Building executive support--keys to project success


The success or failure of any project often hinges on how well the project sponsor—the person who funds the project and ensures that desired benefits are achieved—relates to the project, the project manager, and other stakeholders. However, executives who are assigned as project sponsors often have little if any experience understanding their roles and responsibilities during the project lifecycle. Problems in communication and execution are inevitable as long as senior managers and project managers do not understand the mechanics of their relationship.

This session addresses how project sponsors and project managers can develop the skills they need to manage successful projects. We describe in detail the responsibilities of the project sponsor, from communications and liaison, selection and training, problem solving, mentoring and feedback, to the review of project execution. The project's sponsor and manager learn how to negotiate effectively with each other and the project team to achieve their commitments.

What is the Project Sponsor responsibility?

Many professionals in organizations do not have a clear idea of what sponsorship entails. Our definition of sponsorship is a commitment by management to define, defend, and support major activities from the start to the end of the project. We consider sponsorship is an active role during the project life cycle. Obviously, the types of activities to be done by the project sponsor may be different. But there are some things all sponsors have in common, including obligation, devotion, and achievement—in other words, commitment.

The project sponsor has a relationship with all project stakeholders but even more frequently with the project manager. The project sponsor performs different roles during the project life cycle: seller, coach and mentor, filter, business judge, motivator, negotiator, protector, and upper manager link.

Seller: The project sponsor is able to sell the project to project stakeholders. The sponsor believes in the project, speaks positively about it, and can passionately sell the benefits.

Coach and mentor: A good project sponsor increases the level of confidence felt by the project manager. The project sponsor needs to have the ability to instil a sense of confidence in the project manager and protect the project manager from losing that confidence. The project sponsor may help the project manager understand the project business context. In this role, the project sponsor also improves the problem solving skills and judgement exercised by the project manager. The project sponsor promotes knowledge creation and reuse of project intellectual capital.

Filter: The project sponsor is able to stimulate project leaders by allowing them to focus on the work at hand. The project sponsor challenges the project manager to consider more possible options and reactions but not be distracted, obliging them both to think before taking action. To be objective in assessing project relevance is an obligation for the sponsor.

Business judge: The project sponsor uses sound business judgment to coach the project manager when making decisions. The project sponsor is recognized as a focal point for decisions beyond the project manager's scope of authority.

Motivator: The project sponsor helps the project manager stay positive and solve problems with the project team. The project sponsor asks for and listens to bad news. The sponsor needs to share status and feelings with the project team about changes happening in the organization.

Negotiator: The project sponsor is swift and decisive in resolving conflicts. The sponsor helps overcome obstacles that are not within the project manager's control.

Protector: The project sponsor works proactively with the project manager to manage risk. The sponsor is actively involved throughout the duration of the project. The sponsor keeps executives, managers, and others professionals from interfering with the team and protects the team from unnecessary bureaucracy.

Upper management link: The project sponsor actively develops and manages relationships with peers in client organizations, rapidly builds trust with project managers and clients, and acts as a liaison with senior management.

In some organizations, the project manager is selected by the project sponsor; in other companies, that selection is the result of an organizational process related to organization portfolio management. Taking into account the project characteristic and the available project managers from the organization, one professional is selected. A key obligation of the project sponsor is to create the right environment for project success. The project sponsor needs to spend time explaining the importance of the project and how every team member will be part of project and organizational success.

How to obtain a Project Sponsor?

Complex projects need sponsors who are more leaders than managers. Leaders establish directions for the future, communicate through vision, and forge aligned high-performance teams. We found different answers to the question: why choose to sponsor a project? Project professionals' reasons can be classified in four distinct categories: business, political, personal and stakeholder reasons. Achieving excellence in sponsorship means that upper managers get to maintain a hands-off approach but are available when problems come up. The right sponsor is able to empower the project manager and the team and give them the benefit of the doubt. People learn from mistakes. The criteria for selecting a project sponsor depend on the project culture of the organization. We recommend looking for the following qualities in potential sponsors:

