ITMPI InsightsProject Management

How to Train Your Sponsor: 13 Critical Tips

The number one factor in determining success or failure of your change initiative is… sponsor engagement. Thought it was communication, didn’t you? Well, yes, the right communication matters a lot, but don’t forget that all of the communication in the world could fall on deaf ears if your sponsor isn’t backing you up.  The engaged sponsor tells everyone that this initiative matters and they are willing to remove barriers to prove it. So, that is something you must get right if you are to successfully drive your change.

1. Make sure they are sponsors: Oftentimes, we have folks in our organization who we call sponsors, but they barely engaged long enough to help you define the project or create a charter. As a result, you stopped hearing from them after their signature was on the dotted line. If they don’t care or are not impacted by the outcomes of the initiative, they may not actually be your sponsor. You may think they should care, but if, ultimately, they don’t, they may not be the right person to go to for help with removing barriers, obtaining resources, solving problems, etc.

2. Define the WIIFM – “what’s in it for me” (for them): Ask yourself what they win or lose as an outcome of this initiative being successful or not so successful. Do they win if this change is successful? Do they lose? What good things might happen to them if this change doesn’t succeed? What happens to them if this change works? You need to understand their motivators so you can understand how to talk to them. If you talk to them in terms of their own WIIFM, you will be speaking their language.

3. Set expectations: They may not know what you need from them.  This could be their first time in the role of sponsor, or maybe no one ever taught them how to engage. Now you have to teach them. Talk in terms of what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. It’s important that you do this both ways. They need to know how you will communicate with them, what you will share, what you will need from them and when, and how you will engage with them throughout the life cycle of the project. This contract sets the tone for your engagement.

4. Gain commitment (for real): Speaking of a contract–write it down. The act of writing it down and sharing it makes it more real. Additionally, to make it feel real to them, have it be your “standard sponsor engagement plan/document/approach.” That gives it the validity of the “this is how we always do it” culture. Get confirmation from them. Make sure they understand (by asking questions, not talking at them).

5. Tell them what you need: In my post “Project Communications Your Sponsor Will LOVE,” I explain how we need to communicate with our executives in meaningful ways and give them the information they need to make educated and informed decisions, to help us keep our project moving. We use something called IRMA, “items requiring management attention.” This is the area on your status report that tells the sponsor, “I want you to do something.” Management appreciates directness and guidance on how they can help. What is the issue and what, specifically, do you want management to do? Executives love simplicity, pictures, and when you answer their (sometimes unspoken) request to, “Show me what to focus on.”

6. Tell them where you need them: Just like you don’t like being dragged into meeting after meeting all day long, neither do they. Generally, your sponsors are people who are in management within an organization–that usually translates to lots of meetings. They shouldn’t be in every meeting. Use the meeting invite thoughtfully. If they are in a meeting, there should be a very specific reason and outcome you expect from their attendance. If you fill them with too much information, they won’t know what is important and what you need them to act on. Tell them what meetings you are having and which ones you need them in, and for what specific reason.

7. Use cc carefully: They shouldn’t be on every email. See above about meetings. You will have them poking their nose into all kinds of stuff that you really do not need them doing, and it will slow you down instead of speed them up.

8. Don’t give them too much information: Give them just what they need to make educated and informed decisions. Then STOP!! Have I made that clear yet? The sponsor with too much information that isn’t all relevant is a dangerous weapon that should never be fired.

9. Actively and regularly engage them: This is a two-way street. If you share with them the information they need to know on a regular basis, and engage them in meaningful conversations, you can generally get what you need. Don’t just call on them when there is an emergency–you will have to spend more time than you would like getting them up to speed. If they have been kept informed to the appropriate level all along, they will be able to act quickly on your behalf.

10. Be very respectful of their time: You want your sponsor to love you and engage? Make every conversation go something like this:

Hi, Sponsor. I have a brief update for you and a couple of items we need help with.

Here is the update. (Use one page or one bullet list–no paragraphs or monologues.)

These are the two items we need help solving:

  1. This is the issue, this is the recommended solution, and this is how I think you could help. What questions do you have?
  2. Second issue is X and we have explored two options, neither of which seem viable because Y will push the date out by three weeks, and Z is going to cost more money than we have in our budget. Could you please help us explore options or determine if our assumed constraints are real?

In both cases, you present the problem and show that you’ve done your homework before coming to the boss/sponsor for a solution. Who doesn’t love that?

Leverage them to help you problem-solve and support the initiative, but don’t bring a laundry list of complaints to them. They don’t want to hear it. It’s time-consuming and unproductive. Save that for another time that you’ve set aside specifically for discussing grievances or when you need coaching. Keep them focused.

11. Speaking of coaching…: Need help getting them to engage? Figure out what kind of manager they are. Some people aren’t very focused when it comes to the details of a project. But if you start sentences with, “Could I ask for some guidance, coaching, thoughts, advice, leadership, etc…,” you may be able to engage them. If they like to share their wisdom, then leverage that to get some of that wisdom thrown toward your project. This is not sneaky or dishonest. This is called meeting your stakeholders where they are and engaging them in the most effective way to get to outcomes. You talk to your kids or friends differently than your boss, right? It’s the same thing.

12. Use the “Power of Sponsor” sparingly: It drives me crazy when people name-drop left and right to get people to act. That’s not leadership. If you go back to the WIIFM for the stakeholder you are trying to get to move, you should be able to motivate them properly. Browbeating them with the boss’s or sponsor’s name all of the time will just annoy them, and ultimately, they will see you have no power. Have real power over people–lead them.

13. Make them look good: People want to do well, and they want to look good in the eyes of their peers or to themselves. If you focus on communicating with them in a way that ties their WIIFM to the successful outcomes of your change initiative, everyone wins.


Laura Barnard will be presenting a free webinar with ITMPI on October 11! Sign up here: The Executive Dashboard: Tell Them What They Need to Know, Then STOP

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