Ask a PM: What to Do When Your Sponsor Is Too Busy

Elizabeth Harrin | July 23, 2019

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Dear Elizabeth: We have quite an established project management office, and we use a standard methodology and tools. My team is good, they have experience, and we work well together. My problem is with the levels above me. My sponsor won’t even meet me. She’s a very senior executive, and I can’t get past her PA [personal assistant] to organize a meeting, and she doesn’t respond to emails. What can I do?

You’d be surprised at how often I hear this! Businesses put executives into the role of sponsors and expect them to magically find time in their diaries to support big initiatives—all while doing their day jobs.

You are definitely not the first project manager to have this problem, and you won’t be the last! We’ll look at what you can do, but first, let’s think about what a project sponsor should be doing.

What Sponsors Should Do

A sponsor is someone you can go to for decision making. They unblock problems. They get you the resources. They tell you what is going on in other areas of the business so you can link up your project to the bigger picture and understand where it fits.

In your case, if you’ve got a clear remit to deliver the project and you know what is needed, you might not need anyone to help with making decisions or finding resources. You might be perfectly able to manage the project to a decent conclusion with your experienced team along with the budget and tools you already have.

The challenge comes when you have a problem and no one to go to for help. Your sponsor isn’t close enough to the action to have a clue about what is going on, so she would need support to get her up to speed. Then, she might be in a position to help—if you can get time with her to talk about the problem at all.

Let’s hope your project doesn’t have a massive disaster that needs executive intervention to give you the direction you need. Let’s also be realistic: these things happen! You should have someone to turn to just in case.

A sponsor is part of the framework of good governance on a project. Whether the project is going well or not, you need a sponsor to hold the project manager accountable.

Why Sponsors Don’t Engage

Sometimes sponsors don’t engage because they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. After all, sponsors generally don’t have training about what project sponsorship is; although they should.

Never assume your sponsor knows what you want from them. Sometimes all it takes is to be clear about what is expected and what a sponsor should be doing on the project. You can have a conversation about roles and responsibilities, and that might help.

However, lack of awareness of the role is not what it sounds like for you. Your sponsor sounds too busy or, perhaps, too disinterested in your project.

Being busy is a problem for all senior execs. They will make time for things that are important to them. If your project is strategically significant, they’ll make the time. It sounds as if your project isn’t on their ‘critical for the business’ list. If it was, they’d be prepared to make time for oversight and governance, because they’d know the implications if the project failed.

If your project is less strategically important (but still necessary for the business), the problem might simply be that they trust you to get on and do a good job. They don’t need constant interaction. They think you can handle it, and perhaps you can. However, it’s worth getting clarification on that, so you can agree on tolerances, on boundaries for your responsibilities, and on your exception reporting.

Of course, you need to spend time with someone if you are going to have any kind of conversation at all. I’ll give you some suggestions for getting access to your sponsor next, but ultimately, in your case, I think you’d be better served having someone else in the sponsorship role—more on that in a minute.

How to Get Access to Your Sponsor

I understand the challenge of getting to your sponsor through their executive assistant or PA; those individuals can be fierce controllers of the calendar.

Ask how best to approach your sponsor. Their PA has most likely worked with them for some time and will know how they like to work. Should you book a meeting a month in advance? I sometimes schedule a whole year of monthly steering group meetings with a PA once a project has kicked off. Yes, the meetings sometimes get moved, but at least the commitment is already there so I’m not trying to get time with them at short notice.

Perhaps your sponsor would appreciate a phone call rather than a meeting, or a report instead of a phone call. Talk to people who have worked with the sponsor before and try to change up your style to be easy to work with.

The other day, I bumped into my sponsor in the corridor and then walked with him down three floors to the door of his next meeting, getting clarity on something. It wasn’t the direction I wanted to walk in, but the opportunity was too good to miss! Be ready (and sometimes a bit sneaky—you can engineer bumping into them coming out of a regular meeting where you’ll know they will be, for example).

How to Change Sponsors

Sometimes, whatever you do isn’t enough, and that’s the point where you should consider changing sponsors.

Your project management office or line manager can advise on how to go about that. In my opinion, you should let the current sponsor know that you are seeking someone who could provide more day-to-day input. Ask for their recommendation. Someone on their team might be able to give you the hands-on sponsorship you are after.

Getting the right person as a sponsor is more important than getting any person as a sponsor. The sponsor you end up with might be lower down the business hierarchy, but if they can provide the governance, oversight, decision-making, and support you need, then they will be a better fit.

It sounds to me as if this is the route you need to go. Talk to your PMO first and then make plans to transition the project to another sponsor. Everyone will be happier and more effective as a result.

 

Discuss