Defining what makes a ‘good’ project sponsor is often difficult – how can your project sponsors better understand the demands of their role?

One of the foundation stones of successful project delivery is, without question, solid sponsorship. However the definition of what makes a ‘good’ sponsor is often misunderstood.

Sponsors are typically appointed as a result of rising through the ranks and reaching C level status. Having a solid grounding in business-as-usual (BAU) doesn’t necessarily prepare them adequately for sponsoring projects. So how can you ensure new or existing sponsors understand the demands of sponsorship and help them to become better sponsors?

Ownership – It’s Your Project, not Theirs

A fundamental part of being a successful sponsor is the acknowledgement that you own the benefits and ultimate outcomes of the project. Your team may execute the project on your behalf, but they do not own the project – you do.

As the sponsor, your role is to foster strong collaboration between you and the project team to help drive the project to ‘being a success’, but ultimately the ownership of the delivering the successful outcomes lies with you.

Context – Where Does Your Project Fit into the Program?

It is critical that a sponsor knows and understands where their project or stream fits into the overall change strategy of the organisation. Rarely are projects delivered in a vacuum and the knowledge of where your particular projects fits is critical to be an effective sponsor.

This strategic context enables the sponsor to better explain to the team why certain things are important and get their buy in. The team will inherently have an expectation the sponsor is across the wider change agenda anyway and expect the sponsor to be able to articulate the change vision. Also, the understanding of the myriad of potential interdependencies greatly assists a sponsor when assessing priorities and helping with critical decisions.

Management – Engage the Team

More often than not sponsors will have day jobs that run alongside their sponsorship role, which may limit the opportunity to interact with the project. Line management responsibilities often do not allow sponsors to spend extended periods of time with a project team or even get to know the team members below the immediate leadership, for example, the project manager, change manager etc.

Teams function much better when they are positive engaged by the leadership. As a sponsor, ensure you take the time to:

  • Meet and get to know the team members
  • Understand who is who
  • Be visible and available as much as possible especially during key milestones.
  • Lead the celebration of successes and participate in post mortems when the team comes up short.

Your project manager should help guide you with the ’who’s who’ and the timings of when you need to be visible and actively engaged with the team. In short be prepared to treat the team as part of your overall team for the duration of the project.

Leadership – Make Decisions

Few things are more damaging to a project’s momentum and team harmony than the inability to make decisions. It can be argued that a sub-optimal decision trumps a non-decision every time.

Projects drive change and change by its nature requires decisions: sometimes they will not always be easy decisions to make. A good sponsor will be aware of this and ensure during project establishment the correct governance forums and decision-making frameworks are put in place.

They will also ensure they actively participate in the decision-making process as required and the decisions are considered and well thought through and made in a timely manner.

Confidence – Be Bold in Your Decision-Making

Change that adds true value to an organisation often requires the making of difficult decisions. This holds true for many projects. Good sponsors do not shy away from the contentious decisions if they are the right ones.

Be bold. Trust your instincts, those of your team and look to maximise the outcomes for the projects by going for the decision profile that will maximise the benefits.

Context – Live the Roles and Responsibilities

Roles and responsibilities are not only the guidelines of how you – as a sponsor – need to conduct yourself during the project they also provide the context of how the rest of the project team see your role.

It’s important for team discipline and morale that you work within the guidelines of the roles and responsibilities, execute yours to the best of your ability and also understand and respect the project team members’ roles and responsibilities.

Be Willing to See the Nuances

Sponsoring projects is not a paint by numbers exercise. All projects will have their nuances and different personalities and challenges.

Sponsoring projects is not an exact science but there are some fundamentals that hold true for all projects. Whilst the above list is not exhaustive it is a good reference guide if you want to be the best sponsor you can be.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...