Managing project sponsorship



The success or failure of every project 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, managers who are assigned as project sponsors often have little, if any, experience understanding their roles and responsibilities during the project life cycle, and neither their organizations or project managers do little to help them. Problems in communication and execution are inevitable as long as sponsors and project managers struggle through the mechanics of their relationship.


“Managing Project Sponsorship” addresses how project sponsors and project managers jointly develop the skills they need. Identify how project managers proactively address the responsibilities of the project sponsor, from selection and training, communications and liaison, sustaining active participation, problem solving, mentoring and feedback, to the review of project execution. Case studies and examples depict how the project manager and sponsor become skilled in negotiating effectively with each other to achieve desired commitments. Reference materials provide questionnaires, checklists, and templates—derived from experience—that provide the means to implement the concepts covered.

This paper highlights key resources for expanding best practices in project sponsorship across organizations, by helping project managers better manage their sponsors and by giving them the tools to help their project sponsors establish directions for the future, communicate through vision, create aligned high-performance teams, and focus on planning—all directed towards greater project success. A multimedia presentation of this paper has the objective to illuminate steps that open the doors to excellence in project sponsorship, thereby providing the means to achieve a competitive advantage for the organization.

Sponsorship in Organizations

A common lament goes like this:

“We did project management in our company, we spent a lot of money and effort training and educating our project managers, and we developed a project manager career path. So why do we still have problems on our projects?”

So what’s the problem? Many executives are assigned as project sponsors, but their organizations do not spend time training and explaining their expected roles and responsibilities during project life cycles.

A few questions to begin discussion can highlight the issues – Projects With and Without Sponsorship?

  • Think about projects you are familiar with
  • Do those projects have an assigned Sponsor?
  • Identify Sponsorship factors that contributed to project success
  • Identify Sponsorship factors that contributed to project failure

Common factors are:

  • Managers need to spend time with every project team member
  • Managers in a sponsor role need to listen to many people (good and bad news)
  • Managers acting as project sponsors need to demonstrate their own passion to team members

Desired leadership behaviors are depicted in Exhibit 1.

Desired sponsorship behaviors in project-based organizations

Exhibit 1: Desired sponsorship behaviors in project-based organizations

Case Study 1

This case study describes how program manager Alfonso Bucero and his team implemented a Project Office and managed the cultural change using project management skills in a professional delivery organization—Hewlett-Packard Consulting in Madrid, Spain. A Project Office implies innovation because it changes the way an organization proceeds, in this case creating the ability for project managers to keep focused on the client and perform high quality project management. This means: analyze all internal and external stakeholders and their expectations; assign the team; divide all activities in functional groups; and, most importantly, create a very effective and empowered team. To do this, however, he first had to get effective project sponsorship.

One of the main difficulties creating the HP Project Office was that the management team only focused on numbers and results. They asked for good project results but do not worry about how to establish and create the right environment for project success. In this kind of organization, upper management was not supporting the project manager, and project managers are on their own when dealing with internal and external stakeholders during the project life cycle. Sponsorship was an unknown term in this environment.

Then, one of the things Bucero did was to involve upper management more and more in the initial PMO project activities. He first met them one by one and explained to them the feelings of project managers when managing projects: many of them felt alone in front of their customers, and their project sponsors disappeared after the project sale was closed. Afterwards, he organized a meeting with all business managers. He started that meeting by asking them these questions:

  • What is the project status (time, cost, requested changes) of the projects you are sponsoring?
  • Do you know and meet frequently with the project managers of the projects you are sponsoring?
  • How frequently are you meeting the customer upper manager?
  • Do you know the customer satisfaction level about those projects?

It was spectacular. Eighty percent of the executives in the meeting room never visited the customers after their projects started. Many of them did not know the project status. Bucero did a smart thing by inviting the General Manager to that meeting. After listening to the answers from the executives, the General Manager said, “Okay guys, do you really believe that proceeding that way you will be able to generate more business from your customers?”

