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Keeping Your Sponsor Engaged

We all know the importance of our project's Executive Sponsor; we've all managed projects where we have the executive sponsor looking over our shoulder asking the difficult questions until we prove that we have the project under control and will deliver on its stated goals and objectives. Even after we have established trust in our project management capabilities this sponsor will remain engaged because the same sense of urgency that moved them to demand proof that we knew what we were doing will move them to follow the project closely until closure.

That's fine for our high profile projects where there are important results on the line, but what about the "run of the mill" projects where goals and objectives are more mundane and may not be on the executive sponsor's radar? Even worse, what about those "orphan" projects where no sponsor steps forward and you are left managing the project in a vacuum? Here are some tips and tricks which will help you lure that executive sponsor out into the limelight, attract their attention, and keep it focused on the progress of your project.

Firstly, everyone should realize that every project has a sponsor and the sponsor is the person whose name appears on the signature line for project expenses. Even where this is one of many more important projects this person is responsible for, they still should acknowledge the responsibility. Secondly, the project manager should realize that there is a limit to what the sponsor can do to demonstrate their support of the project. Project managers should understand when they are managing a project of lesser importance and set their expectations of the sponsor accordingly.

Your first step should be the prioritization of your project against the other projects, programmes, and operational responsibilities your sponsor has in their portfolio. Priority can be set by a ranking system - out of the 20 projects and programs your sponsor has, where does yours rank? 20th? 15th? The ranking should reflect the importance of the goals, objectives, and deliverables of your project against those of the other projects. You can also use ordinal methods to rank your project, is your project a low priority? a medium-low priority? a medium priority? Once you've established your project's place on the totem pole, you can begin setting your expectations and your sponsor's expectations.

Your sponsor should be able to spare you 15 minutes of their time to go over your expectations for the project. Make certain that you are prepared for the meeting, know what you want to discuss and move through your agenda briskly. Your agenda should cover the activities you would like the sponsor to participate in including meetings. It should also cover what the sponsor would like by way of project reports, and how frequently they would like the reports. Go in with reasonable expectations and expect to negotiate downward. One meeting that you should expect the sponsor to attend is the meeting marking the delivery of the project's product or service. It is critical that the sponsor sign off on this phase so the project can be closed out properly.

Be considerate of your sponsor's time. You may have been used to having your sponsor at your kick-off meeting and every important meeting throughout the lifecycle of the project. Now you'll have to get used to holding these meetings without their support.

The fact that your sponsor cannot attend a project kick-off meeting should not deter you from conducting one. You'll simply have to assume the responsibilities that the sponsor would normally have at a kick-off meeting. Similarly, you will have to speak for the sponsor at your gate meetings. You may need to take on their responsibilities for making a decision on the fitness of the project to advance to the next phase. When your sponsor tells you they cannot afford the time to attend your gate meetings, ensure they empower you to make the necessary decisions, or delegate some other attendee to make them.

Communicate the outcomes of the gate meetings to your sponsor, but be as brief as possible with the communications. The important facts to communicate are the decision and the reasons for it. Either all the deliverables planned for the phase have been produced (or will be produced in a timely fashion) and resources necessary for the next phase are in place, or one or more of these are not in place. Briefly articulate the plan to pass the gate if the gate failed.

Project managers used to managing mission critical projects can approach their executive sponsors whenever there is a threat to a project goal or deliverable they need the sponsor's help to mitigate. Managers of projects of lesser importance must learn to pick and choose the threats they will ask for help managing. Don't ask for help unless the threat is to a key project deliverable. When you do ask for help, make certain you have identified a strategy which will be effective in dealing with the problem. Don't engage them without a clear plan or ask for the degree of help you need incrementally, one meeting at a time.

Let your reportage do your speaking for you. Whether you post your reports to a central location so that readers can pull the report, or you deliver the report via e-mail, you give your sponsor the option of reading it in full, reading the high lights, or ignoring it all together when more pressing issues intervene. You also give them the option of reading the report at a later time, when they have more time to devote to it. Don't report a problem, such as running behind schedule or over budget without providing a solution or corrective action. Don't shy away from sharing good news with your sponsor. Make sure they are aware of any awards the project has handed out or any praise from customers or clients. Hearing nothing but bad news all day long can become wearing and good news makes a welcome break, even if it is from a project of lesser importance.

Be brief and concise in your e-mail communications with your sponsor. Try to put as much information as possible in the subject line. Practice writing concisely and you should become more proficient at this. Put the key point in the subject line and the lesser points and details in the text of the message.

Being conservative with your sponsor's time when managing a lower priority project will encourage your sponsor to give you time when you ask for it. They will come to trust your sense of urgency and give you the support you need to successfully complete your project. Using this "less is more" approach to your sponsor's time will leave room for them to volunteer their time without being asked, so be prepared to expand on a progress report, or gate meeting report when your sponsor finds the time and interest to devote to it. Showing you know how to deliver results on smaller, less important, projects, without making unreasonable demands on your sponsor's time will build your credibility and prepare you for the next "mission critical" project. You will also find that giving your sponsor the bare minimum of information will peak their curiosity about your project and they will tend to stay engaged and interested.