Why Every Project Manager Needs a Supportive Executive Sponsor

Business professional sitting in armchair while project team is in background
GettyImages/Caiaimage/Sam Edwards

Project Managers have a difficult job. By nature of their role, they assume responsibility for forming an effective team to pursue and succeed with new initiatives. Because projects encompass all of the work done in a firm, including temporary and unique initiatives as well as the routine of daily operations, every project is a new adventure.

Add in the reality that projects are how we innovate; how we execute on strategy and how we build-out our organization’s infrastructure and capabilities, it is apparent that senior leaders must do everything in their power to support their firm’s project managers.

One of the most important factors promoting project success is the presence of an effective, engaged executive sponsor. This position has long been associated with project success in industry studies, yet a review of the literature describing actual practices around sponsorship suggest we have a long way to go to institutionalize the presence and practices of the sponsor role in our organizations. A bit of context is appropriate. First, let's review the primary responsibilities of the sponsor. 

Primary Responsibilities of a Project’s Executive Sponsor:

  • Assume responsibility for the outcome of a project. (This point is often described as a shared responsibility with the project manager.)
  • Charter the project and confer authority on the project manager and core team members.
  • Support the project team for resources and visibility.
  • Ensure the presence of and support of effective team values, including accountability and transparency.
  • Support the team in the face of extraordinary difficulties.
  • Coach the project manager.
  • Defend the project team against organizational interference.

What Happens When the Executive Sponsor is Out of the Picture:

In the absence of a supportive executive sponsor, all of the above responsibilities fall to the already over-burdened project manager, who typically lacks the bandwidth and political heft to fulfill these tasks.

The lack of an effective sponsor increases the risk of project problems, including but not limited to: failure, suboptimal performance against time, cost and quality targets and increased team turmoil.

Simply stated, the presence of an effective executive sponsor is a positive difference-maker for the complex work of bringing our most important temporary and unique initiatives to ​a successful conclusion. Given the obvious importance of the role, it might be reasonable to assume that most organizations take their work with executive sponsors seriously. Sadly, a bit of time spent in the real world suggests otherwise.

A Glimpse into How Our Organizations Treat the Role of Executive Sponsor

As a graduate management instructor in project management, I have the good fortune to regularly learn about the project management practices of my students’ employers in a major metropolitan area. From Fortune 100 firms to small, entrepreneurial startups and not-for-profits, the organizations represented are a cross section of our economy. While it would be reasonable to expect in this era where project management practices are well established that most firms would display mature practices around the role of the executive sponsor, in reality, the situation is exactly the opposite.

A few non-scientific findings from my annual informal survey of MBA students about the role of executive sponsor in their firms:

  • On average, more than fifty-percent of the students describe their firm as having no formal practices around executive sponsorship.
  • Few firms have any formalized training or standardized description for the role and responsibilities of the sponsor.
  • I have not yet had one student report that his/her firm provides training for their executive sponsors.
  • There is little consistent agreement on the accountability of the sponsor for project success.
  • When the students interview project managers in their firms about their satisfaction with the performance and support of their sponsors, a majority of those surveyed expressed frustration.

    A review of more formalized surveys from industry associations and private consulting firms reinforces the general validity of the input from my students. And while the current state of the practice of executive sponsorship may leave room for improvement, project managers have no choice but to keep on moving forward with their initiatives. However, there are some steps a project managers can take to recruit much needed executive support.

    Five Tips to Gain Executive Support for Your Project:

    1. Recruit a sponsor. If your project has strategic implications for your firm, either directly for customers or indirectly by enabling more efficient and effective internal activities in support of customers, you should recruit a sponsor. Work directly with your report-to-manager or the head of your Project Management Office to reinforce the project’s importance and  ask for help. Emphasize the role and responsibilities of the sponsor as identified above, and point to industry research that correlates project success and effective sponsorship.

    2. Train your sponsor. Emphasize the role as strategic, not tactical or as figurehead. Most executives come to the role of sponsor with no formal training or even context for their responsibilities. While you are in the somewhat awkward role of training an executive, most of these individuals will appreciate your context and guidance. The issues of accountability, values reinforcement and protection of the team should be your primary focus when on-boarding your executive sponsor.

    3. Actively engage and involve your sponsor. The best project manager/executive sponsor relationships are highly interactive. It is important for the two parties to establish a clear communication protocol for updating on project activities as well as flagging and responding to emergencies. The project manager should encourage the executive sponsor to attend status or team meetings from time-to-time to show genuine interest, and to serve as an active cheerleader to the organization for team successes.

    4. Ask for coaching support from your sponsor. It is always helpful to have someone with more experience than you observing and offering constructive and positive feedback and coaching on your performance. Let your sponsor know you welcome this input in your drive to improve, and when it is received, accept it gracefully.

    5. Leverage the sponsor carefully for the big issues. Be careful not to view or treat your sponsor too much on tactical issues. Your sponsor’s highest and best use is for helping secure resources; serving as a spokesperson for the project team to the broader management group and helping you reinforce essential team values. There is a balancing act that the project manager must respect when considering drawing the sponsor into team activities.

    The Bottom Line for Now:

    The role of executive sponsor is one of the important pieces of the puzzle to success for project initiatives. Successful project managers understand how important this role is and work to gain executive support at the right level and intensity. If the role of the sponsor is absent or vague, take it upon yourself to recruit and train your executive sponsors to support you, your team and your firm for success.