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Helping your project sponsor be a good sponsor

As project managers we all have an image of the perfect project sponsor. We want a sponsor who gives us enough space to get on with our job without constant interference, but we also want a sponsor who is there immediately when we need them to be. We like sponsors who are decisive, who ensure all those important authorisations are given without delay. It’s also appreciated when the sponsor is explicit in his or her praise for our work.

Well, that’s the idea anyway, except of course there are many terrible sponsors. The world is full of micro-managing sponsors who want so much detail that they seem to want to do our job for us. At the other extreme, are the sponsors who are so difficult to get hold off that there are constant delays as we try to get their support. We find indecisive sponsors, who every time we need a decision made, slow the project down. And there are sponsors who seem to think everything we do is poor.

Very occasionally, you can choose you sponsor or only work for sponsors you know are great at the job. But in the vast majority of cases the choice of sponsor is not ours. What can we do about this?

Does your sponsor know what to do?

The first question to ask is does your sponsor really knows what being a sponsor means? As a project manager there is a wealth of training, accreditation, books, web sites, blogs etc. that help you do your job. In contrast, most project sponsors have to work out what being a sponsor means. There is information available on being a project sponsor, but for many senior managers being a project sponsor is a peripheral part of their role. You may be a professional project manager. They are not a professional project sponsor.

We are in that weird situation where although the sponsor is senior, sometimes significantly senior, we know lots more about their job than they do. Put simply, we have to help them to do their job.

It’s easy to make the assumption that a sponsor knows what being a sponsor means, or to take the viewpoint that they are well paid and it’s their job to find out. But it is projects and project managers that suffer from bad sponsorship. So forget the rights and wrongs, it’s in your interest to help the sponsor to understand and do their job.

There is an art to helping someone more senior. Generally, senior managers won’t respond well to asking them, “do you know how to do your job” or saying “you must do this and this”. But often the same can be achieved by providing some clear structure, making repeated suggestions and occasionally building up their ego.

The first steps

Sponsors are key to the success of the project, so from the outset, when you are building you first project plan, start to think about how and when you will need your sponsors input.

At the start of the project walk your sponsor through the project plan and point out when you will need their expert input and when you will need decisions made. But also set the expectation that projects never go like clockwork and you may need their help on a more ad-hoc basis now and again. Set the expectation there is work for them to do on a regular basis.

Get a series of meetings in the sponsor’s diary. Book these early in the project for the length of the project, plus a bit for contingency. No one minds having meetings cancelled out of their diary if they are not required. But fitting one in when you are desperate for a decision can be difficult. I always start a project by arranging a fixed once a week meeting with the sponsor. You may find that quite often it is cancelled – but when you need it, it is there.

Fitting with your sponsor's style

Develop an understanding of your sponsor’s expectations in terms of working style. Every sponsor is an individual and each individual has preferences in terms of their working style. You must be willing to flex your style to them - don’t expect them to flex to you. Work out, or even better simply ask the sponsor what is the best way to work together. Alternatively, ask their line reports or other project managers how best to interact with the sponsor.

Is your sponsor someone who likes to have a constant trickle of information provided? If so, try to catch him or her for 5 minutes every day with a short, informal status update. On the other hand, if your sponsor is one of those who likes complete information and formal reports, structure your interactions around weekly or monthly detailed progress updates.

However, don’t think this is about being a slave to your sponsor’s style of work. Most sponsors will respond well to suggested ways of doing things – but only once you have developed their trust.

Getting help

When you have worked out a practical way of interacting with your sponsor life is considerably easier, but what about the situation in which you really need your sponsor’s help urgently?

If you need your sponsor’s help try to be clear about why you need it. Why can’t you solve the issue yourself? Often the answer to this question is obvious. Be prepared to explain this. Be specific and clear in any requests for help. “I need your help to do ..... I cannot do this myself because ... an ideal outcome for the project is ...”.

One thing senior managers really hate is being asked to make a complicated and important decision without advanced warning and without any time to think about it. Try to warn your sponsors in advance of big decisions coming up. “Next week I will need help with ....”.

Sometimes advanced warning is not possible - emergencies do happen on projects. If you have built up your sponsors expectations that there may be decisions you need made rapidly, then this conversation is easier than if the request for help is a complete surprise.

See things from their perspective

Look at the world from the sponsor’s viewpoint. Most sponsors are busy people and your project is just one thing amongst many they are working on. What do they want from you? They want the confidence that everything is under-control. You need to deliver, keep them informed, and make sure if a problem arises they are the first to know. But they also want to know that when you use their time it is worthwhile. Here is the time for judgement. If you escalate every problem to a sponsor you are not doing your job as a project manager. On the other hand, if you wait until disaster looms to involve them, you are increasing risk on the project.

Avoid hands off sponsors by regularly involving them in decisions and debates about the project. But also avoid a micro-managing sponsor by giving them confidence you know what is going on with accurate, regular updates. Make sure you are their trusted source of information and they are not getting better status updates from anywhere else.

Make it feel as if it is in their interest to be a good sponsor. Play their egos a bit. Statements of the form “I need your expert help in this area ...”, “this is something that needs a senior viewpoint on ....”, usually help.

There are nightmare sponsors out there who will always make your life difficult. The only advice I can give there is try to avoid them and their projects. Fortunately, the really difficult sponsors are rare. Most senior managers and executives are capable and willing to be good sponsors. Sometimes they just need a little help.

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