Sponsor

How To Connect With Your Project Sponsor

Strategy is a pattern in a stream of decisions – Henry Mintzberg

P

roject sponsors make or break a project’s success. When a project sponsor is involved, the project team feels inspired to work. A sponsor can also help the project team connect with other departments. An engaged project sponsor is a valuable asset to your project’s success. So how do we make that happen?
 
The sad truth is that project sponsors are typically extremely busy. At large companies, project sponsors are often vice-presidents or other executives charged with leading large organizations. Prior to your project, the executive already had a great deal of work. Even if they understand your project’s value, they may subconsciously resent the project as yet one more responsibility.
 
Project managers have two ways to work with an overburdened project sponsor: minimal engagement and relationship engagement.
 

Minimal engagement

 
Minimal engagement means only contacting the sponsor when absolutely required (e.g. to obtain a signature on a key project document). The rationale here is that the project sponsor is busy and will appreciate keeping engagement short and sweet. This approach can work. Ultimately, it only works in the short term.
 

Relationship engagement

 
Building a relationship with your project sponsor takes more work. This approach also yields greater results for your project (and your career). Consider the possibility that you will likely work with the same executive on a future project. The effort you put in to getting to know them will pay dividends in the future. You may also be the first one to hear about new project opportunities. Keep reading to find three simply ways to improve your project sponsor relationships.
 

Step 1: Understand The Sponsor’s History

 
Roman senator and author Marcus Cicero wrote,

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.

Until you take the time to understand a person’s history, your relationship will never grow.
 
Understanding a project sponsor’s history requires a combine of observation and well-crafted questions. I suggest starting with these three points to understand their history.

  • When did they join the company? By understanding this point, you will know something about their knowledge of the organization’s culture and processes.
  • What is their area of expertise? Did they study engineering in college, rise through the ranks in sales or climb the corporate ladder in some other way?

Step 2: Arrive Early For Project Sponsor Meetings

 
Who can arriving early make a difference to your project? It’s simple. Let me set the context by explaining what you lose by arriving late.
 
When you walk into the Thursday 2pm meeting at 2:05pm, several problems occur. Your project team is already seated and waiting for you to arrive.
Several minutes go by as you distribute papers (or tell everyone to open a document on a computer). More time is consumed by asking people to focus on work rather than the weekend. If your project sponsor is in the room, your wait arrival will be seen as a lack of respect.
 
Here are the benefits to arriving early.

Prepare The Room

By arriving five minutes early, you can turn on the projector and distribute papers for everyone. You’ll also have a few minutes to see if you left any critical documents in your office.

Prepare The Materials

You will have time to open your PC, open your notebook to a fresh page and otherwise get yourself ready.

Make Small Talk With The Project Sponsor

Relationships are built one step at a time. Getting to know the project sponsor is no different. I recommend starting small – sharing your weekend plans or mentioning what you like most about the project. Over the course of a six month project, fitting in a few minutes of small talk during each weekly meeting will go a long way toward building a relationship.
 

Step 3: Take Notes About The Project Sponsor

 
Your powers of observation are a key tool in building a stronger relationship with your project sponsor. By focusing your mind on a few questions, you can learn a great deal. Consider these questions and take notes about your project sponsor’s behaviour. I recommend keeping these notes in a paper notebook, rather than on your office computer.

Repeated questions

What type of questions does the sponsor ask over and over? Do they show a focus on finances? An interest in customer experience?

Engagement Levels

Does the sponsor focus in the meeting? Are they looking at people when they speak? Are they looking at their smart phone? These behaviors signal the attention (or lack thereof) of the project sponsor.

Bruce Harpham
Bruce Harpham writes about project management education at Project Management Hacks. Bruce’s experience includes leading projects at a large Canadian financial institution.

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