  1. They feel the need for change
  2. They believe that the effort to change the situation is more attractive than business as usual
  3. They have vision
  4. They are constant in their actions, activities and reactions
  5. They are willing to invest time and energy
  6. They place a high priority on the value of project-based work and the outcomes produced
  7. They have a perspective on the future
  8. They believe that things can be improved when effort is put into learning from experience
  9. They are capable of making a realistic appraisal of resources
  10. They have empathy
  11. They are able to anticipate customer needs
  12. They have power within the organization
  13. They understand the business and how things get done in the organization
  14. They are publicly and privately supportive
  15. They can manage consequences because they know the project environment and the organization very well
  16. They follow the progress of the project

A key criterion is that the person is interested in and wants to be a sponsor. We strongly recommend asking the candidate if he or she wants to be the sponsor for a particular project. Like most other practices, project sponsorship needs to be “sold.” Individuals fulfilling the sponsor role need to be sold on the features, advantages and benefits that result from excellence in sponsorship. Then they need training in the roles and responsibilities of a sponsor.

The sponsor adds value to the organization because the sponsor, as an executive, knows the organization, knows the business environment, and is in the best position to help the project manager manage the project successfully. The sponsor adds value to the project manager and project team by supporting them and defending them in front of the customer and the organization. The sponsor adds value to customers by listening to them, making decisions, and helping all stakeholders consider what is best for project success. Selling the need for project management to executives is one of the most important steps in the implementation of organizational project management practices. Talking to project managers around the globe confirms that to gain a “go” decision from executives requires a successful three-step selling model that we call APF (for assess, plan, and follow). Organizations are more effective when they recognize excellence in project sponsorship as a core competence. Our model for selling sponsorship breaks down into the following steps:

  • Assess. Understand the need for a sponsor for your project
  • Plan. Involve your assigned sponsor from the very beginning
  • Follow. Talk to your sponsor frequently

Rewards for project sponsorship

What will the sponsor get in return? This question is crucial and needs to be answered, both by teams requesting a sponsor and by individuals contemplating accepting the role. An answer usually depends on each project. The benefits of being a project sponsor can be sold to sponsors. Certain benefits have been repeatedly demonstrated:

  • An improved standing and profile within the organization.
  • Being linked with an exciting and very successful project.
  • Marketing potential for the project sponsor (image selling)
  • Greater popularity
  • Easier agenda implementation

Selling sponsorship is a sales process. To build your sales presentation, follow these steps:

  1. Align. Know your executives extremely well.
  2. Build. Define what sponsorship means in your organization.
  3. Demonstrate. Emphasize the value of sponsorship and the advantages that accrue to business when it is done well.
  4. Close. Get executive commitment.


When an upper manager is assigned to sponsor a project, the manager expects something in return. To be a good sponsor is not enough for project success; there are too many unpredictable elements in the project environment that can cause project failure. Project sponsors take a risk when they accept the role, but it is also a challenge for them to be recognized as the “strategic driver for project success.” Sponsor assignment negotiation needs to be presented as a win-win situation. Sometimes sponsors are assigned regardless of their capabilities to do the job. Take these four basic principles for negotiation into account:

  1. Separate people from the problem, the relationship from the matter of negotiation
  2. Focus on interests, not positions
  3. Invent options for mutual gain
  4. Insist on objective criteria


The formal way to authorize a project is through the project charter. It documents updated project information for use by all project stakeholders, identifies the sponsor and project manager roles, and gets the project acknowledged by the organization. Skilled project sponsors are able to prepare a draft of a project charter and work together with the project manager to complete the document. Preparing a project charter takes time and effort, both well spent. Its power lies in defining what you know and what you do not know about the project.

Criteria list

Not every executive makes a good sponsor. A project sponsor needs specific characteristics, skills, and attitudes that may not be common among executives in certain organizations: They are decision makers, passionate, know the business, know the customer or industry, have a vision of the future, have worked at mainstream activities in the organization, are influential, are visible, work well with people, complement the project manager or others on the team, are knowledgeable in areas where the project team is not; ask for volunteers.

The sponsor role may have different meanings, depending on the project management culture of the organization. Obtaining a project sponsor takes time, and the organization needs to set out criteria to help in the selection process. Depending on the project management maturity level of the organization, this process will be effective or not.

How to sustain Sponsorship?

