9 Secrets of a Successful Executive Sponsor

The traditional role of an executive sponsor is to ensure a project’s success by efficiently and effectively removing all barriers that are obstructing the positive end result. The executive sponsor plays a pivotal role in making sure that obstacles are removed and that the project maintains a high sense of urgency regardless of the project length. However, all project executive sponsors are not created equally and some are more successful than others. Indeed, some are not successful at all.

In conducting thousands of projects around the globe over 25 years, I have found 9 common secrets that all successful executive sponsors share in their daily routine that maximizes the probability of success. The executive sponsor role for a project is not a figure head role that simply collects and disperses information and successful executive sponsors recognize this in everything they do. Here are the 9 common secrets of a successful executive sponsor.

1.       Successful executive sponsors field the best team. The first role of any coach is to field the right team. The successful executive sponsor recognizes this as critical as this team will be responsible for enacting the change that is to be implemented. Some of the team members will likely fall under the executive’s direct realm of responsibility and others won’t. Some of the team members will likely work for a third party vendor and only be contractually accountable. However, the successful executive sponsor looks at all of these team members as her team members and will ensure they have the right experience and expertise to execute the project plan. Further and most importantly, the successful executive sponsor will ensure all team members have the appropriate amount of capacity to execute the project.

2.       Successful executive sponsors keep everyone focused. Especially with long projects, project fatigue can have a devastating impact to the overall health of a project. Keeping everyone constantly focused on a daily basis to the task at hand is a critical role of the successful executive sponsor. Much of this is done by ensuring all stakeholders and project participants have the time available to focus on the specific tasks. 

3.       Successful executive sponsors stay positive. A project never goes according to plan as there are always issues that need to be resolved, risks that need to be mitigated and tasks that simply take longer than planned. Through all of the bumps along the way, the successful executive sponsor stays positive. Since the executive sponsor sets the cadence for the project, the second the sponsor goes negative, then the rest of the team runs the risk of following the negative cadence. It can get out of control in a hurry. Therefore, successful executive sponsors avoid this by always staying positive.

4.       Successful executive sponsors set clear expectations. Role clarity is critical to any successful project. All too often, executive sponsors assume that everyone knows their role. However, successful executive sponsors take the time upfront to provide role clarity and then constantly reinforce that role clarity along the way. This includes even the most mundane aspects of the project including the cadence for communication, the frequency of project plan updates, the process of decision making and the methods in which scope is controlled. Simply put, nothing is left to chance as the executive sponsor sets clear expectations along the way.

5.       Successful executive sponsors define success by measuring the before and after. Success of the project is more than a milestone on a project plan. The project was initiated for a reason and the successful executive sponsor measures more than the metrics post project completion – she measures the success metrics prior to project initiation to get an accurate baseline in which to measure success against.

6.       Successful executive sponsors pay unwavering attention to project team morale and dynamics. Nothing can derail a project quicker than team morale and personality dynamics. Drama has no place on a project plan but not paying attention to the project team dynamics will allow such weeds to take root. Once drama manifests itself it is very difficult to eradicate. Successful executive sponsors recognize this and create shared goals and rewards in which the entire team benefits and proactively gets involved in resolving differences of opinion productively to ensure they do not have time to fester.

7.       Successful executive sponsors proactively communicate across the entire project team. Communication is key for any successful project and the successful executive sponsor recognizes this and proactively communicates across the enterprise on a predictable basis. Poor executive sponsors only communicate with the project or program manager allowing that person to communicate across the team. As the telephone game gets played, accurate translations get diluted. It is thereby critical for the successful executive sponsor to maintain communication pathways with the entire project team. 

8.       Successful executive sponsors hold everyone equally accountable. As was discussed at the beginning of this article, fielding the right team is a critical component of the successful executive sponsor. Holding all of those individuals equally accountable to play their part is of equal importance. Often times, executive sponsors hold an external vendor who is contractually obligated accountable to produce the results purchased. Successful executive sponsors hold their own team equally accountable, as an example.

9.       Successful executive sponsors celebrate wins along the way. Focusing on the wins along the way, the successful executive sponsor keeps the entire project team motivated to succeed.  Holding the project team accountable can only be done effectively if the project team’s successes are acknowledged, confirmed and rewarded. All successes are stepping stones to a future success and successful executive sponsors celebrate the wins all along the way.