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Sponsorship; from good to great

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Conversation 01

What comes to your mind when you consider what makes a really effective sponsor? Owning the business case? Regularly resolving escalations? Being an ally to the programme manager?

Most articles will provide you with a list of responsibilities; influencing stakeholders, making decisions, monitoring the external environment, running steering groups. I’ve worked on programmes and projects with sponsors who have done everything asked of them, but they’ve still failed.

A quick internet search on ‘what makes a good programme sponsor’, and ‘programmes fail because of poor sponsorship’ each return over 160,000,000 results. Any experienced project professional will tell you that programmes are continuing to fail, with poor sponsorship being a key reason. It’s natural to conclude that we might not have hit the nail on the head with what truly makes an effective sponsor.

The answer is the same thing that brings success in most other walks of life:

Being really clear with what you are setting out to achieve, and then taking complete ownership and accountability for delivering it.

But that’s the programme manager’s job, right? Not in the world of truly effective sponsorship…

Key attributes of an effective sponsor

Your sponsor might be engaged, but are they:

  • Clear on their problem and what issue they are trying to solve?
  • Creating effective relationships with key suppliers (internal or external) into the project? Do they have a plan in place to improve this?
  • Checking that the project team has the right culture with the right blend of skills? If not, are they helping supplement this?
  • Demonstrating complete accountability at every interaction?

How many did you answer ‘yes’ to?

There are great examples of individuals who have put themselves at the heart of a problem in order to achieve the best outcomes for their team.

In 2010, a collapse at the San Jose copper-gold mine in northern Chili trapped 33 men 700 metres underground. Supervisor Luis Urzúa immediately recognised the seriousness of the accident and took charge, organising the men for long-term survival and helping them cope mentally with the situation. He made detailed maps of the area to help with the rescue effort and co-ordinated closely with engineers on the surface. He was the last man to be rescued and remained cool and calm under the pressure, merely remarking ‘It’s been a bit of a long shift’…

Whilst this was a very serious and different situation, the role that the supervisor took clearly demonstrated they had a clear view of what was needed and took personal accountability for achieving it. As a sponsor, being capable of leading a large team, at times under pressure, requires a mindset shift and they must:

  • Understand the problem we are trying to resolve.
  • Know what outcomes we need to achieve.
  • Know what good looks like.
  • Be responsible for success.
  • Remember they are not a customer.
  • Ensure that organisation / functional silos do not exist on the project.

Sponsors should be assessing their own suitability and capacity as a sponsor. What are their development gaps? Do they have support of colleagues? Do they know what effective sponsorship looks like?

Sponsors rarely spend enough time on the programme. If you’re a programme manager you might be thinking you don’t want the sponsor around all the time. However, some of the sponsor’s time should be spent on things the team aren’t even aware of but that are giving benefit to the programme. For example, pushing the programme’s agenda in informal meetings, oiling the wheels of a difficult relationship, or forward planning future skill needs from their business area.

Alongside the elements you don’t see, they also need to engage in the aspects you do. Sponsors need to take some time to understand basic methodology and roles, understand the language of change to be able to properly converse with the day to day goings on in a programme, and know the difference between a change analyst and a business analyst.

Sponsors will never have all the answers, but curiosity and tenacity are vital for success. The sponsor should consider the programme team as their team, so they need to help specify the team’s skill requirements in advance:

  1. Regularly assess the team’s capability and performance.
  2. Decide early on suitability and build the right team to suit the required outcomes.
  3. Embrace them as they would direct reports and get to know them.
  4. Engage them in their own function / management team meetings where possible to help them better understand the environment they are delivering in to.

Few sponsors will be like this from day one, so it’s up to you to help mould the relationship in the way that benefits you, the team and the programme.

How can a programme manager help?

If you are a programme manager, you need to start with assessing what you need from a sponsor. What type of programme do I have? How much uncertainty and complexity is there? Has my organisation done a programme like this before? What does the business area typically suffer from or struggle with? Asking yourself these questions early will help you set clear expectations on what you need from a sponsor.

Look around the organisation. Which leaders are strong in their day to day work, well respected and known for getting stuff done? A strong business executive with excellent behaviours, a happy team and who is willing to roll their sleeves up is a good start.

Work hard to influence the decision in choosing the right sponsor or work yourself at helping to develop an existing sponsor into a better sponsor. Set a clear rhythm with your sponsor right from the start; look to develop a robust, honest but above all else trusting relationship from day one.

Maybe next time we search online, results will have started turning in favour of programmes succeeding because of great sponsors.


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