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How to be a great project sponsor

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Project sponsorship is a tough gig. According to Sam Tulloch, founder of Project Mind & Behaviour, this is “make or break” work – key to managing the delivery, risk and broader buy-in of a project or programme. Yet a sponsor will often be coming into a new field while juggling a full workload in their main role. And support is often lacking.

“You could have the most amazing project manager and delivery team, but the sponsor is really steering the ship, opening doors, and on the frontline of managing the risks. But no one's really giving them the backing they need to understand the project status and the risks. No one's showing them the basics of how the project works. No one is teaching them the lingo. It can be a tough road,” she says.

Throughout her own project career, Tulloch has seen the same issues facing project sponsors everywhere, from the charity sector to central government and housing. Now she’s in the business of helping them – and delivering concrete benefits to their projects too. “If I can educate sponsors so they can carve even a month from a project lifecycle, it could save anywhere from £50,000 to £1.2m a month,” she says.

We asked Sam to share her five key tips for how to thrive as a project sponsor. Here’s what she said…

1. Be clear on the project’s vision, purpose and objectives

Understanding a project’s goals is vital for everything from securing funding to managing the attendant risks. This fundamental knowledge can be a challenge for project sponsors, who are likely to have been drafted into a new field while juggling their business-as-usual work elsewhere too.

“Clarity is critical,” says Tulloch. “A project sponsor may be director of HR or finance, and too often will have other competing priorities coming in. Suddenly they’re handed a massive project too. They now have to manage those project priorities, and delve into this completely new world in terms of leading and steering projects, all while keeping their business as usual going.”

2. Bring wider stakeholders on board

As project sponsor, you’re likely to need to beg, borrow and steal – whether it’s people, systems, time or ideas – from other parts of the company. That means harnessing the reputation and relationships you’ve built to get your peers and others across the organisation on board.

Meanwhile, you’ll also need to be an inspiring presence for your project team. “During really tough times of a project, delivery teams are extremely stressed,” she says. “So it's on the project sponsor to show understanding and prevent burnout, even while cracking the whip to keep driving people towards the vision. They’ll need to support their programme manager or project manager as much as possible, while also giving them autonomy and space. That’s all quite difficult to do.

3. Ask great questions

If you’re a director of HR or finance, you’ll have spent years really understanding your subject matter as you rise through the ranks. In these roles, you know how to make good decisions really quickly. But the project sponsor role may be completely alien. For example, it may mean understanding a new product and the fundamentals of building, testing and iterating it.

“I’ve met a lot of sponsors who’ve had imposter syndrome or who second-guess themselves,” says Tulloch. “If someone is now asking them detailed questions, about tech, say, this may be completely new to them. So having the ability to ask the right questions to get the information that you need and make great decisions, is absolutely critical.”

4. Allocate resources well

Having enough resources on your project or programme is one thing. Making sure you have the right ones is another.

Take people. As well as being able to ask the right questions in order to challenge the staff available to you, you may have to go out to a subject matter expert in one of your teams and turn them into a product owner.

“You can use the learning and experience you gained making your own move into project sponsorship to help that subject matter expert in their own transition,” says Sam. “Resourcing the project means understanding its vision and needs, and how it fits into the organisation’s wider strategic goals.”

5. Manage risk like a boss

The strategic risks that lie beyond the day-to-day remit of the project manager need to be bread and butter for the sponsor.

They can’t do this alone. In order to mitigate all the risks that emerge, they’re also going to have to lean on other departments and get the ear of the exec team – especially when it comes to the tough task of asking for more money.

“I’s absolutely critical for a project sponsor to be able to come in and broker those conversations,” says Sam. “Even though the project sponsor is the furthest removed from the day-to-day, they are going to be grilled on why the project is behind and what the workarounds are. So they have to have a deep enough understanding of the risks to justify those demands.”


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