resources.
They should also make the team aware of any dependencies with other initiatives across the organization, as that helps with creating a project plan.
There is normally a need to review project requirements at this point. The sponsor may be the person who has the ultimate decision-making authority to decide if a requirement is in scope or not.
During project execution
During the project execution phase, the sponsor will resolve issues, keep the project team honest and check to see that what has been done is what is required.
The role is predominantly assurance and governance, approving deliverables and making sure the work moves through any gate reviews and governance points as necessary.
They will also be involved in risk management. They will be able to identify new risks and make the team aware of what is happening elsewhere in the organization. There may be risk management activities that the team cannot authorize themselves. The project sponsor can escalate risks appropriately within the organization and secure support for the relevant actions.
The sponsor will keep an eye on project performance. They will also be reporting project progress to the executive team and senior management.
They provide a liaison to key stakeholders, especially those that the project manager does not have direct access to.
During project completion
During the closing phase, the project sponsor will take part in lessons learned and project handover. They are likely to be the person who decides if the work has been a success, so they are critical to getting involved with project evaluation. They may even write the final report.
Another key responsibility for the project sponsor at this point is benefits realization. They will be responsible for taking the project deliverables and making sure the benefits are managed, tracked, and achieved.
A sponsor is the project’s figurehead, someone who represents the project team at board meetings, who looks out for the project’s interests, who can provide strategic direction, and most importantly, wants whatever it is the initiative is going to deliver.
Ideally, they should be someone who is going to have to live with the deliverables for long after the project manager has moved on.
A sponsor who is not implicated in the delivery will find it hard to be motivated by the work and may be unable to take decisions about something that is outside their sphere of influence.
Sponsors who are unavailable to their project manager cause problems because this delays decision-making.
On a practical level, the ‘absentee sponsor’ will not be able to provide the strategic vision and answers the project team needs to do their jobs.
On a people management level, projects with poor sponsors suffer from low morale and all the relative impacts this has on their work. After all, if the sponsor isn’t interested in what they are doing, why are they bothering?
Good sponsors understand what their role on the team needs to be. They won’t turn up to every meeting but they’ll occasionally send out a thank you email to everyone. They will be available when the project manager needs to escalate information and they will pass down relevant information too.
Generally, the more experienced the sponsor, the easier this relationship will be for the project manager. Having said that, anyone can be a good sponsor if they have enough authority and work alongside the team, asking ‘what do you need from me?’
And having a project manager brave enough to answer the question honestly helps things along too.
Before we get into the detail of working with an executive sponsor on a project, let’s clarify some of the basics with some quick-fire Q&A.
To support the project team and act as an escalation route for any issues or problems.
The project manager manages the operational, day-to-day, issues on the project. When something happens that they can’t manage within the agreed parameters (a budget, a timeframe, a set of requirements) the project sponsor makes the decision about how to proceed.
How can they make the decision when they don’t work daily with the detail?
The project manager will present various options and the consequences of following each option. The sponsor should have a general overview of the project which will be enough to choose the right course of action. They use their knowledge of the business and the operational environment to inform the decision.
This is agreed upon between the project manager and the sponsor at the beginning of the project. It could be a written monthly report, a face-to-face briefing, or on an exception basis.
If there is a problem that cannot wait, the project manager should be able to approach the sponsor immediately.
No. The sponsor is generally in post before the project manager. The sponsor normally appoints the project manager.
Meeting a project sponsor for the first time is an opportunity to impress. It’s also your chance to start the project off well by understanding exactly what it is that your sponsor wants from you. You can start to get an idea of how the two of you will work together to achieve those objectives.
“The first task is to understand your project sponsor,” says Peter Taylor, co-author of Strategies for Project Sponsorship. “You can learn a great deal about ‘where your sponsor is at’ through some simple open questions at the start of your relationship. Ask them about their ‘hopes’ for the project and their ‘fears’ about the project. What do they believe this project can deliver to the business, do they believe in the project even? And what concerns them, what do they see as the issues on the horizon that could impact on the project success?”
Peter adds that the more that you know, the better you can shape the right working relationship. Also, the more likely you are to find something that you both do connect on.
“The next task is to learn the ways that they operate,” Peter continues. “If you don’t have personal experience, then you can do this through asking other project managers who have worked with them in the past for their experiences, and this will allow you to plan a strategy to build a working relationship.”
Making the most of your first meetings with the sponsor will help you do all of that. So what do you actually talk about when you meet a project sponsor for the first time?
I asked five experienced project managers to share what they do in that first conversation with their project sponsor. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Ask about their background
“I find out as much as I can about them, what they do, what their background is, what they enjoy most about their job – it gives me a good insight into the best way to tailor my interactions with them,” says Helen Curel.
Try to find out what experience they have had, what went well and what they found difficult about sponsoring previous projects. Be warned: some senior managers may not be willing to share their experiences with you.
You can still approach the subject tactfully: ‘I know you’ve already sponsored loads of projects but as we haven’t worked together before I just wanted to explain to you how I see your role as the project sponsor, and then we can establish how best we can work together.’
