Project Management Institute

Sponsorship mentoring--a case study

Partner & Director, BUCERO PM Consulting


Mentoring is an interactive journey and also a mutually accountable relationship. This paper highlights the contribution of mentoring to excellence in sponsorship and describes the benefits of mentoring to both sides of the party (i.e., both the mentors and mentees) and to the organization. A case study demonstrates an enhanced view of sponsorship that includes speaking truth to power and involves the mentoring process. Mentoring executives tend to be people who are usually very busy, so we need to convince them of the benefits in order to “sell them on the idea.”

Some of the benefits for mentees include faster career growth, faster growth in business, better organizational and project success, recognition, and a feeling of achievement. Some of the benefits for mentors are a way to “give back,” a chance to sharpen one's leadership skills, an opportunity to be a trusted adviser of another person for organizational and business success, and sharing lessons learned as a way of helping others.


When I was assigned as project management office leader at a multinational company in Spain, I detected a big problem. There were more and more projects to manage in the organization but less and less experienced people to do the work. Executive support was crucial to solving that problem. I knew that the news was bad and getting worse, but I had no more authority than anyone else in the organization. I had tried to meet with management in order to create awareness about that critical situation, pointing out how important sponsorship is in a project-based organization. Although I had some bad news to deliver to my managers, I was willing to speak the truth to power. I took the initiative to define the real issue---that is, the truth. There was a lack of project management knowledge on the part of the project managers, a significant increase in the number of customer projects, and a lack of upper management support in the organization---issues so significant that they could result in project failures and/or the lack of more project sales. If these issues were not resolved rationally, immediate decisions would have had to have been made that might have compromised or severely limited future project business generation.

Several business units from the organization were affected by this situation. I was a project manager acting as a project office leader. I spent some time creating a compelling picture of why action was required, what needed to be done, how to resolve the issues and what the results would be. I had been working for that organization for almost 14 years, and I knew most of the business managers within the organization very well, and they knew me as well. I identified the functional managers whose business was affected by the issues and asked them to get together for a meeting. These upper managers were clearly frustrated by the issues and concerned about getting their projects completed on time and about not being able to sell more customer projects.

Speaking the Truth to Power

To deliver the truth, I put together a presentation that clearly stated the nature of the issues and their impact on the businesses. I called for a meeting, announcing as the meeting objective the need for sponsorship. I failed. Only two people attended, so I cancelled the meeting. I sat down with my manager and proposed that we invite a trusted professional from outside the organization to tell the same story to the management team. I thought it would be an opportunity to win support and justify the need for sponsorship inside the organization. She agreed with my suggestion, and I solicited the help of a colleague from Germany (John W.), who had solved a similar problem in a branch of the same company in Germany. First of all, he helped me to prepare the session carefully. He asked our general manager to attend; John and I prepared some questions to be answered by all business managers attending the session. The types of questions asked were as follows:

  • How many projects are you sponsoring?
  • What is the name of every assigned project manager?
  • What is the project status for every project you are sponsoring?
  • Are you aware of the main project issues?
  • What is your customer visits schedule?
  • What do you know about the customer business?
  • Do you know the customer strategic plan and directions?

Seventy percent of the business managers in the room did not know all the project status and main issues regarding the projects they sponsored, and they argued that it was a project manager problem. Most of them did not visit their customers very frequently after the project sale was closed. All of them had a different idea about the meaning of sponsorship. The lack of many accurate answers demonstrated that action was required. The general manager, who attended the session, reacted immediately and asked them: Do you really believe that acting that way you will be able to sell more projects to your customers? He asked for an immediate action plan.

I used my passion and belief in the future of the organization as a source of courage and energy to take action on this difficult task. Through words and actions, I made it clear that my sole motivation was accountability for success of the sponsorship initiative. I asked for their support, taking advantage of the presence of my German colleague. We explained the meaning of the sponsorship role, and I convinced the general manager and his staff to get on board as a guiding coalition. He in turn asked me to assume responsibility for the sponsorship initiative. The upper managers agreed to serve on a steering committee. They would prioritize issues, define sponsors for the different type of projects, ensure that resources were trained and assigned, and follow through on escalated issues. A recognition matrix was created in order to monitor and control the level of sponsorship achieved for a particular project.

