When a Sponsor Departs
An Executive Shuffle Can Put a Project at a Disadvantage; Strong Project Managers Know How To Cope
BY CHRISTINA COUCH ILLUSTRATION BY PETER RYAN
“If the new sponsor is not fully aware of what the project is about or its context, they're not going to be comfortable making decisions.”
—Fernando Perez, Citi, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Fernando Perez and his team were on track to deliver a US$10 million IT project on time and within budget. But in November 2015, halfway through the 15-month project, they hit a snag.
Mr. Perez, a regional project manager at Citi in Buenos Aires, Argentina, learned that one of its executive sponsors was moving off the project. (Citi is a member of PMI's Global Executive Council.) The news stressed the project team, but the timing could have been far worse, Mr. Perez says.
“Fortunately, I didn't have to make a critical decision, like a change in the timeline, when I didn't have a sponsor,” he says. Because the project was healthy, “we could handle weeks without a sponsor.”
Not every project leader who loses a sponsor is as lucky. When an executive sponsor leaves a project still in motion, it can hurt team morale, trigger delays, spur budget shortfalls and spook stakeholders. Keeping those problems at bay typically involves delegating some sponsor responsibilities to an interim figure (another executive, for instance) and ramping up communication to team members and other stakeholders so no one is left worrying about the future. Here's how project managers can prevent collateral damage and keep the team firing on all cylinders.
When Mr. Perez learned his project's sponsor was leaving, he met with Citi executives to determine which of the former sponsor's responsibilities needed to be delegated in the interim. Together, they decided who needed to receive what types of updates and established clear lines of communication.
During the roughly eight weeks it took management to find a replacement, Mr. Perez made sure no one was left in the dark. He kept his internal team and about 30 additional stakeholders (including technology contractors) fully informed about the replacement process.
This IT project, to implement a foreign currency exchange system, was far enough along to continue without a temporary sponsor, so Mr. Perez prepared materials to help the next sponsor get up to speed on the project's goals, structure and benchmarks as soon as he or she was chosen. He also outlined his expectations—and specific action items he needed the sponsor to complete.
“If the new sponsor is not fully aware of what the project is about or its context, they're not going to be comfortable making decisions,” Mr. Perez says. “You have to have good communication in order to explain exactly what the project is about, and say what you need from him or her in the next month.”
“If the team is proactive—has gotten ahead of the curve, has figured out alternatives and given them to senior management—they're much more likely to survive.”
—John Cable, PMP, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA
When the new sponsor stepped in, Mr. Perez immediately scheduled a meeting to bring that person up to speed on the project's scope, timeline and objectives. They also agreed on a communication schedule to keep the new sponsor in the loop as the project progressed.
Maintaining that line of sight to the C-suite can help ensure projects have the resources and support they need to succeed. According to PMI's 2017 Pulse of the Profession®: Success Rates Rise: Transforming the high cost of low performance, more than three-quarters of projects at champion organizations have actively engaged sponsors, compared to 44 percent at underper-forming organizations. (Champions complete 80 percent or more of projects on time and within budget, while meeting original goals and business intent, and have high benefits realization maturity. Underperformers complete 60 percent or fewer this way, and have low benefits realization maturity.)
“The most complex component of a project is people. People draw conclusions. People's own truths and perceptions could lead them to fear.”
—Tony Christodoulou, American Tower Corp., Sandton, South Africa
Engaged sponsors should be able to discuss the project's strategic benefits, its current status and any barriers to execution. They also know how current spending levels compare to what was budgeted. So, if budget cuts or a shift in strategy accompany a sponsor change, the project manager should come to the table with a contingency plan, says John Cable, PMP, director of the Project Management Center for Excellence at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA.
“If the team is proactive—has gotten ahead of the curve, has figured out alternatives and given them to senior management—they're much more likely to survive,” he says.
SPREAD THE NEWS
Successfully transitioning to a new sponsor also means managing anxiety within the core team, says Tony Christodoulou, vice president of IT and process excellence for the Middle East, Europe and Africa region at American Tower Corp., Sandton, South Africa.
Mr. Christodoulou learned this lesson in a previous role at Standard Bank. He was brought in as a project manager to helm two work streams of an IT integration program that had stalled. Roughly three months later, a sponsor left the organization, leaving the 50-person team nervous about the project's future.
“The most complex component of a project is people. People draw conclusions. People's own truths and perceptions could lead them to fear,” Mr. Christodoulou says. “On this particular program, the majority of my team was contractors. So the natural question was, ‘Do I still have a job here?’”
To assuage fears and provide a place for people to express their concerns, Mr. Christodoulou held regular team-wide meetings, as well as one-on-one engagements with key players he couldn't afford to lose. Mr. Christodoulou, who later became senior program manager overseeing the entire program, says those meetings gave him the opportunity to be transparent about the sponsor search process, to emphasize the strategic relevance of the program and to keep the team focused on getting the job done.
If an executive sponsor leaves, don't panic. Take these three steps to avoid project turbulence.
1 Project managers should try to find out why a sponsor is leaving. “You want to understand what you're dealing with,” says John Cable, PMP, director of the Project Management Center for Excellence at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA.
A sponsor's exit may signal organizational issues that could impact the project. Project managers should speak with other executives to learn why the sponsor left, what barriers might be preventing someone else from stepping in and when the search for a replacement will happen. Project managers should also be prepared to brief higher-ups on the project's business case.
“Communicate with executives in their vocabulary,” Mr. Cable says. “That's what I think puts the project in the best case [scenario] for survival should there be a change in executive ranks.”
2 A project manager should update the team as soon as possible after a sponsor leaves. Let people know that while some project specifics might change, the goals of the initiative and its benefits to the business will likely stay the same, says Tony Christodoulou, vice president of IT and process excellence, Middle East, Europe and Africa region, American Tower Corp., Sandton, South Africa.
“If you have a good business case, the value doesn't change just because the sponsor leaves,” he says. That means team members should stay focused on the objective and continue making progress.
READY THE RED CARPET
3 While the team keeps plugging along, the project manager can prep materials for the next sponsor. From day one, he or she will need information about the project's status, budget, schedule, benchmarks, obstacles and stakeholders (for starters). It's also a good idea for a project manager to make his or her needs and expectations clear, says Dom Price, work futurist and head of R&D, Atlassian, Sydney, Australia.
“My sponsors are the most time-poor people in the world,” he says. “They want short, sharp, digestible, action-oriented conversations.”
“You want to kill the unnecessary perceptions by showing active leadership very quickly,” he says.
GIVE AND TAKE
Active leadership includes taking steps to create a strong rapport between team members and the new sponsor. After meeting with a sponsor replacement to understand the role he or she would like to play on a project, Dom Price, work futurist and head of R&D for team collaboration and productivity software company Atlassian in Sydney, Australia, encourages team interaction. He even invites the new sponsor to sit in on the periodic self-assessments many Atlassian teams do to improve how they collaborate.
“It's a great way of assimilating into the team by seeking first to understand,” Mr. Price explains. “Earlier in my career, you had sponsors that would charge into the room, slam the laptop on the table and start barking instructions. That approach doesn't really end up with high levels of engagement.”
Having a new sponsor observe a self-assessment session can also help teams communicate where the project's at—and align with sponsor expectations about where it should go.
“Once you have the same shared goal as the sponsor, you realize there is a win-win outcome where everyone can be successful,” Mr. Price says. “It's less of a battle and more of a partnership.” PM