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Who makes the ideal sponsor – and does it matter?

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Martin Samphite ideal sponsor.jpg

We all know that a sponsor is focused on outcomes. They are the apex of governance for projects (i), accountable to the organisational board or sub-committee. 

The sponsor provides the governance link between the investing body and delivery of the project and benefits realisation. The National Audit Office has stated that the ‘effectiveness of the project sponsor is the best single predictor of success or failure’.

The professional community has a range of views, from ‘sponsors who have been successful project managers are most effective because they understand project management’ through to ‘project managers make the worst sponsors as they too easily revert to focusing upon the delivery aspects’. This question came up at the webinar we delivered on sponsorship on 22 April. So, what should we base our judgement upon? And is there a ‘best’ option?

Competences of a sponsor
The APM guide, Sponsoring Change, states that the key personal attributes for an effective sponsor are:

  • Understanding – strategic context, risk
  • Competence – strategic view, leadership, collaboration, business case, needs of investing organisation, judgement
  • Credibility – accepted by stakeholders, influential, track record, motivated to act in long term interests
  • Commitment – time and priority
  • Engagement – insight into organisational dynamics, personal ownership, communications and influence.

We have introduced the idea of having a prefix to the sponsor (e.g. executive sponsor, delegated sponsor, sponsor agent) to gain clarity. This acknowledges that some organisations have adopted a hierarchy of sponsors (or sponsoring group).

Executive sponsor (ES) role
The executive sponsor (ES) role sits atop the hierarchy. It is appropriate that an ES is a senior person in an organisation – this way they have real accountability for the successful outcome of an investment which is likely to be intrinsic to the future financial and business performance of a business unit.

To ensure alignment to the organisation’s strategic objectives, an ES must be intimate with the organisation’s culture, dynamics, strategy and board members. This also facilitates them being a true project advocate, supporting the project and getting resources allocated.

The ES must own the business case and benefits realisation. For this they need to understand:

  • the organisation’s operation and culture;
  • why and which aspects are important to the future;
  • strategic direction and objectives;
  • market dynamics,
  • and financial sensitivities.

It is crucial that the ES can judge how the project is progressing and performing toward its outcome goal beyond progression to time, costs and quality objectives - which are the focus of the project manager. The ES focus is about the outcome impact, forecast benefits, impact on business performance, competitor movement, alignment with strategic direction and stakeholder reaction?

Taking account of these, the ES can report to the board whether the investment is worthwhile and continues to be so. If not, what is the impact if it is stopped or amended in scope? The ES must be able to present and win the case for the investment and defend the project with board members, stakeholders and delivery team members alike. The ES is ultimately accountable to the board and needs to influence colleagues who are probably equally thrusting and ambitious with strong opinions. The ES must be able to think out of the box, demonstrate exceptional leadership to create a vision for a different future and inspire others to understand and seek that future and follow a roadmap and journey. Maybe this infers that the candidate needs to have extensive prior experience in the organisation, intimately plugged into the Board view and emotionally resilient?

The ES is unlikely to be the expert-in-the-cupboard for the technology or changes central to the project. Ideally, they would have ‘expertise’ in the environment that the project is delivering into, and credibility with the key stakeholder base. Particularly for major public sector investments, this might involve being responsible for governance regimes and interfacing with government ministers and policy makers, external assurance bodies, HM Treasury and suppliers. An ideal candidate might have a strong external profile.

The ES must also have time for the project, the project manager, the stakeholders and the board – it is not a role that can be carried out in just ‘spare time’ - and longevity!

Delegated sponsor (DS)
An ES will probably have other full-time responsibilities for example, directing a business unit. Time to do all the things necessary is a problem so we see the concept of a delegated sponsor (DS) or sponsor agent being used. By delegating some sponsor tasks to a DS, the ES still has overall accountability but with a spare pair of hands to support. In particular, a DS is able to provide the quality time that a project manager needs from a sponsoring body.

The DS should concentrate on being the ‘senior customer’ – along with the ES – concentrating on the ‘why’ for the project, and leave the project manager and the delivery team to focus on ‘what’ the best solution would be and ‘how’ best to deliver it. This division of responsibility is a good guide to forming a fruitful relationship with the project manager. Ideally the ES, DS and project manager should discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses and develop a mode of operation that maximises their mutual strengths. This doesn’t happen by accident and requires skilful interpersonal exploration This might suggest the DS needs to be a strong people person, in addition to the capabilities outlined for the ES?

Who makes the best sponsor?
Do project managers make good sponsors? What about those that have sound operational/ business-as-usual management experience? The overall view of the debate mentioned earlier is often ‘it depends’.

However, my own experience has shown that the most effective individuals undertaking the executive sponsor roles have come through the operational path. In our specific examples we conclude that this is due to:

  • Being close to and intrigued by the organisation’s marketplace, competition, strategy and direction and having responsibility for operational budgets and performance.
  • Having developed thinking in depth about creating organisational discontinuity – having spotted opportunities for transformational change, benefits and articulated visions for the future.
  • Being familiar with the board members and key decision makers.
  • Having experienced an operational crisis that has been resolved through extensive discussion with external stakeholders.
  • Being a credible leader across the organisation.

However, one of the things that may be a weakness with someone from the operational side is a lack of project management understanding. We have seen this weakness dealt with very successfully through the ES accepting and addressing this weakness. This can be successfully addressed by having a strategy to strengthen it with an independent adviser or project manager acting as a coach.

We have seen many former project managers deployed as delegated sponsors and take on a ‘senior project manager’ focus - too much on delivery rather than trying to maximise the business outcomes.

It does matter and our leaning is to look for future sponsors that have come through the operational or strategy side of the business. OK, we now hear howls of derision from project delivery people. We’re not saying that an experienced project manager cannot make a great sponsor. However, they may be more challenged in succeeding than someone from the operational side (and who has the required competences) and who is also honest about their weaknesses. We would welcome views and debate on this contentious conclusion.

The APM Governance SIG explored in 2020 the role of the sponsor in a four part webinar series, starting with Sponsorship: how to enhance the role within the project profession.

(i) References to project includes programme and investment or vice versa.

Image: Jackie Niam/Shutterstock


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