In Step with Projects

In Pace with Progress

Effective Sponsorship Series (1)


Author: Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez     Source: PMR

PMR Magazine collected top experts' viewpoints on the topic sponsorship. The following is  Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez's contribution:

This is an extract from Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez's book, Lead Successful Projects (2019, Penguin).

The governance of the project and the allocation of accountability and responsibility is a key area to secure in the early stages of project planning. Just as an organization or business has a chief executive who is in charge and accountable for its operations, the same is true for a project where the executive sponsor is accountable for the overall success or failure of the project. Establishing a clear governance structure at the beginning of the initiative is essential, as is selecting a sponsor with the qualifying skill set required to for them to lead the project to success.

The measure of success for which the sponsor is accountable is the benefits that will accrue once the project has delivered, is being operated or exploited by the users (clients, employees, and citizens). This is significant because it means that the sponsor not only needs to make sure that the project delivers but that the benefits associated with the project are still desirable and achievable. This explains why they have to be an advocate. This involves sense-checking throughout the project that it is still needed or, in the event that things have changed, redirecting or recommending the project’s cancellation if continued advocacy is no longer appropriate. Note that today there is pressure to deliver benefits before the project is fully delivered, requiring more agile ways to look at how the project will be structured. 

Many projects still start without any clear decision who is ultimately accountable for their successful delivery. As projects tend to run across geographies, business units, functions, departments, and organizational boundaries they are often prone to ‘shared accountability and collective sponsorship.’ As a result, many executives feel responsible, yet no one is really accountable for driving the project to completion.

Once, when I was speaking to the CEO of a large global telecoms company, he bluntly admitted that, “Currently, I am the executive sponsor of 18 projects. The three projects to which I dedicate time to follow through – by supporting the project leader and team, and chairing the steering committee – go much better than the 15 that I sponsor but to which I really don’t dedicate any time.”
Organizations need to understand that the executive sponsor is one of the most vital and influential roles in any project, especially in those projects that are strategic and transversal (across departments, organizations or supply chains). The more complex the project, the more critical the executive sponsor role and the more time it demands.

The executive sponsor, together with the project manager, set the tone for the project and define the project governance. Governance involves a definition of the various contributing roles, stakeholders and decision-making bodies for the project. Once the areas of responsibility are clearly defined, they are represented by a project organizational chart. 

One of the most important bodies in a project is the steering committee, which is chaired by the executive sponsor and run by the project manager. The members and the frequency with which they meet often determine the importance the project has for the organization. 

I remember being on a large integration project of two European banks. Its steering committee, chaired by the CEO, met every day at 5pm to discuss the status of the merger. Imagine the pressure that this reflected on the organization. For all of us, it was evident that the integration project was the number-one priority, and we had to show progress every day. In contrast, I have also worked on a project where the steering committee met every three months. To make matters worse, most senior leaders didn’t show up because they had other priorities, and those who were present barely remembered what the project was about. The first project was extremely successful, the second a complete failure.

What does an absence of effective sponsorship look like?

In 2004, the UK’s Department for Community and Local Government launched a project called FIReControl which aimed to improve the resilience, efficiency and technology of the Fire and Rescue Service.

In 2010, having already spent £245 million, it was estimated that the final spend required to deliver the project could be as much as £635 million (more than five times the total original budget) and the project was cancelled. The UK National Audit Office highlighted the failings of accountability and governance that had contributed to such poor project performance:

“Governance arrangements in the first five years of the project were complex and ineffective, which led to unclear lines of responsibility and slow decision-making”  .

Without strong governance, the inertia of the organization will make a project battle for resources and attention, leading the project to delays and eventually failure.

To address these organizational forces, senior leaders need to play a key role in supporting the project and providing the resources and time required to complete the work. Therefore, it is essential for the success of large transversal projects that senior leaders assume the steering committee role and responsibilities reflected in the project organizational chart.

The Benefit of an Effective Sponsor  
Three of the organizational challenges faced by projects that executives need to be aware of and that strong sponsor will address are:
● Resources are often not fully dedicated to the project and have other responsibilities: For example, a Java development expert whose main job is to keep the website up and running is asked to join a digitization project. Her current responsibilities are not modified, therefore her contribution to the strategic project will be on top of her day-to-day job. Not being fully dedicated will have an impact on the speed of the project.
● Resources have different reporting lines outside the project: For example, a legal expert is part of a GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) project, which is led by the vice president of the business. The legal expert is not participating in the weekly project team meetings. The vice president has tried to convince the legal expert to join, but as she doesn’t report to him she doesn’t feel obliged to follow his instructions.
● Departments’ objectives are different and regularly more important than the project’s objectives: For example, a finance controller is required to participate in the development of the business case of a large company-wide project. However, his direct boss, the CFO, is under pressure to finalize the annual accounts, a key objective for the finance department. Despite having some tight deadlines, the project is at the mercy of the CFO’s willingness to cooperate.

