02 Nov 2021

Why you need to upskill your project sponsors

Project sponsor
Why you need to upskill your project sponsors

Research shows that engaged project sponsors are a top driver of project success, but organisations have often had an ad-hoc process for deciding what the role might look like. On top of this, limited support has been available for leaders thrown into the project sponsor role.

We spoke with leading project professional Kestrel Stone to unpack the project sponsor role and see why it’s so central to project success.

Read on to find out what key skills effective project sponsors need, and how organisations can upskill their executive leaders for better project outcomes.

Kestrel is the facilitator of the AIPM Project Sponsor Masterclass, CEO of Elemental Projects, Board Member of the Global Alliance for the Project Professions (GAPPS), Project Management Lecturer (University of Sydney) and former AIPM NSW Chapter Councillor.

 

What’s a project sponsor?

The project sponsor owns the project. They’re an important figurehead. They provide resources and support for the project while ensuring everyone understands the project’s value.

Successful project implementation drives an organisation’s performance and profitability. Project success is a team effort, and when project sponsors understand their role and perform it well, the entire organisation benefits.

 

“The sponsor’s job is to make sure that the organisation's investment in projects yields the return that they want.” 

Kestrel Stone, Facilitator of the AIPM Project Sponsor Masterclass



The project sponsor usually has a permanent, senior position in the organisation. They have credibility and authority. Their project sponsor duties are often performed in a part-time capacity on top of their usual responsibilities.
 

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Why do projects need an effective project sponsor?

Projects with engaged project sponsors are more likely to be successful. While they’re not involved in daily tasks and meetings, research shows that the performance of the project sponsor greatly impacts the project’s success.

A 2020 study conducted by KPMG and the AIPM showed that only 25% of organisations delivered successful projects, most of the time. So, what are these high-performing organisations doing differently? 70% of them have highly engaged project sponsors who are trained in this role.

With such a strong correlation between the performance of the project sponsor and the success of the project, organisations are looking to better define the role and ensure their executive team has the skills needed to deliver successful projects.

 

“There can be a level of anxiety and lack of transparency about what good project sponsorship actually looks like. The concept of an accidental project manager is widely accepted, but less so the accidental project sponsor. Paradoxically, I often see organisations where project sponsors are hesitant to ask questions, because of a perception that they should already know.” 

Kestrel Stone, Facilitator of the AIPM Project Sponsor Masterclass

 


What is the role of the project sponsor?

The project sponsor competency standard breaks the role down into three key areas of responsibility:

  1. Taking accountability for the project: The project sponsor must make sure the project is justified and will meet the organisation’s goals. They must set and reinforce governance protocols and have a solid plan for benefit realisation.

  2. Supporting the project manager: The sponsor provides business context, expertise, and guidance to the project team. They need to be available, helping resolve conflict by being an effective escalation point. They also must provide regular coaching and performance feedback.

  3. Supporting the project: The project sponsor is the project champion, securing funding and sustaining resource availability. They also cultivate stakeholder commitment, manage risks and make timely decisions.



What key skills do project sponsors need?

To be an effective project sponsor, executives need an advanced understanding of what the role entails. Targeted professional development like the AIPM’s Project Sponsor Masterclass can build on existing skills and dramatically improve project performance.

Good project sponsors also need high-level skills in:

 


Top tips for being an effective project sponsor

  1. Model the behaviours you want from your project managers: as project sponsor, your behaviour can be helpful or harmful in creating a great culture. For example, if you respond well to bad news, you encourage people to be transparent and focus on issue resolution.

  2. Be the champion of the big picture: with your experience, you’ve got a bird’s eye view of how the project connects with other projects, the rest of the organisation and even global trends. Take the time to share this with your project team to improve their understanding and enable them to develop similar ‘systems thinking’ skills and habits.

  3. Make good, quick decisions: consider the views of your stakeholders but don’t get bogged down in the diverse and often conflicting views of your steering committee. Have solid governance protocols that allow you to benefit from these diverse perspectives, then make decisions that keep the project moving.

  4. Put away your long screwdriver: don’t meddle in technical aspects that are not part of your role. Delegate and empower the project team to control how the project work is done (without you leaning on your possibly out-of-date technical expertise).



How can organisations support their leaders to be better project sponsors?

To better support executives in their role as project sponsor, organisations need to have:

  1. A clearly defined role for project sponsors

  2. Training targeted at project sponsorship

  3. Mechanisms in place to continually review project sponsor performance

 


Project sponsorship training

High-performing project sponsors drive project success, so project sponsorship training makes good business sense. By having knowledgeable and confident project sponsors in your organisation, you can:

  • improve the success rate of your projects with fewer blow-outs in time, cost and quality

  • realise the intended long-term outcomes and business benefits of the projects once the products of the project are used in a BAU environment

  • attract and retain high-quality staff

  • be confident that sponsors understand their role and responsibilities

  • improve relationships with community and customers through better delivery of projects.

The AIPM runs targeted training for project sponsors. It’s been designed for senior managers and executives (including C-suite) from all departments and sectors. It’s appropriate whether they have a project background or not. It’s a four-hour interactive session that can be conducted virtually or face-to-face. Download the information kit here.

 

“AIPM’s sponsor masterclass was excellent, the topics it covered really help our collective team’s understanding of the critical nature of the role of sponsor. The masterclass provided impetus to explore both process and behavioural aspects of effective sponsorship. We examined useful insights with the trainer and thought-provoking review of the supporting tools and practices. I’d highly recommend any sponsor considering this masterclass, whether they be someone starting their role as sponsor for the first time or an experienced sponsor wanting to brush up and deepen their skills.” 

General Manager, Strategic Execution Capability Uplift, Bank of Queensland, June 2020.


 

Take action to upskill your leaders today

Engaged project sponsors are a powerful driver of project success. Make sure your executive team has the skills they need to succeed. Book an AIPM Project Sponsor Masterclass today.

 

Project sponsor masterclass