The Project Sponsor – How good is yours?

The Project Sponsor
What is a Project Sponsor?  Simply put, a project sponsor is the client’s representative on a project.

As a project manager, one of the many challenges we face is working with and seeking support from the project sponsor.

The role of a project sponsor starts before the appointment of the project manager. It also continues beyond closure and departure of the project manager. Ideally the project sponsor should be a leader within the business. He or she should be empowered to make project influencing decisions on behalf of the client. The project sponsor should also have the ability to walk across corporate and functional boundaries to gain the support required.

Before the project starts, the project sponsor should be clear on the work to be done, the benefits being sought for that work and the cost and risks associated with delivering the benefits. These may seem obvious but from my experience they are bound together by enforcing the “why” or “raison d’être” of the project. Why is the project being delivered in the first place?

Absence of a project sponsor
From experience it is common practice for large organizations to run multiple large projects and programmes concurrently. They often draw on the same pool of resources. Among those resources are the project sponsors. It is not uncommon for one person to be a sponsor for multiple projects on behalf of the business. This is not an impossible or difficult scenario to manage once the priorities are clear from the business. For the individual project managers, this can be a challenge. If the sponsor has limited availability, key risks or asks for the business may not be communicated in advance of an issue becoming real.

The project is being delivered to either solve the current business problem or to deliver a specific value of benefits for the future state of the business. Therefore if the sponsor has been assigned to the project the sponsor should support the project and hold the project manager and project team accountable. This sounds simple, but it is often not the case.

As multiple projects reach high levels of activity, the priorities become difficult to manage for any organization. The project manager needs to shout loud enough to have their concerns voiced. Any risks need to be made visible to the main project stakeholders.

The role of the project sponsor cannot be completely separated from the role of the project manager. Both roles must work together to establish a robust process of communication from the start of the project.

A Good Start
The project sponsor and the project manager need to work closely together to ensure that the objectives of the project and the needs of the business are being met on a regular basis. Both will be judged on the outcome of the project. In many industries project managers are external consultants or contractors.  Project sponsors however are generally senior members of staff. As a project manager I always ask the project sponsor if the success of the project is a key goal for the sponsor as part of their annual performance.

Depending on the individual you are dealing with, the response can vary.If the question is posed in a subtle, professional manner there should be no issue. If the project in question is business critical, then the success of the project should be included as part of the goals and objectives of the senior leadership team. (Tread carefully here)

What often follows in large multinational organisations today is that once the project has been pre-approved, set up and kicked off, the project sponsors tend to disappear. Their only interaction with the project manager is to have a brief discussion once a week on general project status.

This can result in the project sponsor believing that the job is done. Unfortunately, this can leave the project manager and project team somewhat isolated and unsupported. In addition to a regular project meeting the project manager should arrange a weekly 1 to 1 meeting with the project sponsor. This meeting should be informal in nature, face to face if possible, brief and to the point. It is an opportunity to build and develop a good relationship with your project sponsor.

Manage your sponsor
Meeting actions and minutes should be followed up swiftly and used to hold all parties accountable. If there is a pattern of cancelling meetings then it is your duty as the project manager to call a separate meeting with the project sponsor. Always come prepared. Professional people have no problem with accountability and ownership of tasks and commitments no matter what level they are at.

To run the project successfully you need the support of the sponsor. Issues may arise that require a decision by the main stakeholders. The project sponsor is your link to the stakeholders. Equally if the main stakeholders need to communicate a decision or a change request to the project team, then this information needs to be communicated formally by the project sponsor.

Be honest
If you hit a major crisis on the project or a major unforeseen event you must get this message to the main stakeholders at the earliest opportunity. Frame the issues in clear, concise language to minimise spreading panic. The project sponsor will want to know a few basic pieces of information such as:
Basic description of the issue or problem
The impact of the problem – based on Schedule, Budget and Risk
If relevant, the cause of the issue
Options going forward

Frame all potential crises in a simple form. A single slide or one page (A3 is a good method for this) will give the project sponsor the overview.When you are sure there is a crisis coming down the line, communicate the issue well in advance of the risk becoming a problem. This will give everyone involved time to absorb the knowledge before being put in a position where a decision is needed swiftly.
Openness, transparency and frank discussions are always effective for building relationships.

Play it by the book
All organizations have their own specific procedures for project management. These procedures will contain role descriptions. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the roles and responsibilities for both the project manager and the project sponsor. Ensure that you frame your tasks and meetings around this framework.

If you are asked to do something that you perceive to be off-piste in terms of the roles and responsibilities, seek clarification from the project sponsor. If anything, this will communicate to them that you are following procedures and you are aware of your responsibilities.

In summary
The project sponsor is there to represent the client on the project and to support the project manager and project team in the delivery of the project.
The project sponsor has the same interests and concerns that the project manager does.
The stronger the relationship between the sponsor and manager is, the easier all issues will be overcome.
The project sponsor and the project manager must support each other and hold each other accountable.

If you are struggling to come to terms with repetitive project issues and you need some advice or support, contact us by email: with some background on your specific issue and we’ll be in touch.

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