Depending on your organization, your project may have an official or unofficial sponsor. Most people seem to have a vague idea of what it means to be a sponsor, but in the event that you are one or need one, I thought it might be helpful to zero in on some specifics.
The overall role of a project sponsor, first off, is to provide executive management ownership of and oversight over an initiative intended to accomplish a major business goal. An effective sponsor is placed high enough in the organization to smooth the way for timely decision making and appropriate resource allocation. She typically works behind the scenes, allowing the project manager to run things on a day to day basis. Her main responsibilities include:
Minding the big picture
Project sponsors understand why and how this project is critical to business operations and the relationship it has with other parts of the company. They make sure the initiative is always well-aligned with the organization’s major goals and direction.
The project sponsor persuades the higher-ups that the project is worth supporting – before, during, and after the project is completed. He sustains organizational commitment and keeps the project top of mind when more pressing issues threaten to bury it.
In order for a project to generate ROI, it requires enough funds and other resources for a solid launch. The project sponsor may have her own budget, and if not, she knows where to go for the necessary “capital.”
Ideally, project sponsors attend executive-level meetings and provide project updates so that the most current information about the project trickles down through the organization.
Shepherding through minefields
This is one of the most important jobs of the project sponsor. He must clear the way for the project to proceed, which might mean navigating high-level political situations and cultural barriers, convincing vocal naysayers, managing risks, and removing organizational bottlenecks. They have the power to immediately escalate issues that threaten the project’s success.
Mentoring project managers
Project managers mentor their staff, but who mentors the project managers? In many organizations, the answer is no one, but this is actually the sponsor’s role. The project sponsor and manager should meet at least once a month so the sponsor has an opportunity to impart crucial leadership guidance.
The sponsor ensures that the project is not just a flash in the pan and that the organization is equipped to properly maintain any new products, processes, or services that have resulted.
Obviously, a project without a strong sponsor has a much greater likelihood of failing to meet the company’s expectations – or failing outright. If you are the manager and don’t have a great sponsor to call your own, or if you are a sponsor and don’t feel you are up to the task, you must flag the situation to executive management.
Schedule a meeting and with a diplomatic and assertive tone (i.e. without complaining or tattling), lay out the key issues. Be earnest about wanting to do what’s best for the organization, and your message will be received well. The earlier in your project, the better.