Engaging Project Sponsors

Project SponsorAs a follow up to the article “The Importance of Project Sponsorship” from Key Observations February issue, if poorly engaged executive sponsors are the primary cause of projects not meeting goals, then, let’s think about how to better engage sponsors throughout the project to effect a more successful outcome.


Very often a project sponsor and a project manager are “assigned” to a project and it is assumed that they will work well together. As research has shown, too often, the project sponsor ends up being overextended and under prepared to support their projects. Project sponsors are most often very busy C-Level executives who in many cases are or give the impression of being unapproachable and so, working well together requires strategy.


Because the executive sponsor and the project manager will ideally be working closely from start to finish, both need a clear understanding of their roles. Executive sponsors and project managers should see themselves as compatible members of a project team. Each is equally accountable and need each other to be successful.


The best sponsors make themselves available to the project manager and encourage communication, whether the news is good or bad.


Dr. Cooke-Davies, group chairman at consultancy Human Systems International, London, England, and author of Aspects of Complexity: Managing Projects in a Complex World suggests sponsors and project managers put together an “emotional contract” that covers:

  •  The time commitment each can expect from the other
  •  The frequency and nature of reports from the project manager
  •  How often they will meet
  •  How the sponsor expects the project manager to deal with problems and when they will be escalated to the sponsor


Also as noted in the Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: Executive Sponsor Engagement — Top Driver of Project and Program Success, project or program management offices (PMOs) can play a critical role in project success by implementing smart and simple processes focused on critical operational insight and by helping both project managers and sponsors develop the appropriate skills for their roles. For project managers, this would include learning how to rigorously define their initiative in terms of critical milestones that will have operational or economic impact, forward-looking lead indicators, and metrics on critical risks and interdependencies, as well as when and how to most effectively engage sponsors. For sponsors, the focus would be on effective leadership of change, engaging and influencing key stakeholders, and proactive issue resolution—specifically, forward-looking course correction.


These relatively simple but effective changes help enable sponsors to focus on those areas where they have the greatest impact on project and program success: removing roadblocks, resolving issues, aligning with strategy, championing projects, working with key stakeholders, and course correcting where needed.


Once guidelines are in place, it is up to the sponsor to walk the fine line between being a vested party and a micromanager. Dr. Cooke-Davies says “sponsors have to be very clear that they are not a project manager.” Sponsors have to let the project managers manage the project and create the environment to allow them to do that.” Instead of always turning to the sponsor, project managers should be encouraged to make many of the day-to-day calls on their own. “Project managers can’t spend most of their lives providing information to the sponsor so they can make a decision that the project manager should be making,” he says. Each person has his or her own part to play. “


Read more here: Executive Engagement: The Role of the SponsorPMI’s Pulse of the Profession

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