Project managers get their fair share of abuse, but being a project sponsor is no picnic either.
In most organizations, project manager is both an organization position and project role so there can be a strong alignment between the functional and project responsibilities for PMs. On the other hand, the sponsor role in all except projectized organizations tends to be a project role only, so sponsors suffer the same challenges that project team members face in terms of being caught between their operational and project responsibilities. In the case of a team member, this challenge is easily enough addressed through effective prioritization of their workload by their functional manager working hand-in-hand with their project managers.
It’s not that easy for sponsors – not only will they have operational duties which might compete with their project responsibilities for their availability, but even the decisions they make will vary depending on whether they are wearing their functional manager “hat” or their project sponsor one.
An example is the situation where the performance of the sponsor’s direct reporting staff on a project is not meeting expectations. If the sponsor is wearing their sponsor hat, he or she should support the PM in resolving the issue such that the project does not suffer. On the other hand, if the sponsor elects to wear their functional hat, the sponsor might focus on what’s best for their team which might not always result in the same level of support.
This situation will certainly frustrate PMs, as they might perceive this behavior as a type of professional schizophrenia which adds yet another element of uncertainty (in other words, risk) to their projects.
It’s a good idea to set expectations up front with sponsors regarding their roles in a similar fashion to what the PM would be expected to do with team members, and to reinforce these expectations regularly.
Acknowledge the needs of the sponsor to meet their functional management responsibilities, but present tangible or quantifiable impacts that will occur if they do not exercise their project sponsor “muscles” when essential. PMs should also be careful when picking their battles – if they constantly force their sponsors to act in favor of the project, over time this will erode the operational or managerial effectiveness of the sponsor.
As with most “soft skills” challenges, empathy, objectivity and “walking a mile in the shoes” of sponsors can help a PM to understand the challenges sponsors face and to come up with more effective ways of presenting risks, issues or decisions to achieve desired outcomes.