Effective Sponsor Engagement

The criticality of the relationship established between the project manager and the sponsor cannot be overlooked. Establishing a relationship can at times be challenging, whether it relates to the complexity of the project or just not seeing eye to eye, especially if a first time sponsor is involved, in respect to shaping and supporting the project.

Project sponsors can be taxed for time, set in their ways and hence forming a productive working relationship can be challenging. Friction can be caused if there are differing points of view on how a project should be delivered.  Although the sponsor is accountable for the benefits, it is the responsibly of the project manager to deliver it successfully.

When involved with a new project sponsor, then it is very possible they would have very little or no understanding of what it takes to deliver a successful project. Also not understand the weight of the role they will play in the outcome. This is where a project manager must be very diplomatic when dealing with a new project sponsor. To ensure the relationship between the project manager and sponsor is collaborative, productive and provides the necessary support, then the following are some considerations.

Skillset Gaps

It can be safely assumed that the project manager and team were all interviewed and received the role to deliver the project based on their knowledge. They were the successful candidates, hired based on merit and previous experience and qualifications. The sponsor however, is a key figure within the organisation and not necessarily hired for their project sponsor abilities. This is the person who will ultimately be accountable for the benefits it delivers as well as its success or failure. Yet, despite the importance of the role, a project sponsor is rarely interviewed to understand what their credentials are for the role or if there’s a gap in their skillset.

Normally the sponsor is an executive within the organisation, someone who has access and is responsible for the allocation of funds. However, they were appointed in their role, it would have been to focus on their day job. Seldom, would a sponsor be interviewed in terms of their understanding of project delivery or what it means to be a good sponsor. This means that quite often a sponsor will need to learn on the job and this is where a good project manager or PMO can assist.

Collaboration is the key

If it is determined that the project sponsor is indeed inexperienced, meet with them and ask their understanding on the difference between risks over issue. This should be done to upskill them in an ordered way, so their lack of experience doesn’t pose as a risk to the project. It does not help in building a relationship if the project sponsor is an item on the risk and issues register.

The best way to upskill is by making it a collaborative exercise and focus on mutual delivery, as both the sponsor and project manager have a vested interest in the project’s success. An experienced project manager will focus on developing a strong rapport with the sponsor to ensure that they understand the PM is there at all times for the good of the project. They will also establish the link that a successful outcome is a joint outcome – and that will enhance everybody’s reputation.


Being transparent is very important; we all like to deliver “Good News” but not so much the bad. This should not be the case, as hiding, or sheltering “Bad News” does not instil trust. It is probably the most important factor when working with a new and inexperienced sponsor.

It all looks great when a project runs smoothly, not so the case when a project hits challenges. It is understood that project management can become difficult at times. During this time, it is vital a project manager be able to surface bad news to facilitate any hard calls that need to be made.

Inexperienced sponsors would not know the effects on the future of a project from a poor decision, or no decision at all. This is where the project manager needs to be able to be open and forthright with the sponsor to:

  • Identify the risks that lie ahead.
  • Calculate how a misstep will likely impact the success of the project.
  • Guide the sponsor through the next steps.

If the relationship between the sponsor and the project manager is a healthy and collaborative one, having difficult conversations to surface bad news might be challenging but will be considered essential.

Covering up bad news because there is concern that the sponsor will be angry or because it is perceived they will not assist in making the hard decisions will not help the project. There will be a price to pay somewhere for not making good decisions early. It is best to get this out in the open and be on the front foot in involving the inexperienced sponsor in helping facilitate the right outcomes.

Project doesn’t need to fail because of inexperienced Sponsor.

The relationship between the experienced project manager and the inexperienced sponsor can be a challenge. Regardless of the challenges faced, it should still be manageable, by using some of the critical techniques outlined above. Although success is not guaranteed, an understanding on what motivates the inexperienced sponsor might assist with a successful outcome. Once known how the sponsor came into the role and having the right approach working with them could provide the project manager and PMO a good chance of success. This then lays the foundation for the sponsor’s future project success.

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