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August 24, 2015 / Vicki James

Executive Sponsorship: Come On PMs, Do Your Job

Guest Blog Post by Todd C. Williams of eCameron, Inc.Image of Todd Williams

We can probably all agree that the biggest problem with executive project sponsors is them. Plain and simple… just them. The person chosen, or more appropriately “assigned,” makes all the difference in whether they actually help the project. How can this be? This makes it sound like flipping a coin would have better odds of getting a good executive support. The answer is based in the fact that it solely relies on the person.

Over the last year, we, here at eCameron have had an overabundance of requests about sponsors and how might improve project success. As a result we conducted a survey on sponsorship and found some surprising results. One of them was the simple fact that no one really knows what a sponsor is supposed to do. In fact, it is so bad that even the name of the role causes confusion. Unlike project managers, who have a clear definition of their role provided by standards organizations, the sponsorship role does not even come with a standard name. Some companies use executive sponsor, project sponsor, and champion as separate roles, other equate all three terms, some say champion needs to be a trait of the sponsor. With such ambiguity in the name and definition, no wonder sponsors have difficulty meeting expectations. The odds of the project manager’s needs and the sponsor’s self-styled definition lining up are nearly impossible. Now add the few dozen other project players to the mix and there is no chance anyone can succeed. This was so bad that when we published our white paper on the subject (Challenges in Project Sponsorship) some executive refused to read it until we republished it as Challenges in Executive Sponsorship.

Subsequent to publishing our finding we took up the task of resolving the problem. The first action was to poll hundreds of people on what the role of the project sponsor needs to be. The logic was that if enough people responded, we could develop a good picture of the consensus and we could hone it from there. The results of one of these polls, a webinar (see figure 1), much like the original survey, gave us more to investigate.

First, the role’s name should probably be Executive Project Sponsor or just Executive Sponsor. The problem with the former is that it implies there must be a non-executive sponsor while the problem with the latter is too many people say “Sponsor of what?” We are going to anchor on the shorter form and rely on the fact that the context will fill in the meaning.

The second issue was that project managers really like to assign the sponsor many of the tasks that really belong to the PM. Come on project managers, do you really think the sponsor is going to write the project charter? But the confusion does not stop here as the PMs tried to push other responsibilities onto the sponsor (such as: stakeholder identification (do not advise), define project requirements, acquire resources, to name a few). Both PRINCE2 and PMI clearly call these out and the PM’s job. Yes, the sponsor has to provide input, but they are executives, they are never supposed to generate these things.

From our study, we feel that there are really on three responsibilities of the Sponsor:

  1. Create and Maintain a Project Vision Aligned with Corporate Goals. This is the primary job—keeping the project lean and focused on the corporate need.
  2. Organizational Change Management (OCM). Ensuring that the overall OCM process is in place. (We also feel the Sponsor is accountable if the project’s product is not adopted.)
  3. Fiduciary Responsibility. This does not mean finding money, this means that minding the overall financial needs of the company and how the project fits into that is the job of the sponsor.

In summary, project sponsorship will never get better until there is a common definition. Although other issues will remain, such as sponsor training, they all rely on that most basic of elements—the definition. As with a project manager, whose definition is close to universally accepted, the definition should be industry agnostic. In reality, though, the best we can expect in the short-term is for each company to adopt the a definition that reflects the executive nature of the job. With that, and a simple job description, projects would run much better.

The white paper is available as a professional courtesy though on our website. Its successor Solutions in Executive Sponsorship, which provides additional materials on how to solve many of the challenges, will be available in the coming months. Let us know if you would like to be contacted when it is published.

Peter, Ron, and Vicki wish to give our heartfelt thank you to Todd for providing this guest post, but also for his great work in researching and writing on Project Sponsorship. We feel that Challenges in Executive Sponsorship is a great complement to Strategies for Project Sponsorship in the ‘Campaign for Real Project Sponsors.’

Find Todd on social media at:

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