The relationship between a project manager and a project sponsor is much like a traditional employee/manager relationship. The project sponsor may not be the project manager’s direct manager or even in the project manager’s chain of command. Still, the project sponsor supports the project manager as the project team works toward a project's completion.
Like a supervisor, one of the biggest ways a project sponsor supports a project manager is through handling issues only someone with the project sponsor’s organizational clout can handle. When project managers run into problems only project sponsors can solve, here are the things project managers should do.
Exhaust All Other Options
Project sponsors tend to be at the organizational level where most decisions are difficult ones because if a decision is easy, it is made at a lower level. They have to make tough decisions quickly sometimes with limited information.
As a project manager, you need to make sure you have exhausted all other options for resolving your problem before going to the project sponsor. For instance, say you have a project team member who is not living up to his commitments. Before taking the issue to the project sponsor, you should try resolving the issue one-on-one with the project team member. When that doesn’t work, you should go to the team member’s supervisor. Once that fails to resolve the issue, you can take the problem to the project sponsor. You have exhausted your options for resolving the issues from the bottom up. Now, the project sponsor can work on the issue from the top down. The project sponsor should work out the issue with his or her peer and inform you of their agreed upon course of action.
The last thing you want to happen is having the project sponsor come up with a resolution you could have implemented under your own authority without any help. Sometimes this happens. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn from these situations when they occur, and you will be a better project manager for it. The next time a similar situation comes up, you will handle it better than you did before.
Be Specific About What You Need
While project sponsors are accustomed to working from incomplete information, a project manager should not leave out relevant information. It is important for the project sponsor to have context for the situation needing his or her attention.
Once the project sponsor has an appropriate context for the decision, be specific about what you need from the sponsor. Do you need direction on how to proceed? Do you need the authorization to take a particular action? Do you need a problem solved? Do you need resources you cannot obtain yourself?
If you haven’t thought through precisely what you need, you might come to a decision about what you need but find out later you were mistaken. Think through the issue before taking it to the sponsor to minimize the risk of wasting each other’s time.
Keep Your Request Focused
Project sponsors are busy people. Countless issues pull at their schedules sucking their time away.
When a project manager has a genuine need for the project sponsor’s time, this is not a bad thing or an intrusion upon the sponsor’s time. Time spent with the project manager and project sponsor should be highly productive. Keep your request focused so you use only as much of your sponsor’s time as necessary.
As your sponsor experiences productive one-on-one time with you, he or she will look forward to your meetings. People at high levels of organizations often spend their time in unproductive meetings they must attend. Participating in a productive meeting could be an energizing change of pace for your project sponsor.