One of the best tools in the Project Manager’s kit is the ability to keep your project sponsor satisfied.
In fact, nothing shapes your success in quite the same way as having an engaged, switched-on Project Champion sitting in the Big Chair – leading the charge, clearing roadblocks, keeping momentum and giving your project that all-important credibility.
But what happens if the Sponsor is disengaged? How do we keep them satisfied when they are losing interest or missing our message?
My Sponsor Is Unhappy (Did You Notice?)
These little gems were once said to me by a Sponsor when I recommended that we spend time in checking the engagement of our target users.
“If you waste your time doing these things, you are not spending time doing real work”
“No wonder this Project will take so long when you are wasting time on these sort of things”
“This is just more project bureaucracy, no wonder things never get done around here”
“I won’t agree to ask users whether they want to participate, the system is coming and you should be making sure they can just use it”
“Your job is just to get the system installed. That’s all.”
Hmmm. Have you heard these sentiments before?
These types of outbursts really are golden opportunities to see into your Sponsor’s state of mind – if you can look past the sound and fury and understand how your Sponsor is really feeling, then you are in a great position to influence the relationship with your most important Champion.
What Is My Sponsor Really Saying?
What’s the best way to respond to negative outbursts? Although the temptation may be to raise your voice, the smarter approach is to
1. Draw breath
2. Listen to what the Sponsor is really telling you (this may be different from what they are saying)
3. Acknowledge the Sponsor’s concerns (this shouldn’t be some sort of glib utterance but rather, your personal articulation of the root concerns; don’t be afraid to work this back and forth until you both agree)
4. Provide a quick, tangible outcome that boosts confidence and shows you are listening (“I hear your concerns and will help set your mind at ease by taking these steps”)
5. Consciously look for ways to improve your communication approach (think about your situation and consider what is working, what is not and importantly, what you can change to improve your communication outcomes)
In my case, I wanted to understand the context of her outburst rather than reply to her comments in isolation. After a few quiet minutes reflection, I realised that I had missed a couple of important triggers:
The Sponsor was not prepared for the intense detail and guidance needed in steering a transformational change – she wanted a simple, summary view of progress with the ability to check in with a couple of key people to provide detail where needed
The Sponsor did not speak Project Management jargon and saw structure, governance and process as simply “overhead”
- The change initiative had a long and checkered history prior to my appointment, with the Sponsor being frustrated at the slow and bumpy progress
- Unbeknownst to me, the Sponsor had fallen in the morning and was nursing a bruised ego, a bloodied knee and a torn dress, all of which had left her feeling dazed and a little disorientated.
Once we understand the broader context behind how our Sponsors are thinking, we can hone in on the important points and tailor our messages to cut through – remember though, that the way that we reach out and shape the message may well change from time to time, depending on the circumstances at the time.
So what can we do to help get that context?
1. Engage with the Sponsor’s influencers – who do they speak to regarding the Project? Who provides them with background information? Find them, meet with them, form a relationship, work with them and become their influencers so that your message reaches the Sponsor from all angles.
2. Develop a single, consistent narrative – make sure that all your messages are constantly grounded in a common, engaging narrative. Keep to it. Your Sponsor should be able to recite it in his or her sleep.
3. Let your Sponsor guide you towards the sort of detail required – use a simple Executive Summary to frame the discussion and allow the conversation to flow from there. Your audience will let you know what is of particular interest. Take note of what works and what doesn’t and shape your content to suit.
4. Spend time getting to know your Sponsor – understand what makes them tick, what motivates them, what they are looking for from the project. Think about the types of messages that will resonate with them, anticipate how they will respond and tailor the delivery to suit.
Keeping Your Project Sponsor Satisfied is a Full-Time Role
Managing and keeping your project sponsor satisfied is not a static task that you can set and forget – it is a moving, dynamic activity that you need to deal with over the life of the project.
Successful Project Managers will understand this, and will constantly lookout for changes to the context that will need the Sponsor messages to change ever so slightly. They will reevaluate their Sponsors’ communication needs and tailor the message to suit.
Never assume that communication requirements are static – recognise that they will change and remain fluid over the life of the project. This means that you will need to remain circumspect and be poised to adjust your messages and the way that they are delivered.
Finally, work with your Sponsors. Make them feel appreciated, take the time to listen and validate their needs. They may occasionally be disengaged but take the time to understand why, help them feel understood, validated and appreciated and you are far more likely to keep them in your corner.