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Four Tips on How to Get Started as a Project Sponsor

As the project sponsor you are the most senior decision-maker on the project. You are not the one who is running the project on a day-to-day basis and giving direction to the team – that’s the role of the project manager. Your role is to steer the project at a high level and to give direction when the project manager isn’t able to progress without your support.

The challenge for many sponsors is to find the right level of engagement – not too much and not too little. Some sponsors are completely absent, leaving everything to the PM. Others are too involved with minor decisions and establish direct lines of communication with team members.

None of these scenarios are ideal. You must make sure that the project gets off to a good start and then monitor it at regular intervals without constant involvement. Make yourself available when it’s needed but don’t check up on the team every day. If you need something from a team member, first go to the project manager so that you don’t undermine their position.

1. Take Ownership of the Business Case

One of your main responsibilities as a sponsor is to ensure that the project makes good commercial sense and that it is a worthwhile initiative. This means that there must be a strong reason for doing the project.

The reason should preferably be a financial one, as it will always put the project in a stronger light if the benefits can be expressed in financial terms – for instance: delivering the new system will enable us to process our orders more accurately and avoid up to fifty mistakes per week. On a yearly basis this will save us £80,000.

If the project doesn’t have direct financial benefits, at least list the non-financial ones. In essence, you need to make sure that the investment into the project will somehow be paid back to the firm through the benefits.

Whilst the project manager might be the one to physically write up the business case, you remain the owner of it. It’s your job to understand how the project will add value and to “sell it” to the wider organisation. The project manager is unlikely to have the same commercial background as you or be as close to the business as you.

You are in a much better position to understand the commercial aspect and to ensure that the project’s vision and benefits will be delivered by the tangible outputs of the project. Think of yourself as the project champion – the person who vouches for the project and who gives it the necessary backing.

2. Support the Project Manager in Defining the Project

As the project champion, you have to make sure that the project gets off to a good start. This means that you need to help the project manager define what is in and out of scope of the project, what the deliverables are and what the constraints are in terms of time, cost and quality.

A good project manager will steer this process and ask all the right questions of you, but it’s important that you make yourself available and work with the project manager to define what the project is all about and how it will be executed. Once the project has been defined you can take a step back and monitor it from the sideline.

As you define the project, also take time to consider how you will be working with the project manager. How will you interface with each other and how often? Will you for instance have one to one meetings and will the PM supply you with weekly status reports?

Also consider how you would like the project manager to escalate issues to you. If something doesn’t go according to plan, would you like the PM to just put it in the status report or would you prefer that they call you straight away?

A good project isn’t just about scope, benefits and deliverables. It’s to a high degree about the human interactions and how we work together. Try to find out what kind of person the project manager is and what makes him or her tick.

Is it a person who needs a lot of reassurance from you and who enjoys bouncing ideas off you? Or is it someone who prefers to work autonomously and who will only reach out if there is a specific problem they need your help with? It is your job to support the PM whenever needed, but you also need to hold them to account and make sure that the project gets delivered effectively.

3. Engage Other Senior Decision Makers

Another important part of your role is to gain the buy in and support from the senior stakeholders of the project. Several studies show that without senior-level buy-in, the project is unlikely to be successful. A great project manager is not enough to make the project happen.

As the sponsor you may well be the most important stakeholder, but you are not the only one. The project manager, of course, has a big role to play in building relationships with people who can impact the project. But you shouldn’t leave it to the PM alone to persuade senior stakeholders why the project is a good idea. Use your seniority and gravitas to open those doors that might otherwise be closed to the project manager.

The stakeholders who you should focus on are those who will sit on the steering committee with you. The steering committee is one of the most important structures of the project because it’s the body that advises the project manager.

You, as the project sponsor, is the head of the steering committee, but you need other senior stakeholders to support you in making decisions. Choose the most powerful decision-makers who can actively help move the project forward to sit on the committee with you. What you want is a lean and pro-active steering committee of approximately five members.

Once the steering committee is established, arrange for it to meet on a regular basis to review the state of the project. You could, for instance, ask the project manager to present: progress since last meeting, financial status, risks and issues and change requests.

Your main role during the meetings will be to ascertain if the project is still worthwhile, if it’s going in the right direction and to give advice on any risks or issues that the project manager is escalating to you. You may also need to take ownership of resolving certain issues that are beyond the project manager.

4. Ensure the Benefits Get Realised

As the project gets into its delivery phase you have another important role to play as a sponsor. This is when you need to make sure that the tangible project deliverables will be used by the business or the client, and that they are adding value. Some projects deliver all the promised outputs, but for some reason they are never fully adopted and the project ends up not delivering on its promises.

It’s the sponsor’s job to follow the project all the way from inception to benefit realisation. The project manager may be pulled away to deliver other projects once the outputs have been delivered, but you have to stay on because you are the one ultimately accountable. You can only fully step away from the project sponsor role once the benefits are realised.

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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