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5 Skills for Project Sponsors

low-project-manager-pictofigo-hi-006When project teams come together for the first time, the skills of the resources are mapped against the skills needed to be able to deliver the project successfully. This analysis shows where there are gaps. As a result, anyone in the team who needs training will get it. If they don’t, there is a chance that the project won’t finish successfully due to lack of ability on the part of the team.

Project sponsors shouldn’t be exempt from that gap analysis. Resource planning is normally something we do ‘downwards’ but project sponsors also need to develop their skills and build their expertise in this area. Project sponsors tend to learn on the job but they can practice their skills or formally develop them through training.

Here are 5 skills that every project sponsor should have. If you aren’t in the project sponsor role today, you can build on those for when you do sponsor projects, or look out for them in your current project sponsor.

1. Decision making

The top skill for a project sponsor is the ability to make decisions. While the project manager may prepare recommendations or advise on the route forward, the ultimate decision rests with the project sponsor. They should be someone who has the authority to both make the decision and control the resources that the decision affects.

I’ve known project sponsors who are unable to make decisions. They sit on the data for weeks and then ask for more analysis. They get their own insights but still aren’t able to come down on one side or the other. This paralyses the team: the project can’t move past the decision point without a clear steer of the direction they should be taking.

The project sponsor will not always make a decision that supports the recommendation of the project manager. They may be aware of other political or economic factors within the organisation that means the recommendation isn’t the best choice. Some project managers will be put out by this, but at least they have a decision and can now implement it. The project moves forward towards completion because the sponsor is decisive (and hopefully can explain the rationale for their decision).

2. Influencing

Project sponsors need to influence people. It’s unlikely that, unless they are the CEO, all project resources fall under their direct authority. IT, marketing and legal resources are all most likely in a different team (unless the project is being run by IT, marketing or legal).

Influencing isn’t about throwing your weight around or pulling rank. Good influencers know how to use their skills to change the outcome of projects without being boorish. That means sponsors should hone their listening skills, and work on developing empathy. They should be personable, as part of being able to influence someone is building rapport.

Key to being a good influencer is creating an environment where trust is a given. The project team should trust the sponsor to get the job done and vice versa. In a project culture where trust underpins performance, the team will work more effectively together.

low-gantt-chart-pictofigo-hi-0103. Communicating

Project sponsors should be adept at communicating up to the Board as well as down to the project manager and project team members. And of course, communicating across departmental silos to their peers.

Sponsors should be able to articulate the benefits of their project and champion the work the team is doing. They should have enough understanding to be able to answer questions and explain (and justify) the project to others.

Equally, they should be open to listening to criticism or issues and bringing them back to the project manager to deal with together.

Being well-organized helps you communicate better. You’ll be able to find data to support your arguments more easily. An organized approach to work also means you are more likely to find the time to research your audience. If your sponsor is presenting a project update to the Board the audience is going to be interested in very different things to a user group. Getting the level of detail and tone right for each audience is important so the project sponsor should be able to flex his or her communication style to suit the occasion.

Read more: Establishing a communication culture

4. Motivating

People are motivated by different things. Some examples are:

  • Being part of a performing group
  • Being well compensated: salary and benefits
  • Gaining recognition as an expert
  • Achieving a ‘personal best’ and striving for excellence in their job
  • Being in control or leading others
  • Being able to manage their own time: flexibility and autonomy
  • Knowing that they make a contribution and that their work has meaning.

A good project sponsor should be able to motivate people on the project team, regardless of what their personal drivers are.

Engaging employees is a bit of a buzzword phrase but it essentially means motivating people to do a good job and to participate actively at work. Project sponsors have a variety of tools available to do that, and in doing so will hopefully hit the drivers for each team member.

Leading by example is another way to motivate your team. Be ethical in decision-making. Treat everyone fairly. Provide feedback in a timely manner. Your team will model the behaviour you demonstrate, so project sponsors should set the tone – and that includes taking training courses. If the people at the top are investing in training this gives your team permission to ask for professional development activities for themselves.

5. Conflict resolution

low-pictofigo-fight-hi-021My own (relatively informal) research into the causes of conflict highlights that 17% of conflicts on projects are caused by lack of direction. That’s definitely something where a sponsor can play a huge part: setting the direction is an essential piece of their role.

It is, of course, better to set the direction for the project at the beginning then keep reiterating the message as the project progresses. A lot of conflict can be headed off before it starts by adhering to good project management and communication practices. With 14% of conflict being put down to miscommunication, it is important that your project sponsor takes the lead with setting the tone for all project communication. It should be transparent, honest and timely – it’s no good getting the details about a change three weeks after work should have started on it.

Project sponsors can also set the tone for how conflict is handled. I’ve heard awful stories of sponsors who stood on chairs to shout at their teams; sulked; threw something  and other kinds of unprofessional tantrums. If that’s how the people at the top behave, is it any wonder that these teams were dysfunctional?

low-pictofigo-risk-hi-010A rounded project sponsor is likely to excel in all of these five skills and a lot more. Leadership and risk management didn’t make my top five, for example, but they are things that a project sponsor will have to get involved with almost every day.

The key takeaway is this: whether you are a project sponsor or entry-level project manager, you still should build your skills in the areas that are critical to your job. Take a course. Read a book. Practice daily. Your projects will be better for it!

What skills do you feel your project sponsors excel at? Or fail at? Let us know in the comments below!

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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