A major problem with project sponsors is to keep them involved and committed to the project during the complete project life cycle. We often find that the sponsor of a delivery organization is very committed from the beginning of the project until the sale is done, at which point the sponsor disappears.

Challenges to address

The activities to perform, as a project sponsor, vary during a project life cycle. The level of involvement is also different. Project sponsors are of more help to project managers and their teams when the sponsors provide support but do not interfere. During the initiation and planning phases, the sponsor plays an active role in helping establish project objectives. The sponsor guides the project manager to make decisions during the organization and staffing phases. The project sponsor is probably more familiar with organizational politics and can help navigate around the political factors that influence project execution.

Proactive sponsorship

The ideal situation is getting a project sponsor who is committed, accountable, and serious about the project, knowledgeable, trained, and able not only to talk the talk but also to walk the walk. Such people are trustworthy in all respects. Their values are transparent and aligned with the organization and its strategy. Such sponsors protect the team from disruptive outside influences and back the team up when times are tough. It is far better to start out with the right sponsor than having to correct a bad sponsorship situation down the road. That is why it is so important to select the right sponsor and train the person for the role.

Project reviews

To create a good relationship between the project manager and the project sponsor takes time and needs fine tuning. One method we have found useful and strongly recommend is to run monthly project reviews led by the project sponsor. Those meetings add value to the project manager, to the project sponsor, and to the organization. They force the project manager to review his or her project status and pending tasks.

At the same time, they force the project sponsor to know more about the project, the customer, and other project stakeholders. In the solution business, for example, that practice helps the project sponsor know the customer much better and therefore generate more business.

Moving forward through sponsorship

Many times the underlying reason for failed projects is poor sponsorship. The most important thing sponsors can do is recognize their role and exercise the traits of good sponsorship. The main trait that clearly distinguishes sponsors is their power and authority to legitimize the change. Unlike other leaders, sponsors hold the purse strings and possess legitimacy and authority to do whatever is necessary to enable the achievement of transformation objectives. Leaders become better prepared as sponsors of major projects by taking inventory of their talents and skills and putting appropriate action plans in place. Success starts with a strong commitment to improve.

Client Sponsor Relationship

Providers need to be seen as leaders in front of customers. You have to know the value systems of the executives in the client organization if you want to impress them. A wise approach is always to “seek first to understand.” Find out what their goals are. Find out their communication style. Find out what issues or problems they are dealing with, and help them find solutions. Help client sponsors get what they want and help them look good to their bosses, and reap the benefits of repeat business.

Creating and maintaining the relationship

The role played by project sponsors in customer relations depends on the type of client and organization. Usually, clients want to be informed regularly about project status. They want an open path of communication between sponsors. Speaking the truth from project initiation on is one key for project success. The provider sponsor and the client sponsor need to be open and transparent, creating the right environment for project success. Creating and maintaining that relationship requires special skills in information gathering, talking and follow-up.

Information gathering focuses on the customer. Talking focuses on the relationship. Follow up focuses on management decisions that need to be made concerning organizational and management mechanisms that enable continued information gathering and talking.

Gaining credibility

In our opinion, credibility requires being able to establish a trust relationship in which the outcome is always win-win. Client sponsor credibility is like a building—it must be built brick by brick, and the mortar needs time to dry before building higher. Credibility is something that is earned over time. It does not come automatically with the job or the title.

A manager's credibility has a significant positive outcome on individual and organizational performance. Real leaders strengthen the people around them and make others feel more important. In any case the most important thing is the project, not the project sponsor or the project manager. Credibility can be defined as the behavioral evidence the participants would use to judge whether or not the project leader was believable. People commonly report that such leaders “do what they say they will do,” “practice what they preach,” or “walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Sharpness, harmony, and passion provide a useful framework for looking at the process of strengthening credibility. When asking project leaders across Europe to provide specific examples of what their most admired leaders do to gain respect, trust, and a willingness to be influenced, the most frequently mentioned behaviors are that the leader supported me, challenged me, listened to me, celebrated good work, trusted me, empowered others, shared the project vision, admitted mistakes, advised others, taught well, and was patient. Extra effort is required to build and maintain successful relationships. Expectations are high in these business transactions. Know that clients want active and sustaining participation from the provider sponsor throughout the project life cycle.

