Role of an Executive Sponsor
It’s fairly common for companies to assign Executive Sponsors to their large projects. “Large” typically reflects budget size, the inclusion of cross-functional teams, business impact, and complexity. The Executive Sponsor isn’t the person running and directing the project on a day-to-day basis; they’re providing oversight and direction. He monitors project progress and ensures that tactics are carried out to support the project’s goals and objectives. He has the credibility (and authority) to ensure that the appropriate level of attention and resources are available to the project throughout its entire life.
While there’s nearly universal agreement on the importance of an Executive Sponsor, there seems to be limited discussion about the specifics of the role. Most remarks seem to dwell on the importance on breaking down barriers, dealing with roadblocks, and effectively reacting to project obstacles. While these details make for good PowerPoint presentations, project success really requires the sponsor to exhibit a combination of skills beyond negotiation and problem resolution to ensure project success. Here’s my take on some of the key responsibilities of an Executive Sponsor.
Inspire the Stakeholder Audience
Most executives are exceptional managers that understand the importance of dates and budgets and are successful at leading their staff members towards a common goal. Because project sponsors don’t typically have direct management authority over the project team, the methods for leadership are different. The sponsor has to communicate, captivate, and engage with the team members throughout all phases of the project. And it’s important to remember that the stakeholders aren’t just the individual developers, but the users and their management. In a world where individuals have to juggle multiple priorities and projects, one sure-fire way to maintain enthusiasm (and participation) is to maintain a high-level of sponsor engagement.
Understand the Project’s Benefits
Because of the compartmentalized structure of most organizations, many executives aren’t aware of the details of their peer organizations. Enterprise-level projects enlist an Executive Sponsor to ensure that the project respects (and delivers) benefits to all stakeholders. It’s fairly common that any significantly sized project will undergo scope change (due to budget challenges, business risks, or execution problems). Any change will likely affect the project’s deliverables as well as the perceived benefits to the different stakeholders. Detailed knowledge of project benefits is crucial to ensure that any change doesn’t adversely affect the benefits required by the stakeholders.
Know the Project’s Details
Most executives focus on the high-level details of their organization’s projects and delegate the specifics to the individual project manager. When projects cross organizational boundaries, the executive’s tactics have to change because of the organizational breadth of the stakeholder community. Executive level discussions will likely cover a variety of issues (both high-level and detailed). It’s important for the Executive Sponsor to be able to discuss the brass tacks with other executives; the lack of this knowledge undermines the sponsor’s credibility and project’s ability to succeed.
Hold All Stakeholders Accountable
While most projects begin with everyone aligned towards a common goal and set of tactics, it’s not uncommon for changes to occur. Most problems occur when one or more stakeholders have to adjust their activities because of an external force (new priorities, resource contention, etc.). What’s critical is that all stakeholders participate in resolving the issue; the project team will either succeed together or fail together. The sponsor won’t solve the problem; they will facilitate the process and hold everyone accountable.
Stay Involved, Long Term
The role of the sponsor isn’t limited to supporting the early stages of a project (funding, development, and deployment); it continues throughout the life of the project. Because most applications have a lifespan of no less than 7 years, business changes will drive new business requirements that will drive new development. The sponsor’s role doesn’t diminish with time – it typically expands.
The overall responsibility set of an Executive Sponsor will likely vary across projects. The differences in project scope, company culture, business process, and staff resources across individual projects inevitably affect the role of the Executive Sponsor. What’s important is that the Executive Sponsor provides both strategic and tactical support to ensure a project is successful. An Executive Sponsor is more than the project’s spokesperson; they’re the project CEO that has equity in the project’s outcome and a legitimate responsibility for seeing the project through to success.
Photo “American Alligator Crossing the Road at Canaveral National Seashore”courtesy of Photomatt28 (Matthew Paulson) via Flickr (Creative Commons license).