Project Management Institute

From commander to sponsor

managing upwards in a project environment

Ken Farnes, MBA, PMP, Senior Associate, Stakeholder Management Pty Ltd, Australia.

Introduction

Senior managers in any organization have usually attained their positions by displaying an aptitude for surviving in the corporate jungle. This aptitude includes the ability to recognize potential enemies, use pre-emptive strikes to neutralize competition, and manage tasks and staff through the precepts of command and control. However, when these senior managers are appointed to the senior leadership team, their skills and behaviors need to be focused more on motivation, support, and leadership than on command and control. Many senior managers find changing the habits of a working lifetime difficult to achieve.

Studies have consistently shown that the active support of stakeholders from the senior leadership team, particularly the sponsor, is a critical factor in creating successful project outcomes. Successful project managers not only understand this but are also willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure that their senior stakeholders understand and fulfill this support role. This requires the project manager to be skillful at building and maintaining robust relationships, focused on engaging the support of senior executives through understanding and managing their expectations via targeted communication. Effective communication helps change perceptions and adjust expectations (to make them more realistic and achievable), as well as helps to acquire the support necessary for project success.

Two case studies based on the joint experiences of the authors will be used to describe typical situations that a project manager may encounter in “managing upwards.” These case studies will define the framework of the “command and control’ school of traditional management practice, providing the foundation for discussion of the techniques that will assist in moving the thinking of management toward the “‘sponsor’ school. The techniques include establishing a reputation for trustworthiness and effective delivery of results, managing the expectations, and therefore the support, of key senior stakeholders, using influence networks, targeted communication, as well as just plain persistence. A “lessons learned” will complete this paper, describing the actions and the results of the case study situations and testing the theory. After testing the theory, one may then go on to make any needed modifications to these reflections, based on practitioner experience.

This paper focuses on the critical project management survival skill of engaging senior managers, and of “helping them help you.” It will be organized as follows: first, a brief overview of stakeholder management theory will be given before, followed by a focused discussion of senior management stakeholders. The second section explores aspects of managing upwards---the culture of organizational leadership and the demands of decision making in today's competitive environment. This section is followed by the case studies and, through them, an exploration of ways to secure and maintain the engagement and support of senior stakeholders. The final section will test the theories and make suggestions about ways that project managers can adapt their sponsor management practices to ensure a greater chance of project success.

Stakeholders: Who and Why

Stakeholder management methodologies provide guidance in understanding and managing the expectations of stakeholders. One methodology, the Stakeholder Circle®, provides a five-step process to identify, prioritize, visualize, engage, and communicate with the “stakeholders that matter” and, finally, monitor the effectiveness of that communication. Stakeholders are defined as “individuals or groups who are impacted by, or can impact, the work or its outcomes” (Walker, Bourne, & Rowlinson, 2008, pp.70-100). This definition describes a wide group of potential stakeholders and implies that the large numbers of groups and individuals selected in any identification exercise will have to be further analysed.

The underlying principle of the Stakeholder Circle® methodology is that the community of project stakeholders will change as the project moves through its life cycle and as the structure of the performing organization changes. The Stakeholder Circle® methodology is examined in detail elsewhere (Bourne, 2007); for the purposes of this paper, it is sufficient to describe the five steps that guide the team through all essential activities for identifying the “right” stakeholder for any time in the projects, and that develop the most appropriate communication strategies for engaging these key stakeholders. The five steps are:

  • Step 1: Identify all stakeholders and document their expectations
  • Step 2: Prioritize
  • Step 3: Visualize the key stakeholders, showing each stakeholder's relative importance, power, and influence
  • Step 4: Engage through understanding each stakeholder's attitude to the project and develop targeted communication
  • Step 5: Monitor the effectiveness of this communication

Stakeholders’ Influence

The methodology categorizes stakeholders according to their “direction of influence”: how they may influence the project or be influenced by the work of the project or its outcomes. These directions are: upwards (senior managers), downwards (the team), sideways (peers of the project manager) and outwards (outside the project); managing the expectations and gaining the support of each type of stakeholder depend on understanding how best to manage the relationships described by these categories.

