According to the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) Guide, the Sponsor “is the person or group [of people] that provides the financial resources for the project.” As defined by Wikipedia.com, “…. the Project Sponsor should be a senior executive of an organization who is responsible to the business for the success of the project.”
Why are Sponsors important
According to PROSCI®, “Employees look to senior Leaders for messages (both spoken and unspoken) about the project’s importance and the organization’s commitment to the change.
On a side note, PROSCI® is derived from the first syllable in the words Professional and Science. They believe that scientific principles and research can be applied to organizational settings in order to achieve greater outcomes. This belief has led them to creating the largest body of knowledge on change management, constantly asking new questions about how to better manage the people side of change in a structured and repeatable way.
PROSCI® conducts a detailed benchmarking study every two years where they survey Change Management professionals, study multiple change projects in different countries and organizations, conduct many interviews, and report their findings every two years by publishing a complete report.
In each of PROSCI®’s benchmarking studies from 1998 to 2017, participants identified active and visible Sponsorship as the #1 contributor to success when it comes to change implementation. Proof that the Sponsor’s role is critical to the success of a project.
Who ideally should be a Project Sponsor?
We can define Sponsors in different ways:
According to Schibi, O. & Lee, C “The Project Sponsor is an individual (often a manager or an Executive) with the overall accountability for the project. He or she is primarily concerned with ensuring that the project delivers the agreed upon business benefits and acts as the representative of the organization, playing a vital Leadership role through a series of areas.”
According to the Business dictionary.com “A senior management role that typically involves approving or supporting the allocation of resources for a venture, defining its goals and assessing the venture’s eventual success is the Project Sponsor. Furthermore, a project Sponsor might also champion or advocate for the project to be adopted with other members of senior management within the business. Also called an Executive Sponsor.”
To make it simpler, we suggest defining the role based on attributes that makes an effective Sponsor. This will help organizations identify who in their teams would present these ten (10) characteristics. 
- Maintain and articulate a clear and attractive vision for the change, showing how it links to the organizational strategy
Remember that we are dealing with adults and that they need to know and understand why they should follow a new policy or procedure, use a new system/tool, learn new skills, etc.
As a Leader, it is critical to know what the future looks like and how the change links to the organizational vision and strategy. But this is not enough, as a Sponsor, you need to articulate a clear and attractive vision for the change and make sure your team understands it and knows how it links to the organizational strategy.
- Gain the commitment and involvement of senior and line management, using influence and interactions to advocate the project consistently
Another characteristic of an effective Sponsor/Leader is to make sure that the senior and line management in their team is onboard with the change and that they support the change in a practical fashion. You need to stay in touch with them, hear them out and use your influence to advocate the project consistently.
There might be times that you are facing resistance. This is the time you need to use your resistance management techniques to handle them. We will have another workshop on resistance management during which we discuss how we can effectively manage resistance to change in our team.
- Champion the change, build and maintain a sense of urgency and priority for it throughout the change
Building a sense of urgency is all about turning “someday” and “later” into “today” and “now”. If your team does not sense that the change is urgent and that it is a priority for the organization, then they will hardly care enough to learn the new ways and act accordingly.
How you can create a sense of urgency? By talking about the change, by reminding Managers and employees “why we are changing” and “What happens if a change is not made”. To do so, you need to be specific. General terms like “We are changing to best serve our clients” are good, but not specific and attractive enough to everyone. Instead talk about facts, statistics, an example to make sure your team understands why this is a high-priority project. Talk about the impacts of not changing.
- Challenge those who are blocking the change and clear a path for it to succeed
There are always people who do not like to change and that will justify why change is not an option. Sometimes they are reluctant to change and don’t adopt the change, and sometimes go beyond that by trying to block the change. We can also categorize these people in two groups: the first are those that show their resistance publicly and are vocal about their objections, and the second are those who are silent about their oppositions. The latter can create the biggest challenges for the change as they are harder to identify.
Your job as a Leader is first to identify the roadblocks and then trace it back to the source to figure out who is causing these blocks. Then you should use your “Resistance Management skills” from your managerial toolkit to handle the situation and clear the block.
