Getting the right Sponsor

Project Sponsorship is an active role, and the selection of the Sponsor is critical to the ultimate success of the project. This article summarises the role, the challenges of Sponsorship and how to attract the right person for the job.

Why is Sponsorship so important?

Without clear, strong Sponsorship, a project is unlikely to have the means to gain and retain support in the business, overcome the tendency to resist change and secure necessary resources.

The absence of, or inappropriate, Sponsorship is consistently cited as a key reason for project failures, as it leaves the business without the final link between its vision and strategies and the projects that should be there to deliver them.

Project Sponsorship also offers the opportunity for multiple projects to gain from the expertise, experience and contacts of the most senior employees.

Also, through their partnership with the Project Leaders, sponsors offer businesses a great opportunity to internally develop project management skills and progress the leadership role towards that of coach and facilitator.

It all sound great! But unfortunately, good sponsorship is often harder to find than good project management and significantly less investment, focus and support is given to employees trying to fulfil the sponsor role. Is that the case in your business?

What does the Sponsor Do?

The sponsor must be accountable; otherwise he/she runs the risk of being a sponsor in name only, a passive sleeping partner who awakes only at points of crisis. So taking on the Sponsor role means accepting overall responsibility for achieving the project goal and benefits, working through the project leader and team.

An effective Sponsor will:

  • Start by ensuring that the project has a defined and viable goal which has been agreed by the business
  • Communicate the need for change, both to the team and the wider business
  • Select the Project Leader
  • Ensure that the project continues to be a viable business proposition
  • Help remove obstacles to progress
  • Support the project team in securing committed and aligned stakeholders
  • Motivate, coach and challenge the project leader so that they emerge from the project with enhanced project management capabilities
  • Formally approve and review the project as it progresses through its lifecycle
  • Suggest and authorise changes to the project in the light of changing business circumstances and new insights
  • Build the project work into the Project Leader's objectives, appraisal and rewards.

What should the Sponsor not do?

  • Wade in and do the project work themselves - often a temptation
  • Only appear at points of crisis, rather than working continuously to eliminate or reduce the probability of crises occurring
  • Make - or overturn - project decisions without the project team and leader's involvement

The Selection Process

Typically, Senior Leaders/Directors will both select Sponsors and take on the Sponsorship role. This opens up the danger that selection is nothing more than a friendly, "Can you take this one on, Jim?" at the end of a board meeting

A formal selection process highlights the value placed on the right choice, with agreed criteria, role clarity and training support. Some sample criteria are listed below.

Does the candidate have:

  • The power to sanction and legitimise the change?
  • The organisational credibility to help make these changes happen?
  • The experience and/or expertise in the areas being changed?
  • A personal passion for, and commitment to, the proposed changes?
  • The willingness to commit to an active role?
  • Absolute determination to see the changes through?
  • The flexibility and willingness to adapt their leadership style to meet the needs of the project leader, team and stakeholders?

Key Questions to ask

  • If ever you are asked to be a Sponsor, or you are a project leader trying to convince someone to step into this role, here are some critical questions:
  • Do I believe that this project is worth pursuing?
  • Am I sufficiently dissatisfied with the status quo?
  • Why does the business want to pursue this project?
  • What business strategy is this project aligned to?
  • What budget opportunity and constraint apply to this project?
  • Is there anything about this project which is already agreed, committed to, or cannot be challenged?
  • What conditions must this project meet to remain in the project-portfolio?
  • Has the business previously attempted to make a similar change? What happened and why?

The Sponsor Hunt

Ideally, Sponsor selection is undertaken by the Leadership team at the point a new project is formally approved and placed in the project-portfolio. Thus the Sponsor is engaged and informed about the change and takes charge of selecting the right Project Leader to partner them in progressing the project to a successful conclusion.

However, if you find yourself as Project Leader hunting for a Sponsor in order to push through a desired project,

Here are a few pointers:

Avoid the tendency, however tempting, to approach the most senior person you know, as this person is unlikely to have the time to support your project. Yes, you earn your project some initial credibility, but in the long run having someone actively on your side and understanding how the project fits with the rest of the business will help the project far more.

Provide the person you do approach with a clear summary of the project, even if this is based on estimates and outlines, including,

  • the project goal
  • the need for change
  • the benefits you feel will result
  • the risks of not going ahead with the project
  • the risks of going ahead with the project
  • Explain clearly what Sponsorship involves and why you believe their sponsorship would increase your project's chances of success.
  • Show them the role outline and encourage a real debate about the demands of the role and the relationship between Sponsor and Project Leader.

If you are nervous about talking this through in case it puts them off, remind yourself that it is better to set realistic expectations upfront than to have them fail you once work commences. You're after the right person, not just a prestigious name. An uncommitted Sponsor is likely to pull the project, distance themselves when things go wrong and never be there when you need them.

Making the best of it

So what if you are landed with a Sponsor who wants to be Sponsor in name only (except maybe when the credit is being handed out)? All is not lost. You can do much to increase the odds that the relationship is accepted and ultimately productive. For example:

  • Make sure the Sponsor understands the importance and the benefits of this project for the business
  • Be honest about your own feelings and concerns and share your expectations for the partnership
  • Agree upfront how you will work together and how often you will need to review progress. Formalise this in a Partnership Contract so that each party understands what they have agreed to

The Sponsor may not have been exposed to this type of co-operative working relationship before. Book them some training or include them in team training events to help them understand the advantages it will provide, both for them and the business

Invite the Sponsor to attend some team meetings or even join in social events. Making them feel part of the group will increase their interest and commitment. But ensure that the Sponsor's time is spent effectively, that meetings are relevant and run smoothly.

Keep them in the loop - and tell them the good news as well as the bad! Informing them on progress and giving them regular feedback from the team and stakeholders, lessens the risk of a situation developing which might take time and trouble for them to resolve. Nothing is worse than a long silence followed by a panic alert when things go wrong.

The Sponsor role is critical to keep a project aligned to business needs. It can be demanding; it can also be enormously satisfying. Ultimately, it depends on the Sponsor's commitment to support the team in its endeavours, while retaining a broader perspective on the successful management and implementation of change.

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