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The Skills Project Sponsors Need to Support Strategy

Often when I hear people talking about turning strategy into projects and delivering on the company’s vision, the emphasis is on two parties: the people who make the strategy, and the project managers (and their teams) who implement the projects to deliver the strategy.

There’s a group missing in here: project sponsors.

Project sponsorship is key to getting strategic projects implemented, and sponsors are not always the people who designed the strategy in the first place.

They are often the next level of management down from the board. Strategy comes from, or is at least ratified and supported vocally by, the CEO and the board. While you main find that board directors sponsor some of the major initiatives running in your business, they aren’t going to be sponsoring all of them. They don’t have time, for a start. Plus, it’s often more effective to delegate sponsorship down to a level of management who can actually help, who manages the resources and who has a vested interest in the outcome being good.

Enter the project sponsor.

So what does a project sponsor need to be able to support strategy execution? Let’s talk about skills and behaviours.

What Makes a Good Sponsor

Project SponsorsA good project sponsor brings a range of qualities to the table. They need to show lots of different skills and behaviours, as they are leaders, and have to do all the leadership stuff that makes them effective in their jobs.

Specifically for projects, I’d expect a sponsor to have these qualities.

Vision: Much has been written about project sponsors having visionary skills. You don’t, really, need your sponsor to create a complete vision of the future as hopefully that is cascaded down as part of the strategy. What they need to be able to do is take the strategic vision and translate that into what it means for this particular project at this moment in time. Then they have to communicate that to the project team. They should focus on how the project fits with the strategy and how it supports the goals overall.

Connections: Your project sponsor should be well-connected. They should be influential enough to have their voice listened to. They need to understand the politics of the organisation and how to work within it so that they can advocate for the project and its needs. They should be influential enough to get the resources required to adequately manage the project. They should be able to negotiate those sticky situations where you need to keep the wheels oiled. This also helps with decision-making as they will understand the context for strategic decisions and be able to make the right choices, with the background of the strategy in mind.

This is more than the ability to network. You want a sponsor with relationships built on trust and delivery, not a nod in the corridor.

Accountable: Project sponsors are accountable for the delivery of the business case. And they should be able to hold their teams accountable – so hand in hand with this goes respect. They will struggle to hold the project manager accountable if respect and trust aren’t there in the relationship.

Reasonableness: By this I mean that the sponsor should be able to listen to reason and be able to operate sensibly. You don’t want someone who will insist that the whole strategic project must be delivered by Friday, when any reasonable manager would know that delivery by the end of the third quarter would be just as good and a lot less stressful for everyone. You want project sponsors who can take on board logical arguments, analyse the facts and make considered judgments based on their professional experience. This gives them the ability to provide guidance that will be helpful to the project team.

Partnership: Project sponsors need to work in partnership with the project teams and project managers. It isn’t good enough to lob the project charter into the team and expect them to get on with it. While the project team might be very capable of doing this, it’s not a constructive way to work. In addition, it doesn’t guarantee an outcome of business value, because the team might interpret something in a way that doesn’t offer the best result. That wouldn’t be their fault, if the sponsor isn’t around to provide any input. Conversely, you don’t want project sponsors hovering around teams, micro-managing all the time. It’s important for the sponsor and project manager to find a happy balance where the input is there, the project sponsor supports actively, but the team is left to deliver where they are capable of doing so unaided.

Communication: Perhaps this is the most important quality, and the area I particularly want to call out is communicating downwards about things they heard from up the line. This is an area where project managers struggle to get information, and project sponsors are uniquely placed to hear about things that are going to affect the project. If often hear from project managers who carried out a course of action that they thought was best, with support from their sponsor, and then found that their sponsor knew something that would have changed what they recommended. Or project managers who put forward recommendations, and then have the project sponsor choose to do something different because of a key piece of information that wasn’t passed on.

In both situations, if the project sponsor had understood the value of cascading information, they would have had a better service from the project team as the recommendations and actions could have been better tailored to the strategic business environment. Communication overall is important, but keeping the project team updated with things that have an effect on their immediate work is crucial.

Confidence: Project sponsors need to take decisions. Whether right or wrong, having a decision lets the team move forward. When sponsors don’t have the confidence in their own abilities, they delay decision-making. They need to be able to step up when required and make difficult decisions. And to do so in a timely manner. I think project sponsors can sometimes hide behind being too busy or not having enough information when really they aren’t confident enough to say their decision out loud for fear of reprisals. It’s not just people further down the hierarchy that have these career worries, you know!

Project sponsors are critical to executing strategy and in making sure that projects actually deliver the strategy that you hoped for in the first place. When you have the right sponsor in place, it’s far more likely that you’ll get the project delivered smoothly and with the outcome you were hoping for. Strategic change is easier with a network of accountable, professional sponsors who can manage up the line to the C-suite and support their project teams.

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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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