Shortly after Fortis Bank collapsed in 2008 with the financial crisis, BNP Paribas made an offer to the Belgian Government to acquire the distressed bank. In May 2009 the acquisition was approved by the shareholders. Baudouin Prot, CEO of BNP Paribas said: “The project of tying up with Fortis Bank will be strongly value creative for all stake holders…”. And to lead the integration project he appointed BNP Paribas CFO, Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, who was sent to Brussels on a clear mission: Fortis had to be integrated within the next three years. He established a daily Steering Committee, which included all the business and function heads, where they reviewed closely the status of the integration. The pressure on the entire organization was tremendous. The entire 15.000 workforce didn’t have a doubt on what was the priority and where they had to spend their time: integration activities. 

Jean-Laurent Bonnafé played an extremely active role in the project; he was what I call an engaged, committed and decisive sponsor. Needless to say that the integration project was a success, completed one year in advance.

Selecting the right executive sponsor that will oversee and drive the project.
Most of the time, the executive sponsor is naturally selected, based on where the project originates. However, here are a few criteria that may help you to choose the right person:
● who has the highest vested interest in the outcome of the project?
● is he or she owner of a budget, both financial and resources?
● is he or she high enough up in the organization to be able to make budget decisions?
● are they ready to dedicate at least one day of their time each week to support the project?
● (preferably) does he or she have a good understanding of the technical matters of the project?
● Is he or she clearly accountable for the outcome of the project? Do they understand their obligations and responsibility and 

● will they demonstrate through their approach that the project for which they have oversight is a priority alongside their other work?

As a minimum, the following summarise the responsibilities of the executive sponsor.
Sponsors have oversight of the project in three areas: 
- The commercial aspects of the project - the budget and costs; making sure that project is running to schedule and on budget, overseeing changes to either (if required) and assuring the business case
- The way that the project is run - that it is managed both ethically and in line with the requirements of the business. Projects are collaborative enterprises, often involving individuals and organizations beyond the client company or project owner. The project sponsor is guardian of the trust associated with that collaboration
- Finally, perhaps the most challenging element; the sponsor is responsible for the benefits that the project is designed to deliver; specifically, sense-checking the project at regular intervals to make sure that it will continue to deliver the benefits that were agreed during the planning stages, and eventually accelerate them. They have the power to redirect, pause or even advocate closure if, for any of these reasons, the project starts to drift.  

He or she will:
● ensure the project’s strategic significance - which means they need to understand both the project and the organization’s strategy
● establish approval and funding for the project - remember the idea is not to establish approval at all costs, so the sponsor needs to ensure the business case is balanced
● promote support from key stakeholders - as a senior manager within the organization, the sponsor has influence and should use it
● resolve conflicts and make decisions - when issues are escalated up to the sponsor, it is important that he or she is willing to take responsibility for their solution
● be accessible and approachable – on-call support for the project leader - the project sponsor is one of the roles that reflects the model of the ‘leader as facilitator’ 
● participate in periodic reviews - having the requisite time to prepare for and attend reviews should be a key part of the sponsors personal performance measures
● chair the steering committee - playing the role of honest broker
● encourage recognition - project teams that succeed are often undervalued because the essence of good project management is avoiding drama and crisis
● support closure review - the two elements of many closure reviews: lessons learned and benefits realisation assessment are amongst the most overlooked and yet they underpin organizational performance and development
● be ultimately accountable for the project - the project sponsor needs to have ‘skin in the game’; if he or she doesn’t believe the project will deliver the benefits that were originally agreed then it’s their job to redirect the project, require changes or recommend cancellation

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez ( is a leading expert in project management and strategy implementation, recognized by Thinkers50 with the prestigious award “Ideas into Practice.” He is the author of Lead Successful Projects (2019, Penguin)  The Project Revolution (2019, LID) and The Focused Organization (2012 Gower), and has been teaching project management for more than a decade to senior executives at Duke CE, Skolkovo, Solvay Business School, and Vlerick. Antonio has held executive positions at PricewaterhouseCoopers, BNP Paribas, and GlaxoSmithKline. Former Chairman of the Project Management Institute, he is the co-founder of the Strategy Implementation Institute and the global movement Brightline. He is a member of Marshall Goldsmith's 100 Coaches.  

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