Managing projects is critical to the ongoing success of your business. To maximise your success, you should ensure that you have a Project Sponsor for your projects. In fact, strong project sponsorship is vital. Particularly as you start to take on bigger, more challenging projects. At the end of the day, if you don’t have sponsorship, you should ask if the project is actually a priority for the business.

What is a project sponsor?

A project sponsor is a senior leader in the organisation who will represent the project. They are the person that will most often champion the project in the business. Particularly at a senior level.

In fact, it’s quite likely that the project sponsor was the person who actually decided the project was needed in the first place. The business will probably look to them as the accountable person for achieving the benefits.

It’s critical that you know who is sponsoring your project. You’ll need to engage with them regularly throughout the project. In addition, you’ll get big value by working closely with them to understand how your project fits into the bigger picture of the wider business.

What is project sponsor’s role?

The project sponsor’s role is to provide leadership to the project. The project manager is the person in the details, managing the day to day. Meanwhile, the sponsor is the person who is charting out the future and the ultimate goal.

Generally speaking, the project sponsor role is not a full time role. They probably have other (huge) responsibilities in the organisation. However, as businesses take on big transformations, you may start to come across your project sponsor also being a sponsor for a number of other projects and programmes too.

A quick analogy of the project sponsor’s role (vs a project manager)

Analogies are good at giving a different perspective. So, here goes for the sponsors role:

If they were manning a ship (i.e. your project), then the project manager would be looking after the day to day running of the ship. This would include: making sure the sails are up correctly, adjusting direction for wind and keeping the ship on track. They’d be looking out for nearby rocks and avoiding those. Plus, the project manager would be ensuring the crew are doing what they are meant to do.

However, the sponsor would be charting where the ship is heading and why that’s actually important. They’d be communicating with other ships to make sure they move together as a fleet. They’d be looking ahead to make sure the ship isn’t heading into a major storm. In summary, the sponsor would have little to do with the minute details of running the ship, but they’d make sure it gets to the right destination safely.

How to work with your project sponsor

Firstly, there is no set rule here. As with all relationships, you need to approach it as a unique relationship with the person.

I would recommend that you meet with them as soon as you can. Start building that rapport, particularly if you don’t know them or haven’t worked with them. If this is the case, you need to build trust and credibility.

Questions to ask in that first meeting are about understanding the project, exploring the person and defining ways of working. Let’s take them one at a time:

Understanding the project

The project sponsor has a good understanding of the overall objectives of the project. They know why it important to the business. It’s therefore critical that you understand that too. Essentially, this is the “why” of your project. In turn, understanding this allows you to motivate and mobilise your project team and stakeholders. Understanding the why gives you, the team and the project a sense of purpose.

Ask questions like:

  • What is the challenge we’re solving?
  • What is the current impact on the business?
  • Why are we doing this?
  • What does your vision look like once the project is complete?
  • Are there other projects or activities going on that I should know about?

Exploring the person

This is about understanding them as an individual. This will help build rapport. It will help build trust and a strong relationship. Listen to their responses. Look out for clues that will help you understand what’s important to them.

Ask questions like:

  • What would success look like?
  • Which is the most important outcome?
  • What is your background?
  • What does your experience and expertise suggest is the best way forward?
  • And also, what does that experience and expertise warn you to be careful of?

In fact, any “small talk” will also help you to explore who your project sponsor is as an individual.

Defining ways of working

This is the part where you agree how you will work together effectively. The project sponsor / project manager relationship is perhaps the single biggest relationship that will drive a successful outcome. So, it’s important to make it effective!

You can ask questions like:

  • How often should I update you?
  • What would you like me to keep you up to speed on?
  • If there’s a major problem, how should I make an escalation to you? What would you want to know if I need to do that?
  • When shall we next get together?

The bottom line – the project sponsor is critical to the success of your project

The project sponsor is a key stakeholder. Perhaps the key stakeholder in your project. Firstly, it’s essential to have one and to know who that it. In addition, they should also know that they are the sponsor too! The project sponsor is critical to the success of your project – but you also need to ensure that you support your sponsor.

Your project sponsor can be your biggest champion. Your strongest and most loyal advocate. However, to do this effectively, you need to arm them with facts and information. Make sure they understand the detail of the business benefits. That they know the costs and investment that you’ll require. All of this gives them the intel that they need to play the role of project sponsor.

Also, try reading this article: Defining a Stakeholder Management Strategy.

What are you biggest questions when it comes to project sponsors? What are your biggest challenges? Let me know by commenting below or by reaching out on social media – particularly Twitter @projectmsuccess or on LinkedIn.


project management expert Oliver Banks

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