The importance of a good Project Sponsor

Establishing and maintaining a good working relationship with the project sponsor is a key ingredient to project success. The project manager may think that understanding process and having a tight schedule and established governance is enough to guarantee project success. The unfortunate truth is that project success is not just about these things, nor is it simply applying the tried and tested disciplines of project management. There is a critical component to project success that is extremely underrepresented in project delivery advice and that is the pivotal role that a sponsor plays in project success. Regardless of what the Project Manager may or may not do, one of the key ingredients to successful project delivery is what an exceptional sponsor brings to the table. And it’s up to the Project Manager to be able to identify and leverage them.

The project sponsor can come from an assortment of avenues, most come from the ranks of senior executives who have clear skill sets to do a line management role and who’ve been brought on board to deliver in that capacity. However, rarely are they interviewed about their skills in delivering major projects. Exceptional sponsors do exist and they honed their skills through experience. It really is the only way.

So what happens when a Project Manager lands a project that he or she will deliver on behalf of an exceptionally gifted sponsor?

Here are our Top 5 Characteristics:

  • Time they have it – And not just for their direct reports. They understand the importance of their role and thus they are engaged and make the time to be present as required to fully participate in the project.
  • They can manage up and down – This is critical, they will at times need to influence peers and senior executives and other stakeholders for the good of the project but may also need to intervene downwards to help bring their teams along for the ride.
  • They can tell the difference between a risk and an issue – and help manage their impacts – and it is the management of these two things that will go a long way to deciding whether a project is successful or not. Overlook or misrepresent a key risk and the project may be caught flat-footed. Likewise, with major issues, the input of a sponsor with a cool analytical approach is often required to get the best remedy.
  • Everyone is a critic – They get it. Change is difficult, not everyone will be a fellow traveler and a good sponsor knows it is nothing personal just human nature. They will protect the project as best they can from the negative influences (both within and without) and understand it is often nothing personal—just a by-product of driving change.
  • Scope can change – but not without change control. The experienced sponsor understands implicitly that project governance is their friend. Projects can always pivot if required but this should only ever happen via the correct chain of command with the right sign offs, so everyone is aware of impacts to meddling with scope.

While this is a high-level list, it does provide some important insights into the characteristics of what an exceptional sponsor will ‘look like’. Those who are lucky enough to be working with one, coupled with a project manager with strong project fundamentals, know that the opportunity to be successful when delivering a project is infinitely greater.

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