Managing upwards is about developing and maintaining robust relationships with those senior managers whose support is vital to maintaining organizational commitment to the project. Managing downwards is about managing the team. Sideways refers to interaction with the project manager's peers and defines communication approaches to ensure collaboration rather than competition. Managing outwards involves considering the needs and impacts of a large group of stakeholders external to the project and often external to the performing organization. This group will include a diverse group of people ranging from governments to voters, and clients or customers to suppliers. Each of these outwards stakeholder groups will have different requirements of the project. They are grouped in one “direction of influence,”, but it is important to clarify their requirements of the project and their impacts on the project as separate entities. Although all stakeholders are important, the focus of this paper is on those upwards stakeholders who represent the organization's leadership team and its commitment to the project outcomes.

Managing (or Advising) Upwards

Upwards stakeholders may consider that project success equals “on time, on budget, and delivering the specified scope” and that the project manager must deliver to meet these criteria. However, the reality of successful project management is that senior stakeholders, particularly the sponsor, must play a far more active and overtly supportive role to ensure project success. It is part of the project manager's role not only to recognize this principle, but also to do whatever is necessary to ensure that senior stakeholders understand and fulfill the requirements of the sponsor role. This requires creativity in relationship management: there is no template or checklist to follow---only observation of other more skilled and experienced managers and guidelines (such as those given later in this paper).

Focus on Upwards

To understand more about what it means to be a senior manager in a large organization, it is important to explore the nature and culture of organizational leadership: what it takes to reach a senior management position, and the demands of decision making in today's competitive environment. This section examines the theories of leadership and then discusses the reality of the culture of today's leaders and senior managers. An exploration of the extension of traditional leadership theory in the guise of a description of “what it takes to be an effective sponsor” will build on this analysis.

There is extensive literature on leadership and what makes a good leader, but newly appointed senior managers struggle to make the transition to the ranks of the senior leadership team. The Watkins (2003) study of Fortune 500 organizations identified four broad categories of challenges for new senior managers:

  • Letting go of “hands on” detail, and thinking/acting more strategically
  • Developing new and unfamiliar skills and behaviors in an environment with new rules
  • Managing upwards (yes they have to do it too!)
  • Balancing early wins with realistic goals (getting “runs on the board”)

The transition strategies that these new senior managers reported as being successful included:

  • Managing upwards through clarifying expectations of key stakeholders on objectives, goals and leadership styles
  • Building alliances and support structures through establishing personal credibility with stakeholders and understanding the culture (of the organization, but also of the leadership team---peers)
  • Focus on personal reinvention---substituting skills, values, and behaviors not appropriate to the new role with those that are appropriate

The challenges and transition strategies that these new senior managers recognized that they need to address are exactly the same as the challenges and strategies that project managers need to use to manage the relationships with these same senior stakeholders.

The Nature of Leadership

Leadership can be defined simply as a relationship with two major components: leaders must have followers; and these followers must be inspired or motivated to achieve a joint vision. Leaders must exhibit flexibility and have credibility (Bennis & Nanus, 1985). “Leadership” is traditionally described as the antithesis of control and power-oriented mindsets: it is more an understanding of the need for shared accountability between leader and followers (Ready & Conger, 2003).

Being a leader

Personal styles and characteristics defined by traditional leadership theory as necessary for successful leadership include creativity, analysis, judgment, resilience, and persuasiveness (Kinder & Robertson, 1994); and emotional maturity---that is, “emotional intelligence” (Goleman, 2000). Exhibit 1 attempts to distil and summarize the essence of leadership defined in this way. It becomes clear that what is needed is a set of skills that can be defined in the balance of right brain/left brain characteristics, or as a balance of the analytical and the creative.