To get the job done, I acknowledged the problems that were experienced by each person. I designed a process that could lead to changes, and I linked the problems and change efforts to the need of the business. By reflecting and drawing on previous experience, I articulated the current reality and defined the steps needed for the change. I was technically competent and could understand the difficult nature of the problems being encountered. I talked the language that management understands---that is, I addressed the broad picture with the upper managers, and the project issues with the project managers. I consistently demonstrated the values, beliefs, and contributions that this effort would bring to the organization.

Believing in the initiative, I agreed to get it started. I became the leader, the sponsor, the guiding vision, and the workhorse. I planned to go out of business as a revolutionary. I went to my organization and requested a business manager. My business manager came on board and gradually took over to coordinate the organizational efforts. My initial conversation with my business manager revealed an attitude that was not very positive, but I somehow had a sense to persevere. I later came to realize that the negativity stemmed only from frustration about how to address the issues. After we successfully completed the business managers’ training on sponsorship, we did a retrospective analysis, continued sponsoring phased efforts, and saw that we were on the right path.

We became quite competent in the new process and alleviated much management anxiety. Resolving those issues was at the heart of the huge success enjoyed by the organization. I continued leading the project management office efforts within the company. Management supported a celebration for the achievements of many that was initiated by the power of one. The group general manager personally recognized each participant and manager.

An illustration of the model used is shown in Exhibit 1. This model was created by my co-author, Randall L. Englund, and we strongly recommend using these steps in speaking the truth to power. This model has served us in many real cases during our project lives. Speaking the truth provokes fear in some professionals, but doing so is not possible, it is highly recommended.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Later I sought out John W., my colleague from Germany, as a mentor, as I had been so impressed by his abilities in getting things done in a complex organization. I wanted to know how he did it. Having a mentor outside Spain was a challenge, so we used teleconferences and virtual mechanisms to keep our relationship going. One question I had was how to improve my management skills. He suggested that I observe those making management decisions---by first using my own judgment as difficult decisions came up, then observing how those in power made their decisions about the same problem, and then comparing their judgments with mine. In this way, I would learn to make better decisions from “the masters,” by seeking to understand their thought processes and probing into the reasons for their actions. John's feedback on this and other topics was especially valuable and enduring. Later I was admitted as a sponsorship mentor by the whole management team. It was another example about the benefits of applying passion, persistence, and patience.

The Mentoring Process

Mentoring is a way of integrating the mentee into the organization; a system for learning organizational and project rules, norms, and guidelines. I understand mentoring as “the help that a person provides to another in order to assist him or her in progressing with regard to knowledge, work, or thoughts.”(Bucero & Englund, 2006. p 165 ) Human beings have always learned some skills, culture, and values directly from other people whom they respect or admire. We could define mentoring as a process through which one person with more experience (the mentor) invests time, energy , and knowledge in order to teach, guide, and help another person (the mentee) in his or her personal and professional development.

A mentor is a confidential adviser who offers support and encouragement. He or she will introduce the mentee in the organization, help the mentee to discover the key people, and show him or her how the organization works. The mentor will also help the mentee identify skills that he or she should improve. In addition, a mentor is a model who establishes the example of sponsorship practice in the organization and its manner of operation. Contributing to the professional and personal development of the mentee is a big responsibility for the mentor, and as such, it is not always easy. However, the mentee retains responsibility of the leadership in his or her own career development.

Although the mentee is ultimately responsible for his or her own career, the mentor can help the mentee identify individual values, clarify expectations, discover strengths and weaknesses, identify opportunities, and become integrated in the organizational environment. It is crucial for the mentee to know what is valuable to learn and what the objectives to be achieved are. By clarifying these up front, mentor and mentee can work together on what path to follow. The mentor needs to give honest feedback to the mentee and open the mentee's eyes to possibilities in the organization. The mentor can share the thought processes that led to the decisions that he or she made, thus helping the mentee improve overall judgment capabilities.

