The relationship between Project Managers and Project Sponsors is a critical one, but we often see significant challenges in new sponsors getting to grips with their role in shaping and supporting their projects.

Without doubt, forming a productive working relationship with a project sponsor can be a challenging prospect for project managers. Sponsors are often time poor, can be set in their ways of working, and that can cause friction in how a project is delivered. Whilst the sponsor may be accountable for the benefits, the responsibility of delivering the project always rests with the project manager — as does the responsibility of setting the tone and the tenor of how the relationship develops.

Establishing a relationship with a new sponsor, however, is particularly fraught. New sponsors have never been in the role before and indeed may have little or no understanding of what it takes to deliver a successful project, let alone understand the weight of the role they will play in its outcome.

What, then, must a project manager do to ensure that the relationship with a new sponsor is both collaborative and productive, in addition to ensuring that the sponsor gets the support they need?

We believe there are a few key tenets that an experienced PM can follow to support an inexperienced sponsor.

No Barrier to Entry

Wherever a role sits within a project’s organisation chart, it’s fair to assume that everyone has been hired on merit, which often includes an interview process to drill into each person’s suitable experience for the role at hand, including their qualifications. Anyone hoping to join a project team – be it project managers, business analysts, testing professionals, or change practitioners – expects this to be part of the process. Except, of course, the project sponsor.

The sponsor is a key role in the project organisation and is the person who will ultimately be accountable for the benefits it delivers as well as its success or failure. Yet, despite the importance of the role, a project sponsor is rarely interviewed to understand what their credentials are for the role or if there’s a gap in their skillset.

Why is this so?

Typically, the sponsor is a C-suite manager, and this is how they are interviewed and appointed with a focus on their day job: It is based upon their line management expertise in their field. They are not interviewed in terms of their understanding of project delivery or what it means to be a good sponsor.

Thus, a sponsor will often need to learn on the job and this is where a good project manager or PMO can assist.

Make it Collaborative

Once it is clear that a project manager is working with an inexperienced sponsor – and it will become apparent very quickly, just ask their understanding of the difference between a risk over issue! – the focus should be on upskilling them in an ordered way whilst minimising risks to the project because of their lack of experience.

The optimal approach to upskilling is to make it a collaborative exercise and focus on mutual delivery – it’s not ‘your’ or ‘my’ project, but ‘ours’. An experienced project manager will focus on developing a strong rapport with the sponsor to ensure that they understand the PM is there at all times for the good of the project. They will also establish the link that a successful outcome is a joint outcome – and that will enhance everybody’s reputation.

Surface the Bad News Early

There is a critical issue that we see often in projects that go off-piste: delivering bad news. It is probably the most important factor when working with a new and inexperienced sponsor.

Everything is easy when a project is running smoothly. It’s only when a project hits challenges that project management can become difficult and that is where it is vital as a project manager to be able to surface bad news to facilitate any hard calls that need to be made.

Inexperienced sponsors often cannot follow the bouncing ball of how a poor decision – or worse, no decision – will manifest into the future. This is where the project manager needs to be able to be open and forthright with the sponsor to:

  • identify the risks that lie ahead
  • calculate how a misstep will likely impact the success of the project, and
  • shepherd what ‘we’ need to do about it

Again, if the relationship between the sponsor and the project manager is a healthy and collaborative one, having difficult conversations to surface bad news might be challenging but will be considered essential.

Covering up the bad news because there is concern that the sponsor will be displeased or not have the wherewithal to assist in making decisions about where to next is a zero sum game: there will be a price to pay somewhere for not making good decisions early.

It is far better to get this out in the open and be very much on the front foot in involving the inexperienced sponsor in helping facilitate the right outcomes.

Inexperience Doesn’t Have to Equal Failure in Projects

The dynamic between an inexperienced sponsor and an experienced PM can be challenging but it is manageable with a couple of critical techniques as we’ve outlined above. Ultimately nothing guarantees success, but understanding how an inexperienced sponsor might come into the role and having the right approach to working with them give, at the very least, a project manager and the PMO a fighting chance to bring out the best in a sponsor and help make their first and future projects a success.

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To speak to our team about how we can help your business deliver better projects, please contact us.

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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 ...