Even More Valuable Today – Role of the Executive Sponsor

Executive Summary: Many companies are implementing digital transformation projects to help them stay competitive as the need to harness the latest technology and access real-time analytics becomes paramount.  However, high visibility and costly projects such as these need an executive sponsor to ensure the project gets off the ground, is managed well and fully adopted.   This paper will help define and provide clarity based on research, interviews, and practical real-world experience to maximize the value of the Executive Sponsor.

 

In October 1945, President Harry Truman made famous the statement “The Buck Stops Here” by having a plaque displayed on his desk in the Oval Office and he referred to this statement in his final address to the American people in January 1953 when he said, "The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.” While not on the scale of the President of the United States, all successful projects will have the role of an executive sponsor who holds to this same philosophy. Since the early 1980’s, project management principles have obstinately supported the role of Executive Sponsor, and 38 years later, is still recognized as one of the most critical success factors for projects. Despite the overwhelming advocacy for this role, there remains confusion on the specifics of the role, responsibility, and activities. In a HBR article by Ron Ashkenas he notes, “When the responsibilities and expectations are unclear, the role becomes either a meaningless designation or creates dysfunction.” This paper will help define and provide clarity based on research, interviews, and practical real-world experience to maximize the value of the Executive Sponsor.

The English poet, John Donne in 1624 wrote “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main”, which when viewed in the context of the executive sponsor and the relationship to a project, rightfully infers that there are many contributors to the success of a project. For example, a project team is composed of many individuals with varying degrees of knowledge and subject expertise, wh can be members of different working groups, and may be assigned full-time to the project or may work on a part-time basis and on one or multiple workstreams. There are a number of committees, a Steering (Executive) Committee of which the Executive Sponsor is a key member, a Project Management Meeting that should occur once a week or every other week depending on the state of the project, daily Sprint meetings to quickly review open items and address any roadblocks, and Investment Committee meeting that approve funding and monitor the financial status of the ongoing initiative and requests for additional funding for changes in scope. From the incubation of the thought of the next “new thing” to the “go-live” date there a myriad of interconnected processes, frameworks, governance, change management, training & enablement that effectively help navigate the path of complex projects all of which are subjects unto themselves from which we will turn the focus to the role of the Executive Sponsor.

Executive Sponsor Role

Webster’s dictionary defines the Executive Sponsor (sometimes called project sponsor or senior responsible owner) as a role in project management, usually the senior member of the project board and often the chair. The project sponsor will be a senior executive in a corporation (often at or just below board level) who is responsible to the business for the success of the project.

The executive sponsor plays a number of key roles…

  • Early Supporter: They should be very involved in the process of developing the business case, understanding the value the initiative will bring to the business, and helping guide the business case through the internal committee approval process.
  • Spotter: As the project moves forward, it is very important she / he keeps the project aligned with the overall organization’s other internal priorities and initiatives that might compete for capacity, funding, or attention. The executive sponsor often needs to be able to exercise pressure within the organization to overcome resistance to the project.
  • Strong networker: This role must also be sufficiently high enough in the organization to engage with other key executives throughout the organization. This is especially true with cross-functional projects with project charters that integrate business processes, tools and technology, data and information, and people.
  • Change advocate: Most people and organizations will proclaim that they believe in change and welcome change initiatives. However, in truth most organizations are very reluctant to change and one of the leading causes of failure for projects is the reluctance for people to embrace change and adopt the new future state solution. It is important that the executive sponsor be a consistent advocate for and constant voice of change throughout the project life cycle.
  • Coach: An area that greatly assists with change management and adoption is the engagement of the end user community throughout the project. Research has found when end users are engaged from the beginning definition of the business opportunity, formulating requirements, engaging during design, and actively participating with testing and acceptance criteria that the level of successful implementation and adoption increases exponentially. An executive sponsor who is effectively connected across an organization is able to help secure these valuable resources from the impacted functional areas and to explain the key role that they will play in the project.

Executive Sponsor Relationships

Potentially the most important relationship for the executive sponsor is with the project leader. Keys to a successful relationship include:

  • Clear communication: While the executive sponsor will be held responsible for the overall success of the project, the project leader is fully responsible for the execution of the day-to-day project activities. This relationship must be based on mutual trust and respect. It is maintained through excellent communication that allows the project manager to discuss issues that present risk, clarify business decisions from the executive committee or other collaborating functional leaders, and provides for timely decisions that allow for the smooth execution of the project.
  • Respecting boundaries: It is commonly understood that while the executive sponsor will not necessarily have in-depth project management experience, she / he will rely upon the project leader for the decisions that are within the scope and budget of the project. An area of risk exposure to the hygiene of a good project, occurs when the executive sponsor undermines the role of the project leader by micromanaging the daily activities of the project. The project manager should be the interface between the project team and the executive sponsor. The over involvement of the sponsor with the project team, users, and other project constituents, will undermine the authority of the project leader and add risk to the project.
  • Clear roles: It is important for the team and these two key contributors to understand their differentiated roles and to support and trust each other. The sponsor’s role is more strategic and should focus on the creating the proper environment for the success of an initiative while the project leader is focused more on the execution. The backbone to this key relationship is free and open communication between these two roles which requires reassurance from the sponsor and resolution by the project leader.

In Conclusion

While much as been written about the art of project management, and specifically, the role and responsibilities of the project manager, even leading to the attainment of a certification in project management, less has been done to truly advise on the critical role, responsibilities, and regular activities of the executive sponsor. Therefore there is considerable opportunity to improve project performance by providing greater attention to the definition and preparation of the executive sponsor. When selecting an executive sponsor, leadership should consider five personal attributes when making the decision – considerate, competence, credibility, commitment and engagement which will be addressed in a series of articles to help corporate leadership in choosing an executive sponsor. In the end, having the best executive sponsor will only help ensure the success of your corporate investment.