My first outing as an executive sponsor for a new software product development initiative was less than memorable…for the project team participants. I recall it with a twinge of guilt and embarrassment.

Unaware of what I was truly supposed to do, I treated the role as mostly ceremonial. I sent out the charter, attended the launch meeting, facilitated a couple of project reviews and made certain to keep the rest of the executive team apprised of the project’s progress.

Oh yeah, I footed the bill for the launch party as well.

In truth, I had no idea what I was supposed to do beyond this minimalist investment in effort. It turns out that I was the beneficiary of having a great project manager coupled with one of those rare initiatives where not much actually went wrong. I dodged a bullet, and it wasn’t until a number of years later when I truly learned what it means to serve as an executive sponsor.

Few executives who have served as sponsors report receiving any formal training Click To Tweet

Lessons from the MBA Students:

As part of my first session teaching a graduate class of aspiring operations executives and project managers, I provided an assignment for them to investigate the executive sponsorship practices in their own firms and report back on what they learned.

This assignment was intended to serve as the real-world counterbalance to what our text suggested was an incredibly important and often challenging role. The feedback and subsequent discussion were both fascinating, I’ve repeated this assignment for the past seven years.

Here’s a highlight reel of what we’ve heard from well over 300 informal interviews of executives and project managers inside firms ranging in size from Fortune 100 to startup.

  • Few executives who have served as sponsors report receiving any formal training or instruction for the role.
  • Only a smattering of executives reported being evaluated on their performance as a sponsor.
  • More than half of the executives described their role in terms that would classify it as ceremonial, much like my own description above.
  • A powerful but vocal minority of executives described the role as: “accountable for the project outcome.
  • A majority of the project managers interviewed in this assignment describe the performance of the role as highly variable from executive to executive.
  • No project manager indicated they wanted a micro-managing executive sponsor.
  • A gross majority of project managers described wanting an active sponsor who works hard to knock down barriers, defend the team and support the team as it navigates “moments of truth” type decisions. This same group reported mostly never receiving this much-needed level of support from their sponsors.

The feedback from these interviews coupled with my own work as an advisor to firms driving new strategic initiatives (projects) has helped me adjust my attitude considerably on both the importance and the execution of the role of executive sponsor. The role of the executive sponsor can be the difference-maker in building a high-performance team and in successfully bringing projects, products, and strategies to life.

If you’re invited to serve as an executive sponsor, the following Dos and Don’ts will help successfully guide you.

10 Do’s and Don’ts for the Successful Executive Sponsor:

  1. Do spend time exploring the various views on this role. A simple search on “best practices in executive sponsorship” or a close variation, uncovers a variety of resources that emphasize the importance of taking this role seriously. Some go so far as to suggest a causal relationship between proper execution of this role and project success. Translation: it’s important and serving as a ceremonial leader is insufficient for success.
  2. Do ask your project manager: “What do you need me to do to help you succeed?”This simple but not simplistic question will trigger a great discussion on specific responsibilities. The most successful sponsor/project manager combinations work hard up-front to clarify understanding of their respective roles and accountabilities.
  3. Do work with your project manager to establish a communication protocol. One of the biggest sources of disconnect between these two critical players comes in the form of the frequency of communication and level of detail. Too much detail from the project manager to sponsor reduces the information to white noise. Too little detail can result in the sponsor being out of the loop or off-balance when questioned by other executives on the project’s progress.
  4. Do remember to include a “911” protocol in your sponsor/project manager communication plan. One of the challenges many executives have in fulfilling the role of sponsor comes in the form of frequent travel and other executive-level distractions. The sponsor fails if she is unable to step in at critical moments and support the project manager for critical decisions around scope or resources. In some cases where this hotline situation wasn’t discussed, project managers are hesitant to assert themselves and quietly attempt to resolve the crisis on their own. The sponsor is there to help when “it” hits the fan.
  5. Do recognize that you are accountable for the project’s outcome. (Note: this point drives fierce debate in the classroom discussions.) I’m a staunch advocate of the role as accountable for the outcome of the project. Yes, the project manager requires superhuman skills to navigate the many, many challenging tasks of a complex, strategic project, however, you own ensuring that the big pieces are in place and working. From ensuring clarity around charter, scope, and customer to supporting and ensuring the emergence of a high-performance team and defending the team against the inevitable second-guessers and myriad of corporate distractions and land-mines, you are there to enable success. Take this job seriously!
  6. Don’t attempt to do the project manager’s job. More than a few executives have taken point #5 to the extreme (you’re accountable for the project’s outcome) and have elbowed their project managers out of the way. The roles are complementary, and part of your task is to build a great working dynamic between yourself and the project manager. It won’t be great if you alienate him and assert yourself as the manager.
  7. Don’t assume a high-performance team will emerge without a lot of hard work. As the late team expert, J. Richard Hackman offered, “I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary… But don’t count on it.”You need a team that executes and our temporary and often matrix teams are anything but high performance at the start. Learn to be a team coach.
  8. Don’t assume everyone on the project understands what your role is all about. Build on the upfront role definition work that you and your project manager created. Share this information with the team.
  9. Don’t hide behind your title. Ask team members to evaluate your performance and your contributions. Ideally, ask for frank feedback on where they see you contributing and where they need you to contribute more. Do this mid-stream during the project as well as at the end. Provide the means for them to offer the input directly to you as well as anonymously. Acknowledge the input to the broader group and strive to strengthen your performance over time.
  10. Don’t forget to help the team celebrate. Yes, there’s a bit of ceremony in this job and yes, you can foot the bill for some food and fun. Make certain to call out great group and individual contributions and remember to help everyone enjoy the journey. Do the same yourself!

The Bottom-Line:

It is indeed an honor to serve as an executive sponsor. This role is far from simply ceremonial. It’s one that has a clear purpose in enabling others to do their best work. From supporting the team development to helping the project manager navigate the sticky spots, a great executive sponsor is a critical component of success in complex strategic projects. Do your homework.

Learn the role and dedicate yourself to it with all of the vigor and energy and importance you apply to your other responsibilities. This is a remarkable opportunity to lead and serve and make a difference in your company’s fortunes all at the same time.

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Note: this article originally appeared at Project