Planning and Executing Steering Committees

The steering committee is an organism whose mission is to help complete each project successfully. The relationship between a project and a steering committee is similar to the relationship between the board of directors and a company. The purpose of the steering committee is to direct the project, not to manage it. As a former CEO at Hewlett-Packard replied in response to how a project management council could be more effective, “Make decisions.”


All executives in a company who represent business areas that are directly or indirectly involved in the project should belong to the project steering committee. For example, an organizational change project will have input from sales, marketing, human resources, operations, technology, and other project stakeholders. Therefore, senior management people from each of these areas need to be represented on the project steering committee.


Organizing a project steering committee is essential for project success. Steering committees play a key role linking projects to the rest of the pyramid through their function as a portfolio planning team. There are some rules to consider:

  • Direction. A project steering committee mandates and provides ongoing direction to the project manager
  • Empowerment. The project steering committee empowers the project manager to undertake the project
  • Control. Every project needs to be under control
  • Decision making. Certain decisions during the project life cycle cannot be made within the project team

Acting as a team

The project steering committee includes representatives of corporate clients, the project sponsor or sponsors, the business owner or owners, and sometimes the project manager. Upper managers through their roles on a steering committee can model desired behaviors with regard to teamwork by demonstrating how teams collaborate to set strategy, prioritize, and decide issues.

Acting on findings

By attending steering committees meetings, the project manager learns a lot from the attendees, their reactions, and their behaviors. At the beginning of one project I (Bucero) handled, steering committee members were very quiet, listening to me and appearing supportive. As the project progressed, however, I observed that they had a difficult time coming to decisions. I wrote meeting minutes which action plans after each meeting, yet at the next meeting, the same actions were still pending. Much discussion occurred during those meetings. Every attendee defended his or her particular interests, leading to even more discussion. I first prepared a project report that I distributed at the beginning of each meeting but soon discovered that my report was too long and detailed. As the purpose of the steering committee was to make right decisions as soon as possible, I condensed the project status report to three slides only. The meetings were much more effective, and people felt more comfortable.

Demonstrating desired behaviors

Member's behavior on steering committees depends on the type of project and organization. The main objective for steering committee members is to work together on a team for project success. What do you look for? Every steering committee member needs to think and act in accordance with what would be best for project and organizational success, regardless of personal and professional interests. That is easy to say but difficult to implement. Collaborative behaviors make for a productive and effective steering committee. The project manager needs support from the steering committee.

Sponsorship and Culture Evaluation

Culture may be described as the way we do things in organizations, including “war stories,” symbols, rituals, shared values, power, structure, traditions and norms, and styles. Being conscious of the culture in an organization is a step toward making necessary changes.

Corporate cultures

A first step is to understand the cultural environment. Corporate culture may be classified by type: an organization can have a power, bureaucratic, task-oriented, or person-oriented culture.

Critical roles

Everyone has roles to perform in a change management process. Clients request projects, and projects generate changes in organizations. There are four critical roles in organizations that run projects: advocates want change but do not have the organizational power to sponsor it themselves, sponsors have the authority to commit resources, agents carry out the change, and targets receive or adjust to the change.

Financial responsibilities

More than any other player, the sponsor, depending on the organization, has specific responsibilities for project funding. Strengths and weaknesses here correlate directly with project success and failure. Financial responsibilities characterize client sponsors. The financial reasons for the project and the return on investment that the customer organization expects to achieve are perspectives that receive much attention.

Sponsor risk assessment

Before implementing a project, it is crucial to measure the readiness for project implementation. We suggest to run a risk assessment survey to raise the awareness of the organization's current positioning for the change caused by the project. This tool provides a high level analysis of possible risk areas for the planned project. It allows you to know more about the situation and the attitudes of the people involved. Risk is assessed on the basis of eight critical factors for any change: motivation, commitment, shared vision, culture, alignment, communication, planning, and skills. Our suggestion is using this tool with all project stakeholders, possibly with different layers in the organization and with various groups. In that way, you gather contrasted opinions to check the issues found.

Sponsor evaluation tool

The sponsor evaluation tool is designed to assess sponsor commitment for a specific project. Low levels of sponsor commitment increase the risk of implementation failure. Our recommendation is to use this sponsor evaluation during initial project planning, before the project has been announced, anytime after the announcement has been made, and after project implementation is complete.