Personal Characteristics of a good leader (Block, 1983; Kinder & Robertson, 1994; Webster, 1994; Goleman, 2000; Yukl, 2002)

Exhibit 1 Personal Characteristics of a good leader (Block, 1983; Kinder & Robertson, 1994; Webster, 1994; Goleman, 2000; Yukl, 2002)

The Culture of Organizational Leadership

It is important to recognise some of the actual influences that lead to the current culture of organizational leadership. Bolman and Deal (1991) describe the traditional organization hierarchical structure as vertical coordination---in which higher levels in the hierarchy use “authority, rules and policies, and planning and control systems” to control the work of the lower levels. Talbot (2003) proposed that the development and creation of industrial and postindustrial organizational forms derived from military models that could be traced back to military organizational innovations of Napoleon in the early 19th century. Infrastructure projects such as the Western Railroad of the United States were the catalyst for the hierarchical and bureaucratic line and staff management structure. Adopted by other railroads, it became the dominant management structure---the traditional functional structure. The language and culture of management as we practice it today has direct links to this military connection (Talbot, 2003). The military culture is echoed in the metaphors “the chain of command,” business as “war,” with the reference manual being Sun Tzu's, The Art of War, which includes such terminology as “indefensible claims,” “targets,” and “arguments shot down in flames”(Lakoff & Johnson, 1981, p. 4).

The Paradox of Leadership

Collins (2001) describes a different way of thinking about leadership. He conducted research to attempt to identify the type of leadership that takes a company from “good to great,” and uncovered a hierarchy of leadership qualities and characteristics culminating in level 5 leadership---a blend of “humility” and “will” that moves a company to sustainable greatness. According to Collins (2001, p. 68), “Our discovery of Level 5 leadership is counterintuitive. Indeed it is countercultural. People generally assume that transforming companies from good to great requires larger-than-life leaders---big personalities like Iacocca, Dunlap, Welch, and Gault, who make headlines and become celebrities.” Traditional management theories of leadership had previously focused on (or developed) the concept of the “CEO as hero,” matching the description of level 4 leadership. The leadership hierarchy described by Collins (2001, p. 70) is:

  • Level 1---Highly compatible individual: contributes through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits
  • Level 2---Contributing team member: contributes to the achievement of group objectives; works effectively with others in a group setting
  • Level 3---Competent manager: organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives
  • Level 4---Effective leader: catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling visions; stimulates the group to high performance standards
  • Level 5---Executive: builds sustainable greatness through a combination of personal humility plus professional will

The Importance of an Effective Sponsor

The role of the sponsor in project management is seen to be vital to project success (Roberts, 1999; Bourne, 2006) even though the roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined or agreed upon (Crawford & Brent, 2008). Sponsor is defined in A guide to the project management body of knowledge (the PMBOK® Guide)--- Third edition (Project Management Institute, 2004, p. 376) as “the person or group that provides the financial resources, in cash or kind, for the project.” Researchers (Thomas, Delisle, & Jugdev, 2002, p.142) have defined the project sponsor as “the senior executive responsible for a portfolio, program, or project, in terms of executive decisions and approvals.” The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) (2008) defines the sponsor role as “the interface between project ownership and delivery”. Characteristics of this role are:

  • Adequate knowledge and information about the business and the project to be able to make informed decisions
  • Ability to network effectively, negotiate well, influence people, and build and maintain robust relationships with stakeholders within and outside the project

The current view in the project management profession is that the project manager must have the support of the organization's executive management for success (Crawford & Brett, 2008). Respondents to the survey reported on in Crawford and Brett (2008) identified the wide-ranging boundaries of the role, covering the following: budget allocation, supporting the project politically at all levels of the organization; assistance with major problems; approval of the project plan, project charter, project baselines, and any major changes; assistance in resourcing the project; issue and risk management.

The roles and responsibilities of the sponsor as outlined above may become onerous or time-consuming if the individual does not understand project management practices, does not clearly understand the role, or is not interested in doing so; the command and control management style will not easily adapt to this role. It is the responsibility of the project manager to help the sponsor help the project.

The Case Studies

The case studies represent the experiences of the authors in managing the expectations of key senior stakeholders in large organizations and in the gaining and maintaining of key senior stakeholders’ support. The case studies provide a foundation for exploration of the tasks needed to turn a “commander” into a “sponsor.” The description of the organization itself is a hybrid of the many traditional government organizations that the authors have worked with, as are the two case studies.