Knowing more about your sponsor is always a benefit. You can find out how much experience they have in sponsoring projects, and that can help you tailor your interactions.
2. Start establishing trust
“Try to establish trust,” says Paul Nicholson, MBCS. “Without trust, influence is almost impossible.”
You won’t get a trusted relationship from one meeting but start the work now to build a trusting way of working together. You can do that by establishing their values. Just watching how they work and being alert to what is important to them is a good starting point.
“I currently have three projects,” says Paul. “One sponsor is a senior manager with extensive sponsor experience. She is organized, pragmatic, and driven. She likes detail and to be aware of all issues and risks.
“Another sponsor is uninterested in the detailed issues but needs to feel that the project is going well. Meetings focus on people-related issues and she wants the project manager to filter out the issues that need to be discussed. For her a detailed agenda is frustrating as she will concentrate on how members feel. She is really good with people and getting others involved.
“A third sponsor is a mix of the two. He lacks experience with projects and feels threatened by risks of things going wrong. However, he is great in getting people involved and making quick decisions once he understands the issues.”
As a leader, Paul knows that he needs to understand what strategy to follow in interacting with the sponsors on each of his projects.
“Establishing trust requires that I understand their values,” he adds. “I therefore do not dive into project-related issues until I know how they will respond.”
Paul says that learning about how they will respond can be done during a team meeting where he has the opportunity to observe their interactions with other people. He also likes to follow up with a one-to-one meeting if possible to learn more about the individual and continue that working relationship.
3. Start building a relationship
Building a relationship is a common theme with the project managers I spoke to. David, a professional from Sweden, says that he too focuses on building the relationship starting at that first meeting.
“Of course, factual discussions are a must,” he says. “For example, what is their rationale for the project? That is also what most sponsors expect from a first meeting, but I use that more as a lever for relationship-building rather than an end in itself.”
David says that there will be more meetings to discuss the issues. An important part of your first meeting with the executive is to set both your expectations about how to work together and what your working relationship might look like.
Have a conversation about working styles, preferences, and other practicalities, for example how much time they have to dedicate to this project.
Your first meeting with the project sponsor should not just be you talking and explaining what you expect from them and asking questions. You also have to listen to the responses, and listen really carefully.
“Take notes,” advises Claire Sezer, FCILEx. “I always have my own agenda. What are the underlying issues? How can we overcome them?”
Use the time with your project sponsor to find out more around what problem they are trying to solve with this project and what they are concerned about.
5. Understand the business case
The project sponsor was probably the person who put together the business case.You can use your first meeting with them to get a better understanding of the project context, rationale, benefits and more.
“Ask them to describe their role and responsibilities, and the impact to the organization that they expect the project to deliver,” says Dave Gordon, a retired project professional from Las Vegas.
Those insights will help you understand the parameters for good decision-making later and what factors might influence your work going forward.
Getting your first discussion right
You can draw a lot from what real project managers do, and hopefully, the experiences shared above have given you some ideas for your first meeting with a project sponsor.
You’re aiming for a blend of big picture thinking and forward planning – what are their overall objectives for the project and how much time are they going to dedicate to it – alongside starting your relationship off in the right way.
I’d argue like Paul and David say above, that the detailed stuff can come later. Right now you want to leave the meeting with a good idea of what this person will be like to work with.
You want the sponsor to leave the meeting thinking that you are someone who can be trusted, who will be calm, who won’t hide the truth, and who will have the work under control (at least most of the time).
There will be plenty of opportunities to talk about project issues and the actions required to get the project deliverables from concept to reality. There won’t be another opportunity to make a good first impression, so prepare, as Claire says above, and know what’s on your agenda.
The key thing to remember is that you shouldn’t automatically assume your sponsor knows how to carry out their role effectively. Find out and explain what you expect from them, and talk about your role too.
Your working relationship with the project sponsor will last far beyond that first meeting. Let’s look now at some ways to engage and work with the sponsor in a positive way over the longer term.
Above, I talked a lot about “building relationships“ and “engaging“ but what does that actually look like in real life? Let’s talk about that next.
Project managers are often in a position where their sponsor is someone several levels above them in the hierarchy. Those people are busy (aren’t we all?) so it’s worthwhile thinking through how to make the most of their time.
Many of the executives I have worked with have been C-suite individuals with plenty of other demands on their time than answering my emails. Here are five of the tips I’ve used to my advantage of the years to help build successful relationships when managing and communicating up.
1. Be trustworthy
This is probably the most important point. Leaders at all levels will be more inclined to engage in the process if they trust what you doing.
Trust isn’t something that is earned overnight so start with mutual respect. Respect their position and authority and act as if they are going to trust yours, even if you have no evidence of that yet. You build trust by:
- Delivering on your promises
- Completing tasks, especially the ones they have asked for
- Showing that you know what it takes to get work done, and then getting it done.