Sponsorship Execution Feedback

Vision understood and implemented

To be assigned as a project sponsor and execute that role during the project life cycle is not a one-shot deal. A key success factor in good sponsorship is communication. Feedback is part of the communication process. Communicating results is almost as important as achieving results.

By giving feedback to the project sponsor, stakeholders provide opportunities for the sponsor to change or improve actions, reactions and behaviors. Sponsors are professionals who can benefit from listening to their teams and project stakeholders. Getting feedback as a sponsor may require active solicitation of others to share their experiences. It is important to receive the truths shared and make decisions based on inputs received.

It is difficult to give feedback to power. Speaking the truth to power, especially bad news, is difficult most of the time but not impossible. Feedback is essential to ensure open and direct communication.

Feedback to the customer sponsor

We strongly recommend giving feedback to the customer sponsor in a structured way. We use a radar chart showing the following elements to be scored: Client project management, Quality and skill set of client team, Availability of needed resources, Clear decision making-process and responsibilities, Collaboration with provider, Working conditions for provider team, Client sponsorship for project, Climate of innovation.

Sponsorship Development

Some managers have not lived on the customer site and never managed a customer project. They may not understand how a project manager feels and the importance of project planning. Upper managers appear to believe that project managers are like magicians, solving every issue, no matter what type, with a magic wand. They often do not put effort into developing and maintaining strong relationships with customer upper-level counterparts, helping them make good business decisions, and supporting project manager work and efforts. Executives need to know what project management means and that well-managed projects have a big business impact. Organize session for executives; help them to get the training they need. Start with short sessions (two or three hours long), and create project management awareness. Speak the language that management understands. Assess the environment, and be conscious of other patterns and values in the organization. Define a glossary of PM terms for managers. This takes time but is very productive. Successful organizations are able to speak a common language, but some parts of the organization may need to use a dictionary at times.

Show and explain to executives that the sponsor role starts at the beginning and goes to the end of every project. The sponsor may be the “bodyguard” for the project manager. Promote dialogue and communication between project managers and executives. Executives will be able to learn more about daily project activities to keep them in alignment with strategic goals and be able to do more to benefit each project, as well as benefit the organization.

Sponsorship Mentoring

Mentoring means two people collaborating for career development, defining career goals and professional development goals. It is an interactive journey and also a mutually accountable relationship. When talking about mentoring executives, we mean people who are usually very busy, so we need to sell them on the benefits regarding that activity. We can find benefits for mentees and also for mentors.

Some benefits for mentees are faster career growth, faster growth in business, better organizational and project success, and recognition and feeling of achievement. Some benefits for mentors are a way to “give back,” a chance to sharpen one's leadership skills.

Knowledge Management

Many managers and project managers lose the opportunity to learn from their projects because they do not take the time to analyze past results during the project life cycle. Leading with power is an ultimate goal that is enabled by knowledge. But, in order to develop a learning organization, what is the sponsor's role? The process starts with doing project reviews and taking action on the findings. It also requires developing the means to be effective in a political environment.


The objective of this paper is to explain the elements to take into account in order to “Build Executive Support.” A sponsor initiates, funds, and supports the project from its inception through its completion and on throughout the project outcome lifecycle. Proactive sponsorship is the ideal. Managers acting as project sponsors need to spend time with every project team member, dealing with misunderstandings and varying perceptions. A lot of sustaining energy is needed.

Success starts with a strong commitment to improve. Leaders become better prepared as sponsors of major projects by taking inventory of their talents, skills, and behaviors and putting appropriate action plans in place. Project managers take the initiative to develop skills and proactively manage their sponsors.


Bucero, A.(2005, May) Getting Senior Executives to buy into project methods, a case study. PMI EMEA Proceedings. Edinburgh,.

Bucero, A.(2005, September) Your best asset. PM Network19(9) 22.

Englund, R. & Bucero, A. (2006) Project Sponsorship: Achieving Management Commitment for project success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Graham, R. J. & Englund, R. L. (2004) Creating an Environment for Successful Projects: Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

© 2007, Alfonso Bucero & Randall L. Englund
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Budapest, Hungary



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