We all know intuitively what an executive sponsor for a project should do: be decisive, hold people accountable, deal with the difficult issues. But how many times have we seen projects that flounder and fail precisely because the executive sponsor isn’t doing their job or one hasn’t even been assigned to the project?
The role of executive sponsor is critical to the success of large and complex projects. This is a real role that is just as important to the project as the project manager or any of the project team members.
An executive sponsor should be assigned to key projects that are strategic, complex, costly, cross-functional, or that will drive a high degree of organizational change. These types of projects almost always encounter issues that require the additional visibility and decision-making authority that a senior executive of the company can bring to bear.
Responsibilities of the Executive Sponsor
So what exactly does an executive sponsor do? What qualifications does an executive sponsor need?
In a typical project structure the executive sponsor will lead a project steering committee made up of key stakeholders, functional area leaders and decision makers appropriate for the scope and goals of the project.
In a nutshell, the executive sponsor will work with the project manager and the steering committee to ensure the project remains on track.
Their first duty should be to work with the project manager to ensure that a clear and complete project charter is in place (read “A Practical Approach to Achieving Project Success” to learn more about the importance of a project charter).
Additional early activities will include securing steering committee team members and participating in the project kickoff meeting.
Once the project is moving the executive sponsor will meet with the project manager periodically to review the project details, will host/lead periodic steering committee meetings to facilitate project communication and decisions required at that level, and will report on the project to the Board and/or senior leadership team.
Key Executive Sponsor responsibilities/attributes/qualifications:
Be accountable – The executive sponsor needs to be just as accountable for project success as the project manager and project team. This isn’t an honorary title – there needs to be skin in the game.
Be decisive – Facilitate timely and final decisions even when they might not be perfect. There’s nothing worse for project team than having to spend time re-hashing the same topics over and over
Hold the executive team accountable – Most projects are cross-functional with a matrixed organizational structure. Both the project manager and executive sponsor need to work with organizational leaders to ensure they follow-through on their commitments including providing project resources and participating in timely cross-functional discussion and decision
Facilitate change – Given that most projects include change, the executive sponsor needs to help lead this change by understanding the impact on the organization and helping to break down the inevitable resistance
Focus on benefits – Project teams can sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture in trying to meet date and cost objectives. The executive sponsor should keep the bigger picture in view and ensure that the goals and expected benefits of the project aren’t sacrificed
Hold the line on scope, schedule and budget – The executive sponsor should set clear objectives on these key metrics and then only change them after a deliberate approval process
Clear the obstacles – Resource constraints, failure to make timely decisions, resistance to change – these are all examples of obstacles that will slow a project down or worse. The executive sponsor needs to help the project manager identify and resolve these challenges
Let the team do their job – The executive sponsor can be more or less engaged in the project details depending on their personal management and leadership style. It’s important, however, that the project team be allowed to do their job rather than be micro-managed
Be visible – Last but not least, the project team and project constituents need to know that the executive sponsor is engaged and helping to make the project a success. Sitting in on project team meetings, discussing change management issues with key stakeholders and highlighting the project status in employee meetings are all ways that this can be accomplished.
What has your experience been as an executive sponsor? Please add any comments on this critical role and responsibility.