Results started coming after that session. The General Manager supported Bucero to organize a “project sponsorship training session” for all HP Business Managers. It was a half day session focused on the “Project Sponsor” roles and responsibilities. He got great support from the General Manager, and that was crucial for the PMO project success. Demonstrating small tangible results is a key ingredient for project success. The General Manager only understood project results and sales target. He was a sales person and he did not think much about the project management profession, until he was able to see the big business impact of a project management approach that generated more business.

Talking to upper managers requires speaking in a language that upper managers understand: results, profit, sales, ROI. The ears of the General Manager were more open after that meeting with the business managers. Why? Because he discovered that project managers have a lot of information regarding the customers, they are on the customer site extensively, and if they work together with their project sponsors (business managers), they may generate more business.

Bucero systematically began to involve business managers more and more in their projects. One time he showed the management team the result of a project review. When they saw the Project Review Content, they understood that it would be worth while to participate from time to time. It took six months to get the sponsorship involvement he was seeking. It helped to have the General Manager distribute metrics about the number of project reviews, done by the business managers with the project managers, as a business fundamental. What was the result? Business managers were more aware that working together with project managers was key not only for project success but also for business generation.

One of the lessons learned is that executives, in general, do not worry about project management because they believe it is only tactical and not strategic. They “don’t sweat the small stuff” because they believe that is a project manager matter. When you spend time with them and demonstrate, then they are able to understand the big business impact that their role may contribute to project success.

Setup and Rollout

The first activity was to create the necessary infrastructure, staff the PMO, and define roles and responsibilities with clear objectives for all team members. Due to internal resource restrictions, Bucero had to use outsourced people. As soon as the PMO project was approved, he asked the project sponsor for six resources to staff the PMO. Management suggested they start with three people and look at the results. He then asked for three people.

This process worked during the first six months because the acquisition of these three members enabled Bucero to demonstrate performance improvements to the management team in the process of generating project documentation. “That fact proved PMO people were adding value to the organization and enabled me to ask for more resources.”

Sharing the PMO project vision among team members was another key to project success. Bucero delivered presentations to the whole team that shared the project mission, the objectives, the stakeholders, and the environment. In that way people took project ownership and felt more identified with the main objectives. Since most people staffing the PMO were outsourced, he provided them with internal training to get them more involved and prepared in terms of tools and internal organizational procedures. These circumstances required him to put a lot of care into the teambuilding process. People came from different organizations with different skills and patterns of behavior. “I had to establish clear and simple rules from the beginning to work quickly among team members to define how to understand and serve our customers.”

As a team they delineated the structure of the PMO and used PM software to assign communication, methodology, training and tracking processes. One key activity during this period was defining PMO success metrics. He attended most management meetings and dealt with the critical stakeholders. In those meetings he requested feedback from all attendees in order to address the issues and fine tune the affected processes.

The establishment of priorities was other important activity. He used a stakeholder analysis tool to find out where and for whom priorities existed, applying his best efforts. A stakeholder analysis tool helped get more support from the management team through business needs identification. The PMO program manager acts as facilitator, promoting, managing, encouraging, and optimizing relations among all project stakeholders. The final objective for this phase was to have a database with historical data, which helped show results to upper management.

Things that Bucero did to achieve sponsor support were:

  • Explaining and validating the PMO mission and objectives periodically. Keeping management in the loop (sharing real PMO status, problems and issues)
  • Using a PMO selling presentation
  • Showing small deliverables very quickly to convince them with real facts
  • Passion, persistence and patience (different people, different behaviors, different culture)
  • All services offered without charge to any solution area, PM or consultant

Sponsors demonstrated support by pushing the rest of the organization to use the PMO services and also use the PMO as an example. They asked the PMO manager to attend management meetings to inform them about PMO implementation status and to escalate any issue or problem. When managers saw how the PMO was helping the organization, they began talking outside the organization about the benefits of using a PMO. For instance “The PMO is alive because everyone who asks for a service is given an answer and the PMO team never refuses any demand; they proactively search for solutions.” They recognized the effort of PMO implementation at the end of the fiscal year, giving a prize to the PMO team during the kick-off meeting.

