Project managers have a difficult job. By the nature of their role, they assume responsibility for forming an effective team to pursue and succeed with new initiatives. Because projects can encompass all of the work done in a firm, every project is a new adventure.
One of the most important factors promoting project success is the presence of an effective, engaged executive sponsor. While project managers may know that executive sponsors do much to help a project succeed, many executives do not understand how they can help or what to do.
Executive Sponsor Responsibilities
The executive sponsor is essential to a project's success. There are many reasons projects fail, but lack of support in an organization should not be one of them. Executive sponsors should:
- Assume executive-level responsibility for the outcome of a project
- Charter the project and confer authority on the project manager and core team members
- Support the project team's quest for resources and visibility
- Ensure the presence of and support effective team values, including accountability and transparency
- Support the team in the face of extraordinary difficulties
- Defend the project team against organizational interference
- Stay involved and interested
- Be held as accountable as the project manager and team members if the initiative is a failure
Executive Sponsor Presence
In the absence of a supportive executive sponsor, all of the above responsibilities fall to the already over-burdened project manager, who typically lacks the influence with other managers or executives who may be resistant of the project.
The lack of an effective sponsor increases the risk of project problems, including but not limited to failure, suboptimal performance, increased cost and quality targets, and possible increased team turmoil.
Simply stated, the presence of an effective executive sponsor is a positive difference-maker for the project they have sponsored. Given the obvious importance of the role, it might be reasonable to assume that most organizations take their work with executive sponsors seriously.
Organizational Treatment of the Role
While it would be reasonable to expect that most firms would display mature practices around the role of the executive sponsor in an era where project management practices are well established, the situation is exactly the opposite.
- Many firms have no formal practices around executive sponsorship
- Few firms have any formalized training or standardized description for the role and responsibilities of the sponsor
- Rare is the firm that provides training for their executive sponsors
- There is little consistent agreement on the accountability of the sponsor for project success
- Most project managers express frustration at the lack of support from their sponsors
According to the Project Management Institute in 2018, 38% of organizations surveyed did not have active executive sponsors for projects.
While the current state of the practice of executive sponsorship may leave room for improvement, project managers have no choice but to keep on moving forward with their initiatives. However, there are some steps project managers can take to recruit much-needed executive support.
Steps to Gain Executive Support
- Recruit a sponsor. If your project has strategic implications for your firm, either directly for customers or indirectly by enabling more efficient and effective internal activities in support of customers, you should recruit a sponsor. Work directly with your report-to-manager or the head of your Project Management Office to reinforce the project’s importance and ask for help. Emphasize the role and responsibilities of the sponsor, and point to industry research that correlates project success and effective sponsorship.
- Train your sponsor. Emphasize the sponsor's role as strategic, not tactical or as a figurehead. Most executives come into 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.
- Actively engage and involve your sponsor. The best project manager and executive sponsor relationships are highly interactive. It is important for the two parties to establish a clear communication protocol for updates on project activities as well as flagging and responding to emergencies. The project manager should encourage the executive sponsor to attend status or team meetings from time-to-time to show genuine interest, and to serve as an active cheerleader to the organization for team successes.
- Ask for coaching support from your sponsor. It is always helpful to have someone with more experience than you observing and offering constructive and positive feedback and coaching on your performance.
- Leverage the sponsor carefully for the big issues. Be careful not to draw on your sponsor too much for tactical issues. The best use of your sponsor is helping secure resources, serving as a spokesperson for the project team to the broader management group and helping you reinforce essential team values.
The Final Pitch
The role of the executive sponsor is one of the important pieces of the puzzle to success for project initiatives. Successful project managers understand how important this role is and work to gain executive support at the right level and intensity.
If the sponsor is absent or vague, take it upon yourself to recruit and/or train your executive sponsors to support you, your team and your firm for success.