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Are You My Sponsor?

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iStock_000006230006XSmallIn the popular children’s book A Mother for Choco, a baby bird goes looking for its mother.  He stops and asks Mrs. Giraffe, Mrs. Walrus, and others “Are you my mommy?”  But to no avail.  None of these potential mommies looks like Choco and so he is left alone and very sad and begins to cry, “Mommy, mommy, I need a mommy!”

Finally, Mrs. Bear comes along and asks “If you had a mommy, what would she do?”  Choco explains that his mommy would give him hugs and kisses, sing and dance with him to cheer him up, etc.  When Mrs. Bear suggests that she could be his mommy, he happily goes home with Mrs. Bear and meets her other children, his new brothers and sisters: Ally (a baby alligator), Hippy (a baby hippo), and piggy (a baby piggy).  (Lemme tell ya – Hallmark commercials have nothing on this book when it comes to bringing me to tears.)

For us adoptive parents, this is a favorite story because we define ourselves as parents not by our biological relationships and how much our children look like us, but by our emotional and personal relationships, how we treat each other and meet each others’ needs.  Love, not blood, makes us good mommies and daddies.

How many project managers feel like Choco, wandering corporate halls looking not for a mommy, but a sponsor, asking “Are you my sponsor?”

What exactly are these PMs looking for?  What do their sponsors need to “look” like?  Who should their sponsor be?

Too often, like Choco, we think sponsors need to “look” a certain way.  Unlike Choco, however, project managers are typically looking for someone who doesn’t look like them: sponsors need to be “higher” than they are.

And that is quite true.  Whether it’s resolving cross-functional conflict, securing resources, or championing a project at all levels of the organization, a peer isn’t going to be able to help you with the things that you need from a sponsor.

But sponsors don’t have to look a certain way.  They don’t have to have a particular title, work in a particular office, or have certain letters after their name to be effective sponsors.  Commitment and availability, not position, make us good sponsors.

I remember a student in one of my Project Management Fundamentals classes who suggested that her company’s CEO was the sponsor of all of her projects.  After all, she explained, that’s whose name was in the box labeled sponsor.  Now, this was at a Fortune 100 company and she was a novice project manager.  Upon hearing this, I thought to myself “I’ll bet you’re good, but I’ll bet you’re not that good.”  I’m fairly certain the CEO of that company did not have regularly-scheduled meetings with her to be updated on the project status.  In fact, I’ll even go out on a limb here and suggest that he probably didn’t even have a clue who she was.

So, unfortunately, that project manager didn’t have a sponsor; she had a name in a box.

Who makes for a good sponsor isn’t so much a function of what they “look” like, i.e., where they sit on the organization chart or whether or not they get invited to the executive 3-day offsite meetings.  It’s more about their ability to “do” what it is the project manager needs from them.   My last article, What’s on Your Sponsorship Short List?, highlighted some of the things project managers may need from sponsors.  The answer as to who will make the best sponsor must start there.

For example, if capital acquisition isn’t a component of a project, a sponsor may not need to be someone with a say in budgetary expenditures.   Or, perhaps a project in which the project manager is relatively new to the organization and may need more assistance with navigating political terrain may benefit from a sponsor who is a little “closer to home” on the org chart.

Regardless of what is needed from the sponsor, there is one thing that every sponsor must be able to do for any project manager on any project: Be willing and available to develop a real, working relationship with the project manager.  Whoever management decides is the best person to sponsor a project, it must be someone who will actually make time on a regular basis to meet with the project manager and to consume information about the project in order to do what is needed from them.  A name in a box on a project management plan cover page does not a sponsor make.

In fact, I would rather have a “real” sponsor who is less senior but actually interested and engaged in the project and able to meet my needs, than have a senior executive who will never have time for me — even if it means that my sponsor may have to run some things up the chain of command for decisions periodically.  Those time delays are likely to be significantly less than the project inertia that results from an absent, disinterested sponsor.

So, sponsor assigners: When deciding who should sponsor organizational projects, don’t make Chocos out of your project managers!  Find out: What does Choco need and who is the Mrs. Bear who will be available and interested in making sure he gets that?

Because project managers of sponsorless projects wandering the halls may not be a sight that brings anyone to tears, but it is pitiful – and avoidable.

Next, Project Sponsorship – Strategies for Increasing Sponsorship Success.

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