Provocation: Stop Moaning about Your Sponsor

How good is your project sponsor?

My experience is that the commitment, or ability, or style, of a project sponsor is one of the biggest reasons for project managers to moan.

Whenever I get a room-full for training, there is always a handful who moan that:

  • they don’t get the support they need
  • their sponsor is too intrusive
  • the sponsor disrupts project meetings
  • their sponsor won’t make critical decisions
  • they don’t know who their sponsor is

It’s at that point that the people who don’t think they have a sponsor seem to sigh with relief!

What’s the Problem?

A sponsor – or whatever you want to call them – is a critical part of the project. They sit at the heart of project governance.

Poor sponsorship = Poor governance

So, if you don’t have a sponsor*: stop work on your project.

If you don’t know who your sponsor is: stop work. If there is one, they’ll find you.

If they won’t make critical decisions: stop work. Sponsorship is governance. Governance is steering**. If no-one is steering, the ship, it’s safer to stop.

Now we’re onto the leadership bit. You have a sponsor but you don’t like the way the choose to exercise their responsibilities. Fair enough. My experience is frequently of under-trained (untrained) sponsors who don’t believe they need training.

But you are the project manager and your job is to lead the delivery of your project. And leadership means tackling the tough conversations. Sit down with your sponsor and talk it through. Organisationally, your sponsor may be bigger and uglier than you are. But that’s no excuse. Prepare well, and have the conversation. Until you do, you have no right to moan.

* If your boss asks you to do a small project; they’re your sponsor. If you start a small project, you can be your own sponsor.

** ‘Governor’ comes from the Greek, ‘Kubernator’, meaning steersman.



2 thoughts on “Provocation: Stop Moaning about Your Sponsor

  1. Matthew Squair

    The sponsors role is a vital one when your project is a complex one with lot’s of stakeholders and ‘moving parts’. and without a strong sponsor to navigate the politics and manage the stakeholders your project can easily founder. But strangely there’s not that much training or emphasis on what being a sponsor entails (I find), lots on how to be a project manager, not so much on how to do the governance gig. My personal opinion is that in the commercial world this reflects a general inability of company boards to see that board governance extends to how major projects are executed. That big project can radically change the company all right, by driving out of business.

    1. Mike Clayton Post author

      Matthew, thank you for your comment. I agree on two particular fronts:

      1. There is too little sponsor training. Frequently, when i pitch it alongside PM training, the answer from HR leaders is that senior leaders won’t sit through training, workshops or any form of learning, or that they think they know all they need to know. At the few (enlightened) organisations where I have been commissioned to work with sponsors, the reception has been universally positive. I try to avoid lecturing them on responsibilities, and instead challenge them with high level thinking about decision making and oversight.

      2. Not only can a big project radically change an organisation, but if you look at the project portfolio of many organisations, the expenditure represents a high proportion of its revenue. !0-30% is not untypical. So why aren’t senior leaders spending 10-30% of their time overseeing projects? Indeed, I could easily argue that it should be 20-50%, since projects carry more risk (due to unfamiliarity and external factors) than business-as-usual operations.


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