It’s well known that change programs are less effective without an active sponsor. The senior manager in the sponsor role is normally the person best placed to champion the project. They also tend to control the resources: the team members and the budget. And they are typically the person who receives the benefits of the project. A large enterprise portfolio system implementation, for example, would probably be sponsored by the Head of PMO or Program Director, whereas a project to launch a new sales channel would be sponsored by the Sales Director.
Sponsorship isn’t a new concept but it has taken on a new prominence in the last 18 months. Sponsor training programs have sprung up, there are books about sponsoring projects and sponsors are really taking their role seriously. They know what’s at stake – and no one wants to be at the helm of a failing project.
A project sponsor has to balance his or her day job – very few people sponsor projects as a full-time role – with the demands of the change program. These demands could be few and far between and then suddenly ramp up depending on the phase of the project and what else is happening in the company. So flexibility and the ability to prioritize work are important skills for a project sponsor to have. What else is important? Here are five more things to look for in your project sponsors.
The sponsor is the person who is the ultimate authority on the project, so he or she will set the leadership direction. You’ll want them to be calm in a crisis, able to take decisions effectively based on solid project data and generally lead the team to success. And they have to do all of this despite being part-time on the project.
It’s not enough simply to lead the team – you have to know where you are taking them! The project sponsor should be able to articulate the vision of the future. Whether that’s a company where all projects succeed, to borrow a turn of phrase from the 2020 APM Strategy, or to successfully launch a new product or something else, there should be a vision and the sponsor should be able to get everyone to work towards it.
Communication is essential across all elements of project, program and portfolio management. The sponsor needs to be able to communicate effectively to his or her peers – executives who don’t have much time for (or interest in) the detail – as well as to project team members at all levels in the corporate hierarchy.
Ideally your major communication messages will come directly from the project sponsor as this gives them a lot more gravitas and can really help new ideas and tools ‘stick’.
A good sponsor knows what else is going on in the business at the same time as the change program that they are sponsoring. This is important because businesses don’t work well when information and skills are stored in silos. You never know how a project happening in another department will have a knock-on implication for your own project, so it’s always best for sponsors to have a big picture view of business activities.
Business awareness is also useful in the assessment of project risk, as well as understanding how this project will fit into the larger portfolio of corporate change. Sometimes, for example, the sponsor will delay the go live date for a project because there are too many other changes hitting that area of the business at the same time. In order to avoid change fatigue, some projects are put on hold to allow all projects to be implemented successfully.
OK, credibility isn’t really a skill, but it is a characteristic that sponsors will certainly find beneficial! You get credibility by following through on your promises, being honest and professional and through building good working relationships. Many people will also see length of service or technical domain knowledge as contributing factors to credibility and while it is useful to have a ‘history’ you can still have credibility even if you haven’t been with the company that long.
Credibility will see you through a lot of project issues, which is especially important if you are implementing a major change across the whole enterprise. When the project hits a difficult patch, a credible project sponsor can help navigate the mix of emotions faced by the project team and lead them successfully out the other side and back on track for success.
Project sponsors are expected to give a lot, but their role is so important to the success of the project that without their contribution many more projects would stumble and probably ultimately fail. Choosing the right person to lead your projects, especially any enterprise-wide change initiatives, is really important, but it will pay off in terms of project success rates when you get it right.