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Why Projects Succeed – Executive Sponsorship
By Roger Kastner

This article is part of a series, the previous article can be found here.

In this series, hopefully you have noticed a trend in the project success factors:

  1. No single project success factor will ensure success. The successful Project Manager must employ and juggle several success factors just to increase the odds of success.
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  2. Some success factors are just plain required. In their absence, project failure is almost assured.

Executive Sponsorship is one of those project success factors that is required for any project to succeed. An absent Executive Sponsor greatly increases the likelihood of project failure. Without an Executive Sponsor who is…

  • Directly tied to the success of the project,
  • Appropriately engaged and aware in the project, and
  • Actively eliminating barriers and resolving issues,

…a project is likely to be toast the first time the budget cuts fall, a new top priority project is initiated and requires resources, or a significant escalation occurs which requires someone to stick their neck out and fight for the project.

The role of an Executive Sponsor is straightforward and a successful Project Manager knows how to engage the Executive Sponsor to ensure those duties are fulfilled. More importantly, the successful Project Manager knows that if those duties are not being fulfilled, it’s time to call a timeout and have a serious conversation with the Executive Sponsor about the viability of the project.

The Executive Sponsor serves a few vital purposes on a project:

  • Pays for the project
  • Sets direction and objectives
  • Makes key decisions and resolves escalations
  • Provides air coverage for the Project Manager to lead the project appropriately
  • Signs off on completion

An active and engaged Executive Sponsor on a project is a wonderful thing, if managed appropriately. Here are the steps a successful Project Manager will take to ensure an Executive Sponsor fulfills their duties and advances the project towards a successful conclusion.

1 – Identify & Review Expectations

The successful Project Manager will meet with the Executive Sponsor and review expectations, not only expectations for the project and of the Project Manager, but also what the Project Manager expects of the Executive Sponsor. Like managing the expectations of any stakeholder , the successful Project Manager will want to identify the Executive Sponsor’s interests and expectations in the project and ensure those align with the goals of the project. The important step here is that the Project Manager also identifies their expectations of the Executive Sponsor with the Executive Sponsor. The above four bullet points are a good place to start the conversation.

The conversation should also include expectations for how status and issues will be communicated to the Sponsor as well as how requests for involvement will be conveyed. Sometimes these two get mixed, and Sponsors get involved when the Project Manager was just providing “awareness.” Conversely, sometimes the Project Manager is asking for help but is not direct enough to elicit the correct response. In both instances, the result is something the Project Manager had not intended and reduces the amount of leadership and control the Project Manager is providing to the project.

2 – Obtain Acceptance on Goals and Metrics

The Executive Sponsor should approve the objectives and measurement for project completion, normally outlined in the Project Charter. The project goals should directly align to the Executive Sponsor’s own goals, and the acceptance criteria should be definitively measurable so it is very clear when the project has achieved those goals and can be declared complete. By ensuring the goals are tied to the Executive Sponsor’s goals, the successful Project Manager can be assured to get the Executive Sponsor’s attention when the project goals are in jeopardy of being attained.

3 – Ensure Active Engagement & Awareness

As identified in the early conversations with the Executive Sponsor, the successful Project Manager will be following-through on communication expectations with the Executive Sponsor to ensure awareness and appropriate reactions to information and requests for involvement.

Well, as much as possible, that is. I think we have all had a stakeholder or sponsor react differently than we had intended, and some of that is out of our control. The successful Project Manager will attempt to control the reaction by caveating their status updates with whether or not help is being requested:

  • When asking for help: “I need your help on something…”
  • When providing an update but not requiring assistance: “I need to give you a heads-up on something and what I plan to do about it, but I don’t need you to do anything just yet…”

Again, a successful Project Manager will not always control the reactions of an Executive Sponsor, but the simple use of the caveat can help the Project Manager put the Executive Sponsor appropriately on the front or on the back of their chair.

When the successful Project Manager needs the Executive Sponsor to get involved, this will be easier of course if the Executive Sponsor has been kept aware of the project status all along the project so they have the context and awareness of how to be helpful. The successful Project Manager will not only ask for the help of the Executive Sponsor, but should also come with a plan or suggestions for how the Executive Sponsor can be leveraged in resolving the issue. This follows along the axiom of “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” Of course, the Executive Sponsor might not follow the suggestions, but at least the successful Project Manager is demonstrating the ability to think through the situation and providing the Executive Sponsor with some alternative approaches.

4 – Gather Signoff on Completion

Lastly, if the Executive Sponsor was instrumental in identifying and approving the goals for the project, has been aware of the project from initiation through implementation, and actively engaged in resolving issues on the project, then the last step should come very easy. Once the Project Manager can demonstrate completion of the acceptance criteria, the Executive Sponsor should be able to signoff on project completion without hesitation.

So why even include this in the list? Because it is extremely important.

Signoff means more than allowing the project to be closed and resources released. Signoff says there is no more work to be completed, the project has met its objectives and delivered on its expected value, and that all stakeholders identified needs from the project have been met. It means that the successful Project Manager has met his or her obligations to the organization.

Is There Anything Else?

If a successful Project Manager can get the Executive Sponsor to accomplish the four steps above, he or she is doing a great job. But are there other things the Project Manager can ask the Executive Sponsor to do to make for a better project? Here are some additional things the Executive Sponsor can be asked to do:

  • Provide motivation to the team by dropping in on project meetings
  • Be involved in celebrating projects wins, large and small
  • Personally recognizing team members’ contributions
  • Evangelizing the project team’s work in organizational meetings and all-hands

There are many other ways an Executive Sponsor can positively impact a project. In each instance, however, the successful Project Manager can influence whether an Executive Sponsor performs these steps by suggesting and encouraging them to do so. It never hurts to ask, and a successful Project Manager is always looking for ways to leverage every resource on the project team roster, include the executive team sponsor.

Summary

Engaged and vested Executive Sponsors are paramount to project success. The successful Project Manager not only knows this, but is constantly courting and interacting with the Executive Sponsor to ensure awareness and willingness to participate when necessary.

Reprinted with permission from Slalom Consulting – © 2011 Slalom Consulting

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects. You can read more articles from the series on “Why Projects Succeed” here.

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