You can also bask in reflected trust: in other words, your reputation goes before you and will help shape a project sponsor’s opinion of you. If another senior manager trusts you, and your team trusts you, this all goes towards ensuring any new contacts do as well.
Trust builds engagement because the sponsor won’t feel as if they have to micromanage you in order to get tasks completed. Also, aren’t you more inclined to deal with the emails and requests of your trusted colleagues than a salesperson you have had no dealings with before?
2. Be structured
Structured communication helps set expectations. If they know you are going to send your project report every Friday afternoon, then they’ll expect it (and probably think badly of you if you fail to meet your commitments).
Structured interactions also help set you apart as a trustworthy and reliable colleague. It’s easier to engage with someone who turns up to a meeting with a clear agenda and runs through the points in order, not wasting any of your time.
“Keep the focus of the conversations and requests on what is in the best interest of the common goal of the successful project – that is important,” says Vicki James, coauthor of Strategies for Project Sponsorship.
People in the role of sponsor also suffer from having many different demands on their time and your project may not be on top of their list. If they don’t know what it is they have to do, you can be sure they won’t be able to make the time to find out. You have to be there to help them discover what being a sponsor means and to explain what you expect from them.
3. Be clear
A sponsor may also need ‘training’ in the more technical elements of the project. As the work continues you will soon become an expert in the intricacies of what it is your project is delivering, but you cannot expect them to understand the details or the jargon.
Present your project updates with clarity, keep the use of jargon to a minimum, ask open questions to test their understanding and give them the opportunity to ask you questions too.
Ditch the jargon. Your executive sponsor doesn’t understand the terminology of project management, and they shouldn’t have to.
“Frame the project and project team’s needs in terms of maximising project success,” Vicki adds.
Stop talking about CSFs and Gantt charts; start talking about how you are going to measure project success and plan the work.
One of the fastest ways to lose engagement on a project (or in any business situation) is to alienate the team by using language that they don’t understand. You should feel as if you are all in it together and you can’t do that if you have to question what the project manager means every few minutes.
Worse, some senior managers are – shall we say – averse to asking questions that highlight what they don’t know so will either disengage slowly or perform their role poorly because they don’t understand what’s required. Or even try to get you side-lined so they can work with someone they trust to be clear and helpful.
4. Be transparent
No one likes surprises at work, and sponsors are no exception. I’ve not worked with a single project sponsor who would have rather I hid the truth about a problem instead of gone to them straight away.
If they know about the problems you are facing, they can help you fix them. And you stop the risk of them looking stupid if one of their colleagues finds out about the problem before they do.
Your sponsor will be more engaged because they will understand that you are doing your best to keep them informed and to provide them with information that helps them do their job.
5. Be flexible
Every project is different, just as every project sponsor is different. And you won’t just be working with your sponsor – your project is likely to bring you into contact with their colleagues and other very senior managers too. As a result, you’ll have to flex your style to make the best of your interactions with the different personalities.
What does that mean for your interactions? “Remove personality from the conversation to have a greater influence on your project sponsors and their support,” says Vicki.
In practical terms, that also looks like flexing your communication style. If someone prefers email communication, use email. If someone prefers that you make an appointment to see them via their assistant, then do that. One senior leader might prefer to take a back seat unless asked to contribute, another might prefer to dominate your project board meetings (which might be one of the reasons why your project board isn’t working).
Use your skills at facilitation, observation, and listening to understand the preferred working styles of the executives you are engaging with, and tailor your own interactions accordingly. They will feel more engaged as a result.
Finally, I’d add that being certified helps build good working relationships with your project sponsor and their C-suite colleagues (here are some other suggestions for building good working relationships at the office).
You could take a project management credential, my masterclass in stakeholder management or simply take time out to do professional development in the form of another training course. Having invested in your career shows stakeholders that you are serious about improving your skills and that you know what you are talking about.
Again, they are more likely to engage because they believe you are doing the best job that you can and that you are likely to get results. No one wants to align themselves with a project that is at risk of failing, so working with someone who is taking career development seriously is a good thing.
Every project sponsor is going to be different and demand a different response from you. The best advice I can give is that you should be alert to signs of engagement and be fast when you see them dropping away.
Step in early to talk to your sponsor honestly and you could avoid a costly project failure – both in business terms and in terms of your personal career. Find out why the engagement isn’t there and switch up what you are doing to bring them back on board.
Your next steps
In this article, you’ve learned about the roles and responsibilities of a project sponsor, how to work effectively with an executive in that role and how to ace your first conversations with them.
Here’s what to do next.
- Set up a meeting with your sponsor to review roles and responsibilities. You can do this even if you are part way through the project.
- Assess whether your sponsor is adequately carrying out their role — be discreet with your findings! Consider if they need more help, or perhaps it’s time for someone else to take over sponsoring the work.
- Plan what you want to get out of your next meeting so you can use their time appropriately.
* Obeng, E. (2003) Perfect Projects. Pentacle Works, Beaconsfield, p 107
Some information in this article first appeared on the PMO Perspectives blog.