At the start of the mentoring relationship, the initiative comes not from the mentor but from the mentee. However, the mentor can begin thinking about how to help the person even before the first meeting. Some ideas to think about in advance might include the duration of the mentoring process, availability for mentoring, a meeting schedule that can be set up right from the start, and interesting subjects to cover with the mentee.

The main objective of the mentoring relationship is for the mentor to contribute to the mentee's development. Be as concrete as possible in setting personal objectives and crafting a customized action plan. Every relationship will have different details. The benefits derived from mentoring are usually more indirect than measurable. It is a practice that creates an environment for successful projects in an organic way---empowering people to seek advice or find answers anywhere inside or outside the organization. It supports innovation through a free flow of information. It is a moral e boost for people to know that they are not alone in their struggles and to find a helping hand. Because in most organizations sponsorship does not yet qualify as a core competence, you should encourage mentoring by those who demonstrate a proficiency in sponsorship, presenting it as a ready means to “share the wealth.” Mentoring does not take the place of formal training, but it certainly helps. Achieving a mentorship culture establishes that collaboration is more valuable than competition among management ranks.

Suggestions for Mentors

The following are some ideas that mentors can use to achieve a productive mentoring experience:

  • Listen to the other person (i.e., the mentee). Use ears and mouth the same percentage of the time. For example, I listened to my business managers to understand much better their problems and behaviors with regard to the projects that they needed to sponsor.
  • Respect the mentee's opinions. It does not matter if they are correct or incorrect. Help him or her reach their own personal conclusions (e.g., that lack of customer site visits from business managers affects new business generation).
  • Give the mentee objective information, and do not evaluate him or her. This will help avoid defensive reactions on the part of the mentee.
  • Ask questions. Propose solutions. Give feedback to ensure mutual understanding. Share experiences. When a decision must be made, explore different options..
  • Encourage decisions. It is a way of motivation that normally enriches the relationship.
  • Provide emotional support when needed.
  • If you don't know the answer to a question, say, “I do not know.”

Some Difficulties

In the beginning, my own mentoring experience was not working properly. I encountered difficulties mentoring my business managers; in some cases, there was a lack of empathy, in others a lack of time, unrealistic or unachieved expectations, or an absence of short-term results. Managers are busy people. However, I always found a way to meet them and demonstrate that my only purpose was to help the organization manage projects better, producing better results and achieving more project sales as a consequence. I never talked about problems; I always talked about things to be improved. I always used my “today is a good day” sentence to provoke a smile from them.

The key is looking for ways to solidify the relationship, verifying expectations between the mentor and the mentee. Over the course of our many stimulating discussions, I picked up that in each mentoring session the participants engage in the following: clarifying problems (asking questions and summarizing and paraphrasing questions and answers), guiding discussions (asking new questions, taking notes), advocating (involving the mentee and asking him or her to use common sense), explaining (recounting one's experiences), and closing (reviewing all of the things discussed, replanning all dilemmas, agreeing on actions and objectives, and making an appointment for the next meeting).


Sponsors may serve as mentors to project managers and other less experienced sponsors. Sponsors may also want to elicit mentoring advice from others. This paper points out the possible benefits, expectations, and roles of sponsorship mentoring. Mentoring is a voluntary process intended to informally aid in achieving excellence in sponsorship through the sharing of thoughts and experiences. The sponsorship process includes upper managers working together as a steering committee that will listen to those who speak the truth to power; it also includes coaching others on how to speak the truth skillfully and avoid being the messenger of bad news who “gets shot.” Because these conditions may not be the norm in many organizations, project managers need to take the initiative to manage upwards, become skilled in speaking truth to power, and, ultimately, to become superb mentors themselves.


Bucero, A. (2005, May). Getting senior executives to buy into project methods: a case study. Proceedings of the PMI EMEA Congress, Edinburgh..

Bucero, A (2005, September). Your best asset. PM Network, 19(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 (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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, Alfonso Bucero & Randall L. Englund
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA



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