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
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
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
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.