The Organization

The organization is a large, very conservative regional government department, with a traditional command and control management culture, characterized by large numbers of staff with many years of employment in the same organization and working on clearly defined operational activities. Culturally, the organization can be split into two well-defined but separate entities that are two separate corporate cultures. The first group (blue) has a strong self identity that is clearly aligned to the departmental strategy and charter. They work under a highly structured hierarchal command and control model with highly regulated operational procedures and are constantly engaged with the community at large. Their strong identity leads them to believe that they have the skills to succeed in any area within the department.

The second group (red) does not have the same strong sense of identity. This group exerts control through bureaucracy, being focused on processes rather than on outcomes. They provide support to the first group through services such as human resource management, finance, and procurement, and have little direct contact with the community at large. They may recognize areas of weakness in their skills and competencies and may accept external assistance to improve these areas.

Case Study 1: (Project Hopeful)

The department's strategic plan was aimed at fulfilling a major government initiative. Project Hopeful was initiated to contribute to the achievement of this initiative and became the department's largest information systems and organizational change endeavor in over 20 years. “Hopeful” had a nonflexible delivery date imposed by external factors.

During the planning phase, the original project manager recognized that “Hopeful” was far more complex than he or anyone else had realized, and communicated this to the project steering committee. He was replaced by a more experienced project manager from outside the organization, who immediately reviewed the project and reported that it would be impossible to deliver the entire scope of the project by the required delivery date. The reaction from the “blue” members of the steering committee was hostile: the sponsor was a senior “blue” person who had little experience of project management disciplines and shared the opinion that the project manager should “just get on with the job.”

The project manager began a campaign to engage several influential steering committee members, drawing on his experience in other organizations and using his professional reputation as leverage. Assured of their support, he was able to convince the sponsor of the soundness of the findings of his review and to accept his recommendations. Thus engaged, the sponsor supported the recommendations for realistically delivering a reduced set of the functions of the original project to meet the aggressive (and fixed) deadlines. A small number of the (blue) steering committee members regarded any compromise as failure and resigned, believing this perception of failure would taint their status within the organization.

New steering committee members were appointed from business areas directly impacted by the project, and accepted the role defined by the project manager as executive support essential for the successful outcome of the work. From that time on, with the support of the revitalized steering committee, the project team was able to deliver the essential components of the project within the required timeframe.

Case Study 2 (Project Renew)

The department was implementing a large business re-engineering project in a technical environment to be supported by a specialized information system. Within the department, projects had traditionally been managed by the sponsoring business area, but recently a management decision had been made to have all ICT-related projects controlled by the ICT department.

Project Renew was approved and funded, a project manager was appointed from outside the department, and a project steering committee convened. The sponsor of project Renew, who was also the chair of the steering committee, had some project experience but was primarily focused on business outcomes: he had to manage his “upwards” stakeholders. The first issue that the steering committee members and the project manager had to address was a demand from the leader of the business subject matter expert (SME) team, Robbie, for this project to be handed back to the business. Robbie had developed the original business case and had been expecting to be offered the project management role (a promotion). Based on this history of connection to “Renew,” he insisted that he was the only person who could manage this project and that ICT personnel on the project should report to him.

To resolve this issue and the emerging conflict within the project, the project manager met with Robbie to understand his perspective and expectations. The outcome of this meeting was a recommendation that Robbie be assigned the role of business project manager and be responsible for the organizational change components of the project, but still under the leadership of the project manager. Robbie agreed to this suggestion, and it was approved by the steering committee.

The sponsor recognized that Robbie was crucial to the success of the project because of his technical knowledge and commitment to the project, and was initially prepared to accommodate his demands. However, the additional responsibility and recognition did not completely resolve Robbie's issues. His strong sense of “ownership” of the project meant that his behavior damaged the cohesion of the project team and undermined the authority of the project manager. The project manager met with the sponsor to seek his support and advice in dealing with this major risk to the success of the project, and to propose some remedial actions. These remedial actions were agreed to by the sponsor and then the steering committee at a meeting convened soon after. The committee members had been reluctant to do so, because Robbie was known and respected within the department; the project manager was able to influence these individuals because he had been working to develop credibility and trustworthiness from the time that he was assigned to the project.

Before the remedial action began, Robbie, sure of his power, made a number of outrageous statements at a steering committee meeting, thus vindicating the project manager's position regarding what he considered Robbie's disruptive behavior. Robbie's behavior was modified through counselling but relationships within the team were severely damaged, causing the project manager constant team management issues that detracted from his focus on leading the team and the steering committee to successful project outcomes.

