A committed, available, and supportive Project Sponsor is a magical ingredient that can make or break a project. Sure, effective delivery is important, but having a champion that can be an advocate for the project, build the vision for it, and ensure that benefits are realised is the key factor that enables the pre-project and the post-project to succeed.

At the end of the day, a project is a mean to a higher end. The sponsor is therefore the organisational link that ensures that the project will leave a sustainable legacy.

Despite projects being delivered on behalf of the sponsor, it not rare for sponsors not to know what exactly their role entails. Often, they are subject matter experts or heads of department and have not received any project management education. They speak business, not the project management language. However, they are asked to perform a role in the project and to make decisions on it. Would you be able or feel comfortable about making a decision in Portuguese if you didn’t speak the language? Right, I didn’t think so either. Yet, that is what we end up doing to our sponsors.

It’s quite intriguing to me: there are so many development and education opportunities for project managers, from training courses to academic programmes or even qualifications, however, sponsors – arguably one of the most important roles in the project! – are asked to learn about their responsibilities on their own. How can this be right?

Sponsor come in all shapes and forms. Two extremes and classical examples that I’m certain you’ll recognise are:

  • The absent sponsor: this type of sponsor is always too busy to be involved or simply too inattentive, only showing up when s/he is indispensable. They are not aware of the status of the project and don’t really get involved unless there is a disaster calling. In light of such laissez-faire style, the project manager might feel unsupported and the project might lack a sense of direction.
  • The micromanager sponsor: micromanagers are often born out of specialists, that is, they know so much or are so close to the domain of the project that they end up looking like wannabe project managers. Rather than focusing on strategic priorities, this type of sponsor tends to be distracted by the operational details of the project and can even be an obstacle to the project manager, since the responsibility and accountability levels are blurred and the project manager might feel that s/he has not been given the authority and empowerment required to excel in the role.

You might not be able to replace your project sponsors (let’s try something less radical, shall we?) but there are other strategies you can consider to address a scenario of poor sponsorship:

  1. Demand better sponsors: this might sound controversial but please don’t just accept the sponsor you are given, don’t hide it, don’t claim it was just bad luck. Poor sponsorship is not just a project issue but a corporate issue. Thus, don’t be afraid to have an honest conversation with the sponsor about it. As mentioned, often sponsors are not even aware of the role they need to play!
  2. Build sponsorship capabilities: if your organisation offers training to project managers, why not do the same to project sponsors? This can go beyond delivering courses to also include a mentoring scheme, for instance. Educate your project sponsors in basic project management – sure, they don’t need to know how to read Gantt charts, but they need to know the importance of a business case as a minimum. Additionally, in the same way, as there are competency (self-)assessments for project managers, encourage your project sponsors to regularly assess their own performance.
  3. The right sponsor for the job: sponsors tend to be assigned to projects based on their fit against the domain of the project. However, this criterion is too simplistic in my humble opinion. Following on from the previous point, try to also combine the competencies assessment results – more experienced and highly competent sponsors will be better placed against high priority type of projects. Don’t just leave it to chance!
  4. Put accountability where it is due: crazy idea, I know, but what if actions drove consequences? Could sponsors be more committed to their role if there was a clearly defined outcome linking to their results/performance as project sponsors? Imagine, for instance, having a percentage of annual bonus assigned to the percentage of realization of project benefits. Just for the braves!
  5. Find the best sponsor of the year: trust me, some internal competition can be healthy. Consider setting up a contest to identify the sponsor stars of your organization. This can lead to increased awareness of what good looks like while, at the same time, is a great opportunity to reward and shine a light on your high performers. Do you have what it takes?

Don’t get me wrong: there are many fantastic project sponsors! However, we can do even better. Our projects deserve it.

Interested in knowing more about how to enable better project sponsorship? Get in touch.

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By: Marisa Silva (The Lucky PM)

Marisa Silva (The Lucky PM)
PPM specialist with extensive experience in industry with a focus on collaboration, PMO conception & strategy, method and capability development. Marisa also retains depth expertise in Microsoft PPM having led a large number of client deployments.

Published: 28 October 2020

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