How to Deal With an Absent Sponsor
If you have a barely-there relationship with your project sponsor, here’s some advice for how you can handle the potential lack of direction on your project.
“We’ll just hold on a few minutes because I’m expecting the project sponsor to come to this meeting,” said one of my colleagues. I was at his meeting because I was contributing to the project and had been invited along to discuss how my department could help.
Where was this sponsor? In the end, after 15 minutes of sitting around pretending it was normal to start a project meeting this late, my colleague decided that it was best to get started. I’m glad he did, as the project sponsor never showed up.
“I don’t know what happened,” he confided to me afterwards. “I know he’s difficult to get hold of, but he did say he’d be attending.”
Unfortunately, many project managers find that working with their sponsor is less than ideal. People in the project sponsor role tend to be senior managers with many other draws on their time. Your project isn’t always the top of their list of tasks, and you could find it difficult to get any time with them to discuss their plans and expectations for the project.
But we need project sponsors. They are essential when it comes to approving project expenses, they solve problems, they make decisions about changes and they advise on what else is happening in the company so that we can make amendments to our plans accordingly. Without a project sponsor, who is the ultimate authority for making decisions? How will we know if we’re doing the right things and delivering what they want from the project?
Where Are They?
First, work out where your sponsor is. Why isn’t he or she coming to meetings, returning phone calls or responding to emails? It could be because your sponsor is too busy with other work or with sponsoring too many projects. Maybe they are changing jobs and don’t see the need to be interested in your project any more. There are lots of reasons why your project sponsor could be taking a back seat. Here are several types of sponsors to look out for.
The Difficult-To-Get-Hold-Of Sponsor
A sponsor who is difficult to get hold of doesn’t return phone calls,your emails go unanswered, and when you stop by his office he always ‘just needs 5 minutes.’ It might be because he is too busy with other work, but it could also be because he doesn’t realize what project work really involves. He probably doesn’t know what a sponsor is supposed to be doing, and doesn’t know that when you contact him for advice or a decision that he really does have to make time for you otherwise the project comes to a halt.
This type of sponsor could do with some training about what their role on the project should be.
The Disinterested Sponsor
The disinterested sponsor shows the same signs as a sponsor who is difficult to get hold of. They never take your calls or reply to your messages. They brush you off if you meet them in the building or even in their office. However, the reason is quite different. The disinterested sponsor doesn’t care about your project at all.
Unless you can convince them that your project is worth their attention, you’ll never get the support you need. So if you can, the best plan of action is to swap sponsorship of your project to another sponsor, or even close down the project. After all, if the sponsor doesn’t care about it, why should you?
The Too-Busy Sponsor
The sponsor who is too busy will also be difficult to get hold of and may appear disinterested at times. However, she professes that she really does care about your project and is keen for it to be a success. She simply doesn’t have the time to spend with you right now. Later would be ‘a better time.’
Unfortunately, ‘later’ never comes and you never find time to sit down with the sponsor. If you’re lucky, you’ll get emails at 3am with the direction for you to take following her making a decision. However, your project will probably never get to the top of her task list, and you’ll always be waiting for advice or decisions.
Again, the best route forward is for you to try to get someone else to take on the sponsorship role. This could be one of her trusted managers – it doesn’t have to be someone at her level if she still wants to take an interest in the project from afar.
Do You Actually Have A Sponsor?
Does your project actually have a sponsor? If not, you shouldn’t progress. All projects need to be sponsored by someone from the business, ideally the person who will receive the benefit or deliverables. Projects without sponsors find it difficult to move forward, because they lack executive ownership and someone to fight for them when it comes to allocating budget and resources. You’ll find that managing a project with no sponsor at all is an uphill struggle. Any of the types of sponsor above are better than no sponsor – most of the time!
If your project doesn’t have a sponsor, talk to your own line manager about what you should do. The Project Management Office may be able to help you find someone to sponsor the project, recommend who should be doing so, provide sponsor training or even advise that the project is closed if there is no one interested enough to take the project forward at executive level.
And what worked for my colleague? When we talked about it we realized he had a sponsor who didn’t know what his role was. The sponsor didn’t think he needed to attend meetings because my colleague, the project manager, had it all under control. Which he did. But every so often it’s nice to know that the sponsor is there to support you! With a quick discussion on roles and responsibilities for all the project team, sponsor included, they managed to sort it out and the sponsor came to the relevant meetings after that.
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