Remember that the first step in resistance management is always “Listen and Understand the Objections”. Only after that can you decide how to deal with the situation accordingly.
- Genuinely act as a role model for new behaviors and “walk the talk”, establish new norms firmly in your own immediate team
A Leader cannot expect their team to adopt a change by just talking about the change. Being a role model means you walk the talk and not just talking the talk. Your team needs to see you supporting the change in action and you need to lead by example.
If you are lecturing your team to show more “Team-work” spirit and then in practice, you do everything on your own and do not lead by example, It will be quite hard to expect your team to believe that “Showing team-work spirit” is a good characteristic and more importantly that it is needed.
- Consistently communicate about the change, use a variety of media and provide efficient channels for effective two-way communication
When it comes to change, you can never communicate enough. Therefore, as an active Sponsor use every single opportunity to communicate about the project and the change. Take advantage of team meetings, town halls, team building activities, and any other channels available to you to communicate about the change.
This communication needs to be consistent. Talking a lot about the project right in the beginning and then waiting a long time or even forgetting to communicate is certainly not a winning strategy.
Communication should always be “two-ways”, i.e. you need to provide your team with the opportunity to share their feedback, concerns, and comments about the project and then take those participations seriously and action them when needed. You can always reach out to the Project Team for assistance if necessary actions need to be taken.
- Train, mentor and coach line management and remain accessible to them
Earlier we talked about ‘’Gaining the commitment and involvement of senior and line management, using influence and interactions to advocate the project consistently’’. But what happens after having their commitment? What should you do as a Leader?
As a Leader and Sponsor, you should always be accessible to your team. Line Managers should feel confident that they can come to you anytime if they need guidance and help. And you should act as a mentor to them and use your coaching skills to guide them throughout the project.
We can discuss effective coaching techniques later if you feel the need.
- Ensuring that resources are provided, especially people and training
Another way of showing your involvement in the project and your commitment to change is to ensure that the project has access to all the necessary resources you can provide, especially people and training.
As a Leader and Sponsor, you need to make sure that your Line Managers are consulted for any activities that they need to allocate a resource to. This is another technique that will help you obtain their buy-in.
- Align the organization’s infrastructure, environment and reward systems with the change initiatives, especially the way performance is measured and managed
Again, supporting the change is done in action. This time by adjusting your expectations based on the new reality. We are not asking you to necessarily have another Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to measure your team members’ performance or to allocate monetary rewards for the ones showing commitment to change. Rather, it is expected that you acknowledge their efforts and thank them for their commitment and performance.
An example of aligning reward systems with the change initiatives could be expecting performance based on the new way. For example, if you are promoting the change to a new system, you can not ask your team to extract reports using the old system. This will only send one message” change is not important at all”. On the contrary, if someone is using the old system to give you a report, you should reinforce that you expect them to use the new system even if it means they need to re-do the process.
- Ensure ongoing alignment of the particular initiative with other organizational initiatives and with the organization’s wider strategic goals
As a Sponsor and a Leader, you also need to make sure that the particular initiative is aligned with the organizational initiatives and strategic goals.
Know your organizational objectives as well as your operational objectives and always make sure that all projects and changes are aligned with them. If they are not, you need to speak up and engage Project Owners.
A Self-Assessment tool that helps rate Sponsors
Now that you know these attributes, it is possible to measure and score yourself for each of them. To do so, we give the opportunity for Sponsors of different organizations to conduct an anonymous self-assessment. In this assessment, you can score yourself from different points of view (How you rate yourself, how you think your supervisor will rate you and how you assume your team members would rate you).
This assessment gives you the opportunity to start thinking about these attributes. As a Leader that welcomes learning and improvement opportunities, it permits you to find out where you stand and where there is an opportunity to improve.
The anonymous data can help to understand where we are standing on each attribute on average and we can see where we need to focus our attention and resources to provide you with necessary support and tools to improve the attributes which are the most challenging for the majority of the group.
We sincerely hope this assessment will interest you and that you will provide us some feedback to improve its content and questions.
- Schibi, O. & Lee, C. (2015). Project Sponsorship: senior management’s role in the successful outcome of projects. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2015—EMEA, London, England. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.