The relationship between project manager and executive sponsor is one of the most important ones in project management, but it can easily fall victim to pitfalls.
We see this in the field, within case studies and among academic literature — the overloading of too many projects per sponsor, lack of effective communication by the Project Manager, or even the simple mismatch of skills and influence needed for a particular project.
There are no easy solutions – building the sponsor/PM relationship as well as the structures that support it, won’t happen overnight. However, there are a few things to tackle in the interim, namely, fostering a space where shared knowledge, trust and transparency can bloom.
To guide that path of discovery, here are some best practices to consider whether you are a sponsor or a project manager:
Formal Sponsorship is the Goal
It’s easy to assume every project gets an executive sponsor, but research from the Project Management Institute finds that fewer than 2/3rds of projects and programmes have an assigned executive sponsor at all. Considering engaged sponsorship is a top indicator of project success, it’s important to make every effort to recruit one. Look for people who have the right level of influence for your project, especially if it requires cross-team buy-in to be successful.
‘Train’ Your Sponsor
Once you have a sponsor, you’ll want to essentially “onboard” or “train” him or her with regards to the project at hand, says The Balance, a blog about careers and finance: “Emphasize the role as strategic, not tactical or as a figurehead. Most executives come to the role of a sponsor with no formal training or even context for their responsibilities. While you are in the somewhat awkward role of training an executive, most of these individuals will appreciate your context and guidance. The issues of accountability, values reinforcement, and protection of the team should be your primary focus when on-boarding your executive sponsor.”
Establish Open Lines of Communication
Your entire relationship may rise and fall on the effectiveness of the communication between you and your sponsor, so don’t skimp on the softer skills. Research that included Prof. Lynn Crawford of the University of Technology Sydney, finds that it indeed comes down to soft skills on the sponsor side. It’s what separates “high-performance project sponsors from their lesser performing peers.”
In an ideal world, executive sponsors will not only welcome your upfront efforts on alignment and context, but remain invested well beyond a requisite sign-off or milestone meeting. In the real world, however, your sponsor may have multiple projects in sponsorship at any given time. Don’t despair if this is the case, just respect their time and focus on where their knowledge and skills can have the most impact. And if they give you feedback, however candid, learn from it.
Pay it Forward
Say you do luck out with a highly engaged executive sponsor — share the positive impact widely. Think: What substantial project benefit would have failed if not for your sponsor? In what tangible ways did they bring disparate groups together or see opportunity where others saw only risk? The PMI report encourages companies to create cultures that recognise the value of great executive sponsors. “When executive sponsors are viewed in this way [as highly valuable to project success], organisations are less likely to overburden them, and more likely to prioritise and be strategic in assigning executive sponsors on projects and programmes.” PMs can certainly do their part to make this positive cultural shift happen.
The ability to develop strong relationships with executives is a prerequisite for effective leadership in any company or industry but has specific benefit for project success. For this reason and more, investing time and energy into the PM/sponsor relationship is well worth the investment on both sides.
We are keen to hear your thoughts on successful Sponsor/Project Manager relationships, and be sure to tag a sponsor who was highly engaged in your project. If you need assistance on your next project contact PM-Partners on 1300 70 13 14 to find out how we can help.
https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/executive-sponsor-engagement.pdf  https://www.thebalance.com/manager-needs-supportive-executive-sponsor-4046176  https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/exploring-role-executive-project-sponsor-8107  https://hbr.org/2015/05/how-to-be-an-effective-executive-sponsor https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/executive-sponsor-engagement.pdf