Sponsors are Sometimes the Scariest Part of the Project!

According to Prosci© Research, the #1 indicator of project success is sponsorship. In my experience, it is also the most misunderstood role by project and change managers as well as sponsors themselves.

During the many hours I have spent consulting, training, and collaborating with others, this topic tends to be the most talked about, most asked about and creates the most anxiety by far. People intrinsically understand that good sponsorship is vital for a project to succeed. But, more often than not, it becomes a significant barrier to delivering a successful project and realizing the planned benefits of that project.

Barrier #1: The Art of Coaching Up

I have had numerous project and change managers ask me what to do when their primary sponsor doesn’t have the time to be a sponsor. I begin by asking them if they know how to coach up. Immediately, a look will cross their face that shows their unfamiliarity with the term/concept. I watch as the realization of what I am asking will dawn on them. Then, very quickly after, their face turns into a mask of uncertainty or fear. I have heard responses similar to, “I could never coach my sponsor, they are the boss!” or “I don’t want to get fired!” or “They are really not the most approachable person.”

The art of coaching up starts with finding out how your sponsor communicates the best throughout the life of the project. During the project’s initiation, you should have an in-person conversation. This discussion should cover the charter (i.e., scope, resources, timing, etc.), and provide expectations surrounding their role as a sponsor. This can fit in nicely during the resourcing part of the discussion. Let them know that they should be active and visible through the life of the project. Explain to them it is part of their role to build a coalition with other executives and stakeholders. Finally, iterate that they will need to communicate consistently about the business case, or the ‘why,’ for the project. Then ask them directly, “What is the best way to communicate with you? I want to provide you have everything you need to fill your role as a sponsor.”

Being armed with the knowledge of HOW they want to communicate with you is so important. Learn which executives prefer to email, call, visit in person, text, or like you to work directly with their administrative assistants. Make sure to provide the needed drafts for emails that should come from the sponsor. Schedule on their calendar the meetings or events where they need to speak about the project. Provide them talking points, supporting presentations or documents so that they know what you need them to say. Make their role seamless and easy so that they are successful as a sponsor.

Finally, show your appreciation for their work. Thank your sponsor by sending a quick handwritten note or even a text. Let them know they are doing good work. Showing gratitude can go a long way. Executives rarely get recognition like the other employees in the organization. Recognizing them will strengthen your relationship with them as well as reinforce the behaviors of a good sponsor!

Barrier #2:  Sponsors Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

I have had the opportunity to talk with an ample number of executives. I have found they sincerely want their projects to be successful. They understand the technical aspects of their projects very well. They THINK that they are doing a great job sponsoring it to ensure success happens. However, more often than not, sponsors don’t know what they don’t know.

A director attended a change management practitioners course that I recently taught. They stated that they wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of integrating change management into a project. After the course, they came up to me and told me, “I had no idea that I was such a poor sponsor in the past. I have been the type of sponsor to attend the kickoff and then avoid all other meetings and sessions. Trying not to meddle or micro-manage, I thought that I was doing the right thing. I trust my project managers, but now I understand that I need to truly support, guide, communicate, build a coalition and give credence to the project in order for it to be successful.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I once had an executive come to the realization that they were filling the role of project manager. They realized that they needed to focus in on their role as a sponsor on their current and future projects. I am sure their project managers were relieved! There are many other examples that fall in between these two examples, but the thing they all have in common is that sponsors don’t know what they don’t know. It is your job, as the project or change manager, to provide them the knowledge, no matter how scary it may be.

Barrier #3: Feeling Inferior Because You Are Working with an Executive

This is a close cousin to the first barrier, but it deserves its own section because this can truly be the root of many of the issues that occur between the project or change managers and sponsors. Executives are successful, they hold power in the organization, and can influence your career. But, remember, executives get up in the morning and put their pants on the same way you do every day.

Executives are people. I have had more success treating them as colleagues than treating them as royalty sitting on a thrown above me. Of course, always be professional and respectful, but don’t let the stereotype of an ‘unapproachable executive’ hold you back. If you run into an executive that exhibits unapproachable or ‘scary’ behaviors, be strategic in how you approach them. Try asking for help from another executive to help influence their behavior. Or perhaps you can ask them out for a cup of coffee or lunch, so you can get to know them on a personal level. Or maybe you can talk with others that have worked with them in the past to gain insights.

The bottom line is: you are on the same team and you are the project or change manager. It is your responsibility to ensure that the project is being developed and delivered to the best of your ability and being able to talk with executives is a skill that is vital for project success. Face your fears and figure out a way to do that and do it well.

For a Successful Project, Say Goodbye to Fear

To reiterate, sponsors are the #1 indicator of project success. How we help them to fill their role and how we interact with them is important. Fear of working with executives seems to be an overarching theme I have noticed over the years.

Sponsors, if you are reading this, your number one job is to drive out fear. If you accomplish this, your employees, those working on your projects, and your projects in general will be much more successful. People shouldn’t be afraid to approach you and have a conversation.

If you are a project or change manager, your number one job is to deliver a successful project. Don’t let fear stand in your way.  Find a way to interact and communicate with your sponsor. It will make your job so much easier and you will have a much higher rate of success on your projects, not to mention better relationships in the C-Suite!

Share the ways you have worked with a problematic sponsorship situation in the comments below. I would love to hear how you approached the situation and what the outcomes were in the end.

You may also be interested in, Situational Project Management by Cornelius Fichtner.  The Public Sector Change Practitioner Community of Practice is also a great place to share and learn more about change management.

Michelle Malloy is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She has been a devoted Colorado state employee for nearly 13 years. In that time, she had dedicated herself to being the best steward leader possible, ensuring that everyone and everything left in her care are nurtured and developed in order to provide the best value and service to the citizens of the state of Colorado today and into the future. Michelle’s expertise lies in strategy, program management, project management, change management, process improvement, facilitation and working with people. Michelle believes that people are the government’s #1 asset and the products and services we aim to provide and improve upon would not happen without them. You can read her posts here.

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