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What Makes a Good Project Sponsor?
By Jason Westland

A good project sponsor is something that all project managers hope for. It can be very difficult to move the project forward if you find that your project sponsor isn’t interested in the project or is hard to get to attend meetings.

So, what should you look for in sponsor? Here are the characteristics of a good project sponsor.

  • Represents the project as a senior manager

    Your project sponsor should ideally have a seat around the boardroom table. This will give him or her the chance to influence the others who make strategic decisions and it will help keep your project visible (and therefore adequately resourced).

  • Shares information

    As a project manager, you’ll be used to passing information up the chain. However, project sponsors have to do their share of communicating too. Your sponsor should tell you what’s going on at a senior where it has an impact on your project. For example, if there are strategic or organizational changes in the pipeline that will affect your stakeholders, you should know.

  • Communicates widely when asked

    Most of the project communications are messages that you will send out and control, but occasionally it’s good to have your sponsor put his or her name to a communication. Your sponsor may expect you to draft the message (which is fine) but they should be willing to send it out with their name on if it is important enough.

  • Makes decisions

    You need decisions taken on a project – it helps move the work program forward, and a sponsor who won’t (or can’t) make decisions will slow you down. Your sponsor should be empowered to make decisions and stick to them without having to consult widely.

  • Attends the Steering Group

    The Steering Group or Project Board is the main project executive and ideally this should be chaired by the sponsor. Your sponsor should be willing and available to come along, as this shows an interest in the project and an ability to support it adequately. You should still be prepared to organize the session and take the minutes, although your sponsor may prefer to send them out from their email account.

  • Able to secure resources

    Your sponsor should have a position whereby they can get you access to the people and other resources that you need to run the project successfully. If they struggle, this could illustrate the fact that they don’t have the authority required to secure resources, and it will be a sign that you’ll find it difficult to get what you need as the project progresses.

  • Approves changes

    Things change all the time on projects and it’s likely that you’ll be able to manage a lot of the low level stuff yourself. However, anything that goes through the change control process and requires a change to one of the project baselines will need sponsor approval. Your sponsor should be prepared to listen to recommendations and make informed decisions about which changes to incorporate into the project and which to reject at this time. If your sponsor won’t do this, it could be a sign that they think they don’t have the authority to authorise changes or that they don’t understand that the project management process always includes change of some sort.

  • Owns the benefits

    Why are you doing the project? Whatever the reason, the sponsor should be the person who owns the benefits. This gives them a vested interest in the quality of the outcome. If they have to live with the deliverables – whether that is a new software system or a new building – they will (or at least, should) be committed to seeing the project work through and delivering it effectively. They’ll also understand why you are asking for approval, support, resources and so on, because they will easily be able to see how these requests map back to being able to complete the project successfully. Without this link, the project sponsor is simply someone who is overseeing something they don’t care much about and has no interest in getting right.

You can probably think of many more things that you would like to see in a project sponsor, but this is a good checklist to start with! How many of these does your project sponsor have? And if they don’t have all these attributes, can you help them develop their skills?

Jason Westland is CEO of ProjectManager.com and author of The Project Management Life Cycle. ProjectManager.com won the Deloitte Fast 50 Award in 2012. Prior to that, Jason founded Method123 in 2006, which was subsequently acquired by a US consulting firm. You can find him on Google.

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