What makes a good project sponsor?

Last week I presented some FAQ for project sponsors. Having a good, active project sponsor is one of the ways you can ward off project failure. So if you are in the enviable situation of being able to choose who you have as your project sponsor, you need to look for someone who will do a good job. And what sort of person is that, then?

Well, a sponsor is the project’s figurehead, someone who represents the project team at board meetings, who looks out for the project’s interests, who can provide strategic direction and most importantly, wants whatever it is the project is going to achieve. Every project should have a sponsor. Ideally, they should be someone who is going to have to live with the results of the project for long after the project manager has moved on. A sponsor who is not implicated in the delivery will find it hard to be motivated by the project and may be unable to take decisions about something that is outside their sphere of influence.

Eddie Obeng in his book Perfect Projects defines the sponsor ‘as a person who:

  • invented the idea and really wants to do it
  • controls the money
  • wants the end product or will end up living with it
  • can provide effective high-level representation, and smooth out the political battles before you get to them
  • ‘owns’ the resources
  • acts as an effective sounding board/mentor.’*

The last point here is particularly relevant, and often missing. Sponsors who are unavailable to their project manager cause problems because this delays decision making. On a practical level, the ‘absentee sponsor’ will not be able to provide the strategic vision and answers the project team need to do their jobs. On a people management level, projects with poor sponsors suffer from low morale and all the relative impacts this has on their work. After all, if the sponsor isn’t interested in what they are doing, why are they bothering?

Good sponsors understand what their role on the project team needs to be. They won’t turn up to every meeting but they’ll occasionally send out a thank you email to everyone. They will be available when the project manager needs to escalate the information and they will pass down information that is relevant to the project too.

Generally, the more experienced the sponsor, the easier this relationship will be for the project manager although anyone can be a good sponsor if they have enough authority and work alongside the team, asking ‘what do you need from me?’

And having a project manager brave enough to answer the question honestly helps things along too.

Next Monday: training your project sponsor

* Obeng, E. (2003) Perfect Projects. Pentacle Works, Beaconsfield, p 107

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