Andy Parsons

Andy Parsons

September 2018

Project & Programmes| Blog

Sponsor not 'cutting it'? Sort it out.

When things go ‘pear shaped’ on a programme, our team are often asked to have a look under the bonnet to see if we can help identify what's gone wrong and what needs to be done to fix it. Nine times out of ten we come back to the same issues every time:

  • Sponsorship and leadership is weak, absent or ineffective
  • The programme wasn’t defined and mobilised properly
  • Governance is confused, delegated and ineffective
  • Leadership is disjointed and dysfunctional
  • Communication is weak and confidence/momentum are low

So why is it so difficult to get good quality and effective sponsorship and what can you do about it? And, why is there a ‘sponsorship’ problem?

Is the right person in the sponsor seat?

The first issue we see time and time again is if the Sales & Marketing Director wants a new IT system to support a new channel to market, then the business case and associated benefits belong to them so they become the sponsor by default. That is like making a person who wants a new house responsible for building it because it is they house and they are going to live in it.

Does the sponsor know what they are supposed to do?

Not many sponsors have been on a training course in how to sponsor programmes effectively. They have achieved the position they are in within the company because they are very good at what they do, not because they understand programmes. There are some naturally really good sponsors but generally executive-level sponsors will revert to type and do what they think is right, what they know best and what has worked for them in their careers to date.

This tends to produce an interesting mix of sponsorship capability. I have come across sponsors who approach the role in totally different and 'interesting' ways – for example:

The ‘Control Freak’ Sponsor: Wants daily ‘stand ups’ with the delivery team - which is being a project manager, not a sponsor - and wants to run through each line of the project plan and pick it pieces

The Absent Sponsor: Tends to state “I am not available unless there is a crisis and I expect you to sort it out if there is one" and never turns up to key governance meetings and delegates

The Double Sponsor: There are two beneficiaries here so we will have two sponsors, and really confuse things!

The ‘Blue Sky’ Sponsor: A visionary who loves to come up with new ideas that are the next best thing and tell you to incorporate it into the programme – thanks!

The ‘Fix It’ Sponsor: If there is a problem, is likely to throw a tantrum and fix the problem by shouting at people and really cause chaos!

Your sponsor is not going to change so, if you are working with an ineffective sponsor what can you do to whip them into shape?

1. Understand your sponsor

As soon as a sponsor is assigned to your project, analyse them as you would analyse any key stakeholder: What are their characteristics? What do they like and dislike? What are their personal and business motivations? How do they like to operate?

These answers will enable you to adapt how you deal with your sponsor and get the best out of them as well as what you want from them. It will enable you to develop a relationship that they feel is valuable in supporting their personal motivations and it will give you a platform to covertly ‘coach’ them to do what you need them to do to be an effective sponsor. Think about what they want and don't want rather than what you want to give them. Watch our video below for further information on this:



2. Get your sponsor championing your programme

Depending on how naturally your sponsor communicates, how strong their relationships are with their peers and how good they are on the ‘soap box,’ you need to get them championing the programme effectively.

  • Identify the sponsor’s peers that you are going to need ‘on side’, engaged and supportive
  • Demand time with your sponsor to analyse the key stakeholders and how to deal with them individually
  • Form a plan for how you are going to manage these key stakeholders
  • Make sure you give your sponsor really good material to work with when communicating with their peers – they want to look good in front of their peers! Visual and dynamic materials are good – here is an example:



  • Use your ‘partnership’ relationship with the sponsor to get them to commit to programme communication milestones/events like team meetings, board meetings, roadshows etc...

3. Develop a leadership partnership

This is a key test for the programme. If you can develop a genuine leadership partnership with the sponsor, the programme’s chances of success go up significantly. However, if you can’t the chances of failure are very high and you need to tackle it as the blame will come down on your head before the sponsor’s.

  • Demand time with them – at least 20 minutes a week of one to one over a coffee
  • Develop a relationship early on and invest time aligning with your sponsor’s style and individual motivations. If they feel you are going to help them achieve their personal and business goals then you will get a lot out of them.

4. Demand and facilitate good decisions

You need a sponsor who is prepared to take decisions themselves and will facilitate decisions across their peer group and the governance structure.

  • Be clear and assertive about key decisions that need to be taken for the programme
  • Be selective about the decisions that you escalate to the sponsor to take or facilitate. However, delegating all decisions will frustrate them
  • Make sure the sponsor has good quality reports and information which is easily accessible. They tend to like concise and visual tools with access to the detail where necessary.

5. Protect your sponsor

Sponsors tend to be senior, sensitive and political, so make sure you protect them all the way. The partnership will break down very quickly if they see you as a liability so you need to invest time and, if you protect them, they will really appreciate it and do anything to protect you in return.

Ensure they are prepared and don't receive any surprises with documents, meetings and key decisions, and always share bad news early and honestly. Consider solutions to problems and give them options – not just one - and be self-deprecating and proactively take it 'on the chin' sometimes, even if's not your fault. It's amazing how empowering it can be to proactively say "apologies, I got this one wrong.

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