Case Study Findings

The case studies and the extensive experience of the authors support the theoretical concept that the “project manager should do what it takes” to build the personal relationships and the trust that enables effective communication. The trust created by an effective relationship is critical to:

  • Compensating for deficiencies in project governance due to lack of experience, misguided perceptions, and the reception of bad news, by allowing “upwards mentoring.” The project manager needs to be seen as a recognized expert in managing projects.
  • Influencing the structure, strategy, and action of project governance. In the two case studies described here, the governance was performed through project steering committees. Case 1 demonstrates the important of people in the governance structures being involved in the project (having some “skin in the game”), rather than just being on the board for the “prestige value.” Case 2 demonstrates the concept of a partnership between the project manager and the sponsor in managing issues that can affect the project's success: a partnership that is built by the project manager through the steady development of the steering committee's confidence and trust in his or her ability and credibility.
  • Assisting in developing an understanding of the difference between organizational culture and project culture and the specific needs of the project with reference to project management data and information. Often steering committee members are most receptive to “command and control” cultures and structures, but this is not a viable management paradigm for project governance where there is no “one right answer” to most project problems. If the project manager has built credibility and trust, it is possible to facilitate decision making by offering alternative recommendations and options for action and supporting the techniques of open communication and joint problem solving.

Testing the Theory

The first building block of the robust and trusting relationships identified in the case studies is the establishment of professional credibility through a “track record” of project success, proven through timely, accurate, and consistent project data. The second building block is the building of social connections and networks, within and around the project environment and the organization. The credibility of the project manager as capable of operating at a senior level is critical to building rapport with senior business managers. Case 1 demonstrates that both the credibility of the project manager and his access and use of his networks led to a stronger relationship with his steering committee. Case 2 demonstrates that the credibility of the project manager and use of his networks were the foundation that eventually led to the sponsor's support during the protracted phase of Robbie's “fight to the death” to prevent outside involvement in “his” project.

Managing a senior manager's optimistic expectations requires a strong relationship between senior managers and the project manager; even with superhuman efforts, unrealistic expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled. Consistency, perseverance, and determination are important in building respect for the project manager's know-how, particularly when communicating bad news, such as occurred in Case 1. The development of stakeholders’ perceptions of the personal credibility of the project manager, wider personal and professional relationships, contacts, and networks are all essential elements that contribute to building the respect that the project manager needs to change the perceptions of senior managers. These wider relationships must be built not just “for the project” but to be maintained long-term.

Transitioning a person into the sort of project manager that can build effective relationships with senior management requires a different focus on the technical skills that probably got the project manager promoted into the role. Project managers who seek to be successful in today's project and organizational environments need a strong “right brain” focus, a good Emotional Quotient (EQ), and significant leadership and networking abilities (Bourne & Walker, 2003). Mentoring and support from experienced project managers, either formally within an organizational or professional structure or informally, can help younger people grow and develop. “Experience” is more often the accumulated learning from one's mistakes; the new project manager needs to recognize that mistakes are part of project management learning and growth and that if some pain of personal experience can be prevented by learning from the experiences of his or her mentor, that approach should be acknowledged as worthy of merit, too.

The culture of the organization also plays a critical role in tailoring the way relationships work. Both case studies were within an organization with two strong, and opposed, cultures. Project managers assigned from outside the organization need to take time to assess the organization's culture and understand the “players’ to appreciate “who's who and who's playing.” However, although “insiders” understand the culture (or should), they need to develop the skills that are necessary to be able to “work the culture” and not conform to the culture if it is inappropriate (Bourne & Walker, 2003).

Given the effort needed to build and maintain relationships with senior management, the project manager must focus on the people who matter; the Stakeholder Circle® framework provides one useful mechanism to help direct effort to the right people, and although it is not overtly used in the case studies, it has been formally introduced to sections of the organization.

