Managing your sponsor

Managing your sponsor

A mutually beneficial partnership between a project manager and sponsor is crucial to the success of a project

By Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton

It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are as a project or programme manager, if you don’t have a good sponsor, successful delivery is going to be a huge challenge.

Looking back at our most successful projects, they all had an excellent sponsor. Not having great sponsorship does not prevent you delivering, it just makes the whole process a lot more painful, and where there is pain, there is more risk of failure.

If you are lucky, you start with a good sponsor. Frequently however, part of your role as a project leader is to train your sponsor for their role on your project.

For us, the key to good sponsorship is that your sponsor understands the following:

  • The project process is different from managing ‘business as usual’. The sponsor should appreciate the value of good project discipline in terms of good governance, regular reporting, project board meetings and RAIDs (Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies) management
  • The business landscape – both political and operational – in which the project is delivering. Sponsors must be able to leverage the wider business to provide support for and engagement with the project
  • The relationship between sponsor and project manager needs to be almost symbolic; neither can succeed without the other, but together, they can create huge synergy if they just trust each other, have complementary skills and challenge one another
  • Even the best project managers do not have magic wands, and a sponsor should not simply appoint a project manager and then just leave them to get on with it

A good sponsor also ‘gets ‘the content of the project. They need to understand enough technical detail to be able to have informed discussions, and be committed to the project journey as defined by the plan and the project roadmap.

So how do you train your project sponsor to be successful?

Exploring the why?

One way is to focus on the ‘5T’s’ from our ExtraordinaryPM framework – Target Terrain, Tribe, Time Mastery and Taking Care of Yourself. This article focuses on how to use the Target to foster engagement and alignment with your sponsor.

Target*, is focused not just on what the project is trying to achieve, but also the why. We still need to deliver a comprehensive scope document, but this tends to focus on what the project is going to deliver and how it is going to do it. The ‘Why’ is often taken as a given, which moves it into the realm of being an assumption – dangerous ground.

Taking time to explore the ‘Big Why’ of a project with your sponsor can be both enlightening and efficient. Simon Sinek explores why this principle in his book Start with Why, where he talks about how great leaders inspire people to take action through identifying the ‘Why’ before defining the ‘what’ or the ‘how’.

Being clear about why we are doing a project offers deeper insight to the wider stakeholder group, which can:

  • Aid decision-making, particularly in relation to change control and issue management;
  • Make project communication better targeted; and
  • Give risk management a more focused context

Identifying the ‘why’ also helps at the concept stage, because it provides a good basis for challenging the business case. (How many projects have you been on where the business case doesn’t really stack up?). If you’re not involved in the concept stage of the project, it can be challenging to get your sponsor to revisit work that has already been done. However, time invested in understanding why the project is important to your sponsor and the organisation will make it easier to engage other stakeholders and the project team.

It is easy to accept a ‘quick response’ project rationale, such as:

  • ‘Because we need to’;
  • ‘It’s critical to our business strategy’; and
  • ‘The board wants this’

While valid reasons, these responses do not get into the depths of why the project is important. In theory, a good business case could explain the project rationale and all the risks of non-delivery, but the pressure is always on to ‘just deliver’ and so the business case often becomes a purely numerical view of the project. How many business cases have you seen that you could use to inspire your project team?

Working with your sponsor on the ‘Big Why’ for your project enables you to understand where this project sits on your sponsor’s list of priorities, and to establish a close working relationship with your sponsor. A good ‘Big Why’ can be used as a call to action, and as a guide for all decision making, because it gives insight into where the passion for the project sits. Passionate project managers and sponsors make it easier to develop a motivated and productive team.

But all is not lost if your sponsor will not engage in an exploration of the ‘Big Why’ at the beginning of the project. As a project manager, you should still create a ‘Big Why’ statement to help engage your other stakeholders and the project team. The review process will then allow your sponsor a further opportunity to engage with the statement.

Supporting role

One of the main things that can derail a project is a nervous or absent sponsor. Therefore, as a project manager, you need to spend time ensuring that your relationship is mutually beneficial – you need to help your sponsor grow into their role, and the sponsor needs to protect you and the project from organisational noise.

Unless your sponsor has been involved with a number of previous projects of a similar size, the role you are asking them to perform is probably outside their comfort zone. As project managers, we understand the project process, but it is a very different from a ‘business as usual role’ where the sponsor is likely to have:

  • A good operational and functional knowledge;
  • Overall responsibility and decision-making autonomy;
  • The mandate to set priorities; and
  • Their own established communications mechanisms and styles

By contrast, the role you need them to perform on a project requires that they:

  • Stay out of the technical detail unless it is to help with the resolution of an issue;
  • Make decisions with or on behalf of the project board;
  • Facilitate agreement around priorities with their colleagues in the business (who may or may not be interested in the project); and
  • Deliver appropriate communication about the project to all those affected, not just their direct report

Once you are clear about how far the role of project sponsor is going to stretch your sponsor, you can plan the work you will need to do to coach and support them. Even if your sponsor is not great, keeping them close to the project allows you to limit any damage that they do.

A simple approach to managing your sponsor is to ask for their help and to give them very special tasks to do (preferably, mostly ones that they are good at) so that they are prepared when you need to ask them to do something difficult. Also take their counsel – they may not be an expert on the project, but they probably understand the organisation better than you do.

Mutually beneficial

In our experience, we can only be effective project managers when we have a good sponsor who both really understands the scope and acts as an advocate. The relationship between sponsor and manager is vital.

Even when your sponsor is experienced in a project role, your relationship is unique to any given project, and working together to align around the ‘Big Why’ and defining the roles for your project provides an ideal opportunity to create that strong relationship. Ultimately, creating a mutually beneficial partnership that will prove crucial for a successful delivery.

First published in the Spring 2018 issue of Project


*Target is one of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework

Target focuses on the how, the why and the what of a project and its scope.

On our ExtraordinaryPM Mastery programme, we explore the mobilising power of the Target (‘Big Why’) for your project. With a clear Target in-sight you can align and lead your Tribe more effectively. Your Target is your ‘North Star’ for decision-making and prioritisation and will guide you across the Terrain of your project.


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