Additional implementation features for creating the PMO were to have team members work in an open climate of communication and transparency. Stakeholder analysis provided Bucero with the means to identify key players and project managers who could help him sell the advantages and PMO benefits. Those colleagues were great ambassadors for PMO services and also supported the PMO during continuous improvement cycles. Many people provided constructive criticism and positive feedback. People became convinced to use the PMO services because the program manager inspired truth and passion in getting tasks and activities done. When consultants and project managers see enthusiastic people in the PMO who exude desire to do the job, they ask for more services. These activities capture the attention of sponsors.

Summary of Key Ideas Included in Sponsorship Training

Sponsorship is a commitment by senior management and leaders to support and be involved in major projects and initiatives from launch to the finish. In the sponsorship training initiated and provided by Bucero, he focused on:

  • Every project needs a sponsor but sponsorship is critical and essential in complex and large projects, with large risks and investments, projects spanning different company departments or divisions, projects which have the potential to lead to large business opportunities.
  • Project sponsors should be members of the local management team, empowered by all businesses, assigned for the full project life cycle, invest a considerable amount of time: 10-20% in working with project team and client, equivalent to Senior Partner at system integration or consulting companies.
  • Key responsibilities for sponsors:
  • Drives the pursuit process
  • Negotiates the project with customer within agreed upon framework
  • Engaged in the delivery process
  • Escalation focal point for company and client
  • Looks for new business opportunities: up- and cross-selling
  • Sets project strategies, has full ownership and accountability, but is not the “Super Project Manager”
  • Measures for the project sponsor are customer satisfaction, overall margin in project, achievement of business mix, growth in project, feedback from client, project team and involved organizations.
  • Understand and position client culture.
  • Sponsorship is a question of mindset, commitment and competence. Mindset means the desire to get involved, understand the role, ask questions, be confident to deal with customers and clients. Commitment means structuring sponsorship with project reviews, investment of time, and work with the project team. Competency means understanding the basics of project management, the ability to coach the external client and internal stakeholders, understand business and change, and also people.

Bucero offers, “My personal opinion is that excellence in sponsorship has an impact on project financial performance. Strong sponsorship assures that projects are properly structured and delivered on budget, schedule and quality. Strong sponsorship drives prospecting and selling of follow-up and new business.” Achieving these goals comes not by waiting and hoping but from proactive project and program managers taking the initiative to get and sustain high levels of sponsorship.

Best Practices

  • People who have never worked on a project have difficulty understanding that to achieve project success, the organization needs to support its project managers.
  • A key to getting upper management support is showing how a PMO solves current problems and provides immense business impact. Present a complete business case to the management team in the language and format of “management speak.”
  • Sponsorship is a commitment by the upper management and leaders to support and be involved in major projects and initiatives from the start to the end.
  • Personal interaction allows the project sponsor to judge what is going on and sense issues to be raised. In this way, the project sponsor facilitates problem solving more quickly, and emerging problems are identified and addressed early.
  • Excellence in sponsorship impacts project financial performance. Developing a sponsorship culture helps to meet current business commitments and increase capability for the organization to generate new business.

Case Study 2

The authors note how difficult it is to work through the political environment in client organizations. Projects failed not because project managers were not enthusiastic about what they were doing, but because they failed to get effective sponsorship support. In contrast, proactive sponsorship is extremely effective in achieving desired project outcomes.

One client in the US government exhibited a masterful approach both to the politics within the organization and obtaining proactive sponsorship. His political plan tapped what he knew about the organization and the people within it, his passion for implementing project management, and his drive to succeed. Here is his story:

As the manager of a proposed massive program to train people across the agency on project management, Michael recognized that since this effort broadly affects thousands of project managers, their advancement and assignments, and the culture in which they work, an unwavering commitment from executive sponsors is critical. This sponsorship support was achieved through a continuous process that began three years earlier when he listed the names of fifteen executives most likely to play a role in the sponsorship of this program.

