Exceptional sponsors are the proverbial unicorn: Rare as hen’s teeth, highly valued if you can find one, and one of the most important assets you’ll ever have in delivering successful projects.

If you were to do a Google search for ‘keys to success in good project delivery’ you would not be short of reading material. The mountain of information readily available provides ample advice for project managers on the elements that make for optimal delivery: scheduling, risk and issue management, communications, methodology choice, and plenty more.

Based on the sheer volume of data and taking the objective view, it would be easy to form the position that as long as project managers look inward and adhere to the fundamentals, success should surely follow.

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 the plethora of project delivery advice and that is the pivotal role that a sponsor plays in project success.

Regardless of what a PM 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 PM to be able to identify and leverage them.

Rarer than hen’s teeth

There are few barriers to entry in landing a project sponsor role. Most come from the ranks 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. For example, has it ever been known for a PMO manager to sit in on an executive interview for a C-suite role to assess their understanding of how to sponsor a project?.

It’s almost a unique phenomenon in the project world: the assumption that as you are an executive, you are somehow magically imparted with the divine project sponsorship powers required with no questions asked.

We have seen what happens when an engaged, experienced sponsor joins a project and the effect is palpable. But it is a rare thing.

So, if they are so rare, how do we find them and how do they acquire the requisite skills?

It’s all about the experience

Exceptional sponsors do exist and they honed their skills through experience. It really is the only way.

A quick case study: Quay joined a panel for a large utility to conduct project assurance for the PMO, which required a 360-degree feedback loop on a quarterly basis to report systemic issues. It became abundantly clear, very quickly, that every project that had a ‘new’ sponsor experienced significant issues with things like scope control, governance, and requirements. Despite the project manager’s best efforts, inexperienced sponsors were consistently posing a risk to quality outcomes.

The PMO went some way towards mitigating the issues by instigating sponsor induction courses for new sponsors, however, it didn’t resolve the issues entirely. It did acknowledge the problem, which at least started a conversation around sponsorship.

It’s a unicorn!

So what happens when a PM lands a project that he or she will deliver on behalf of an exceptionally gifted sponsor? What should we expect to see and what should a PM notice about the experienced sponsor that sets them apart from their less experienced counterparts?

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