In summary, the theory outlined in the first part of this paper can provide a “roadmap” or guidance for project managers who need to “manage upwards.”. The additional elements are the appropriate personal characteristics of maturity, open-mindedness, practical experience, and leadership skills, and a recognition of the importance of building and maintaining relationships, both formal and informal. The authors would suggest that effective project managers spend 70% to 80% of their time working on relationships through communication by means of formal and informal meetings, effective reporting on project progress, networking, mentoring, and conversation, both inside the project and the organization and outside in the wider business and project management communities.

Synthesis of a New Approach to Managing Upwards

The techniques for managing the expectations of senior stakeholder and managing the behaviors of difficult colleagues (also stakeholders) used by the project managers described in this paper appear to be instinctive. In reality, the approaches are probably partly instinctive and partly developed from experiences from a variety of sources, both business and personal. Many less intuitive or experienced project managers would probably benefit from the application of stakeholder management methodologies and practices such as the Stakeholder Circle®. By applying techniques such as those defined by Stakeholder Circle®, any project manager can benefit from the structured, staged approach to gathering data about stakeholders leading to targeted communication and building and maintaining robust relationships with key stakeholders.

The concept of stakeholder relationship management maturity (SRMM®) (Bourne, 2008) was developed as a result of observation of how organizations approach implementation of stakeholder management or engagement processes and practices. SRMM® describes five levels of organizational maturity ranging from level 1 (ad hoc: some use of processes) through level 3 (relational: focus on the stakeholders and mutual benefits) to level 5 (predictive: used for health checks and predictive risk assessment and management). The case studies described in this paper define organizations that were probably at the level 1 stage. Managing senior stakeholders in such an environment is a greater challenge for project managers than it is in the environment of a level 3 organization. Although more research needs to be done in this area, it is probable that application of SRMM® and Stakeholder Circle®, coupled with the guidelines described earlier in this paper, will assist project managers in approaching the management of senior stakeholders or difficult colleagues.

In referring to the leadership levels defined by Collins (2001), it appears that the leadership actions and relationships developed by the project managers described in this paper were closer to the level 4 type of leadership and reflect the concept of the project manager leading from the front in the same way as organizational culture defines good CEO leadership. The Stakeholder Circle® methodology strongly recommends that all decisions with regard to understanding and managing stakeholder expectations should be made with the involvement of members of the project organization, including team members and sponsors. While the level 4 actions and practices of the project managers described in this paper were successful and worthy of emulation, it may be that there is room for even greater achievements if project managers were to discover how to become level 5 managers in the framework of Collins (2001). This is also an area that may benefit from research.

Conclusion

This paper has provided guidelines (or, a roadmap) to assist project managers in managing “upwards” for successful completion of projects, and has assembled data from a number of sources. Data from surveys seeking to understand how managers make the transition from middle management to the ranks of the senior leadership team, or how CEOs emerge from the senior leadership team to lead organizations demonstrate that each transition requires a major change in behavior and that the same guidelines apply each time. These guidelines acknowledge the need to learn from others, to understand and manage the expectations of stakeholders, and to build and maintain relationships within and around the individual's sphere of influence.

The guidelines are the same for project managers who need to manage their own senior stakeholders. The two case studies in this paper described situations often encountered by project managers in organizations when bad news needs to be delivered to senior stakeholders or when difficult stakeholders need to be dealt with, whether they are senior stakeholders or colleagues. Through the processes defined by the theories of leadership discussed in this paper and developed through the know-how of experienced project managers (as in the case studies), the approach is the same: develop credibility, build and maintain relationships and recognize that the perspective of the stakeholders comes from their own background, experiences, and the organizational culture itself and will most often be based in the “command and control” school of management. By knowing this and employing the long-term approaches described in this paper, the project manager can often achieve the best result for the project and continue to build personal credibility and respect. Recognizing this not only provides a greater chance of success but also prepares the project manager for higher levels of responsibility in organizations, should they seek to move out of project management and into business management.

The paper also identified two areas of additional research that may benefit the project management profession: (1) how project managers might apply the concept of stakeholder relationship management maturity to analyzing the best approach for managing senior stakeholders in an organization, and (2) whether the concept of level 5 leadership might have a useful application in “managing up” in organizations to deliver more consistently successful project outcomes.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2008, Lynda Bourne and Ken Farnes
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA

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