Working with a core member of the project team, Michael analyzed the role that each of these executives would need to play for the program to succeed. Some of the executive sponsors would need to contribute financial backing, others would need to exercise the authority associated with their official positions as chairpersons of the three project management occupations within the agency, and still others would need to demonstrate support through highly visible participation in the program. Working first with the most supportive of these executive sponsors, he established relationships with each of them in descending order of their anticipated support, saving the least supportive for last. For the executive sponsors likely to be the most supportive, the strategy employed to establish or reinforce their support was to focus on the organizational benefit they would achieve from the program and the long-lasting cultural legacy they would be contributing to; this approach appealed to their established ideology.

For the executive sponsors who were likely to be the least supportive or resistant, the strategy used was to take advantage of the significant amount of support being provided by their peers to sway their attitudes. The methodology used to garner support from the project management occupation chairpersons was to highlight the fact that with little or no investment on their part, they could use the program as a tool or technique to quickly and effectively strengthen the occupations for which they were responsible. Financial sponsors were urged to contribute voluntarily as an alternative to having a tax imposed on their budgets by their already supportive superiors.

An approach used with all the executive sponsors was the consistent reminder from their own project manager employees about the value of the program. These employee efforts to garner sponsorship support were coordinated and facilitated by a project management standards working group. Michael formed and led this voluntary community of practice by building on the fact that it was a bottom-up type of program targeted at the needs of project managers and being led by project managers. The use of this working group to leverage the broad support from project managers throughout the agency was the single biggest contributor to establishing and maintaining executive project sponsorship.

Concluding Thoughts

A common theme, in our experiences and in these case studies, is to start any initiative with small wins and earn the right to expand efforts on a larger scale. A corollary theme is to demonstrate some results quickly to sponsors and other stakeholders. Most organizations and their managers have a bias toward short term results. If they do not see the results happening, support is either likely to disappear or else increased, possibly unwanted, attention may be applied. Wise project managers need to keep their eyes on long term directions while also finding ways to provide immediate gratification to the powers that be.

  • This material is about achieving better results from project-based work. The objective is to depict how excellence in sponsorship plays a major role.
  • 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.
  • Selecting the right people, clarifying roles, making the commitment, and getting appropriate training are steps along the path. Managers acting as project sponsors need to spend time with every project team member, dealing with misunderstandings and varying perceptions. Sustaining energy is also required.
  • Many other sponsorship roles may accrue, be cast upon, or come from enlightened persons who find creative ways to express leadership and make a contribution. Mentoring accelerates this process, in fact coaching and mentoring are desired characteristics of a good sponsor.
  • A key obligation of the project sponsor is to create the right environment for project success. Achieving excellence in sponsorship means that senior managers get to maintain a hands off approach but are available when problems come up.
  • Success starts with a strong commitment to improve. Leaders become better prepared as sponsors of major projects by taking inventory of their talent, skills and behaviors, and putting appropriate action plans in place. Knowledge management encompasses the march from data to information to knowledge and wisdom.
  • Executives need training, experiences, and practice to be effective sponsors. Sponsorship is a requirement and critical success factor for all projects, in all industries and disciplines.
  • Move forward, because today is a good day for change.


  • Every project needs a sponsor.
  • Supporting knowledge management processes and taking action on continuous learnings is most effectively accomplished within the sponsorship role.
  • Many organizations lack good political “swimmers.” Leading with power is a learned skill. It involves assessment, identification, skill-building, planning, and application. Like all learning, it involves movement between reflection and action. Project and program managers need to be politically active in managing project sponsors.
  • Creating a political plan starts with making a commitment to lead with power, most probably personal power. It continues by identifying sources of power, performing stakeholder analysis, and applying the values of authenticity and integrity. Practice everyday and attend as many meetings as it takes to get your point across.
  • Look systematically at the environment; effect change by applying tools of persuasion and influence.
  • Trust cannot develop and even quests to implement enterprise project management remain a fiction until leaders create an environment that supports project management and effective sponsorship.
  • Take the time to document a political plan, noting your observations and deciding upon action steps.
  • Apply questionnaires, surveys, checklists, and templates found in the supporting material.

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

Englund, R., Graham, R, & Dinsmore, P. (2003). Creating the Project Office: A Manager’s Guide to Leading Organizational Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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

Sponsor Evaluation Tool & Political Plan Template Available at

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



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