One of the critical success factors for any project is the presence and participation of an effective project sponsor. Yet too many of the project managers I train tell me that is lacking in the projects they undertake within their organizations.
While I sometimes get the pleasure of an invitation to train project sponsors, too many senior people seem to take the view that sponsorship training is beneath them. They’ve managed projects, teams and departments: they don’t need to be trained in overseeing a project.
So when I am asked by project leaders how to deal with a less-than-effective sponsor, I need to find some pragmatic advice. They at least have a sponsor, so how can they wrangle them into doing what the project team needs of them, to make a full contribution to success?
What does your sponsor want?
The first thing to understand is that your sponsor – particularly a reluctant one – will have their own agenda. Their behavior will be motivated by a desire to achieve something. They may or may not be making a fair assessment of the best way to achieve it, of course!
So your job is to figure out what that agenda is, and find ways to help them achieve it through effective sponsorship of your project. This often means understanding a little about their route to where they are and what their career aspirations are. Are they aiming for that next promotion, for a stand-out achievement, for status and recognition, or just a quiet life?
It will be tempting for you to keep your interactions with a less-effective sponsor highly focused on the project business at hand. This will often be the wrong choice. Take any opportunity to learn more about what makes them tick, what their priorities are, and what they want from you. The golden rule of sponsor wrangling is: Respect your sponsor’s needs.
The four cardinal points of project sponsorship
As a minimum, both you and your sponsor need a common understanding of what the role of your sponsor is. There are four primary roles that you can think of as representing the cardinal points of a compass. The principal axis is the Governance dimension, with the roles of decision-making and project oversight at the two ends. Decision-making is your sponsor’s strategic, course-setting role (and the source of the word “governance”).
The second axis represents your sponsor’s leadership roles, focused directly towards you and your project, and outwards, towards the stakeholder community. These are support and guidance at one end, and active project promotion at the other.
When you both understand these roles, you can develop ways of working that will allow you to support your sponsor in carrying out their responsibilities. This will mean providing them with the information they need, the prompts, and the results, in a timely way.
What are your sponsor’s key requirements?
Helping your sponsor to perform their role means spontaneously providing them with what they need. There are fine things that a sponsor will typically need from their project manager.
To fulfill their decision-making and oversight roles, you sponsor will need a constant stream of timely information. What will make it easy or hard to get the best from them will be the extent to which you can get the format, level of detail and timing of your information flows right for them.
Right at the start, interview your sponsor to learn how they like their information presented, what information matters most to them, how frequently they want updates, and how much detail they need. Keep this assessment under review – particularly when the project moves into different stages, or is the risk profile shifts.
Sponsors have a need to feel involved in the project process, so they can participate, share in your sense of achievement, and receive some of the credit. What differs is how much involvement they want. Some want absolute minimum and others want to poke their noses into the tiniest micro-level details.
In part, you need to understand and their preference and engage them at that level. In part, you need to migrate them to the appropriate level for the project. Ideally, this will be based on a shared appreciation of the project’s risk profile: higher risk, more complex, more politically sensitive, larger scale projects should demand higher levels of sponsor engagement.
Almost above all else, your sponsor will need to feel they can trust you. This is not so they will leave you alone. It is so you can set up their governance and leadership agendas to suit the project, and they will feel comfortable in complying at that level.
If they don’t trust you, then they will either over-manage you and your team, or step away and try to distance themselves from what they will see as a high-risk project. Build trust by finding out early on what success looks like to your sponsor on a day-to-day and week-by-week level, and achieving it consistently.
Often, your sponsor will want you to help them to manage their project commitments. This way, they can step out of their other roles and feel in safe hands: all they need to think about is the agenda you set. You and your team need to secure diary time from your sponsor or their assistant, and then manage that time.
Set up their meetings and review time so they can easily move into effective sponsor role with minimum friction. But do find out the extent to which your sponsor likes a highly structured agenda, or the freedom to move “off-piste” to where their interest takes them. If the latter is the case, a looser schedule will work best.
I have also found that many sponsors want you to do some of their work for them. If there is a set piece meeting with stakeholders, for instance, some will want you to provide them with briefing notes, some will also want an outline of what they should say. At the extreme, some will want you to prepare their speech or presentation for them. Remember, part of your job is to make it easy for your sponsor to do theirs.
Build your reputation
One way to think of sponsor wrangling is as a sustained campaign of personal reputation-building. We’ve talked about trust and that is absolutely essential. But there are other things too. Here are some of the most important.
Find out what attitudes your sponsor values in their colleagues and leading team members and put those attitudes to the fore. If in doubt, some attitudes will nearly always impress: calmness and control, perseverance, consideration for your sponsor, optimism in the face of set-backs.
As a general rule, the better we know someone, the more we like and trust them. Clearly this rule breaks down if you do something to annoy, upset or offend, but otherwise, investing time in building your relationship and getting to know your sponsor better means they will get to know you better.
My experience is that there is little a sponsor will value more is loyalty – to them, their project, their team, their business. Personal loyalty to them will encompass all of this, so unless the ethics of the situation demand otherwise, always ask yourself: ‘how might my sponsor perceive this decision?’ before you make it.
There is no harm in getting the word out – to your sponsor and others – about your abilities and achievements. But always do so in a way that avoids braggadocio or arrogance.
Finally, I ought not need to say this, but if you want to get the best from your sponsor, you must communicate well. For me, there are six essential elements of good communication:
If you get this right, all of the others will fall into place readily. But too often, we go into a conversation or a meeting with an agenda, and find ourselves prioritizing “communicating our message.” As Stephen Covey notably said: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
When you do offer your update, opinion or recommendation, be sure to do so with real clarity. Get to the point, provide the right amount of supporting evidence, and make it easy to understand.
Better late than never? Better at just the right time. Schedule communications in advance and review your schedule frequently. If significant shift happens, then brief your sponsor as soon as you are safely able to do so.
Adapt your style to that of your sponsor. For me, the most significant shift I have had to make was from my preferred short, direct and “black and white” analysis of a project status to a contextual, subtle and “shaded technicolor” assessment.
Between a uselessly submissive project manager who fails to get their message across and a pushy aggressive project manager, who upsets and annoys as they go, is the ideal of an assertive communicator, who patiently and respectfully ensures that they communicate accurately and compellingly.
You’ll be under pressure. People will frustrate, anger or upset you. It will be temping to lose it at times. If you can retain a calm and courteous manner, even in the toughest of times, then will you will never fail to impress.
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