The November 2014 issue of PM Network includes analysis from research focusing on the role of the project sponsor. While there were no revelations as far as the criticality of the sponsor role or which are the key activities performed by a sponsor, one statistic did catch my attention.
Only 36% of the organizations which were surveyed provided development for the role of an executive sponsor. This value is low given that the same study revealed that one out of three unsuccessful projects had poorly engaged sponsors as the root cause and having effective sponsors generated a 15% improvement in project success rates.
So why isn’t this happening?
It would be easy to blame low organizational project management maturity – that happens to be one of my favorite boogeyman for most project management “sins”! However, that does not account for such a low percentage – my own empirical evidence supports the premise that even companies at higher levels of project management maturity rarely have any type of structured development programs in place to cultivate successful sponsors. A more plausible explanation is that there is an assumption being made that when someone has become an executive that they have already gained the hard & soft skills required to be an effective project sponsor.
But is this really true?
Many executives reach their positions as a result of a track record of management success. The competencies required to manage a line of business are very different from those needed to successful champion change. Dr. John Kotter’s classic HBR article, What Leaders Really Do, covers this in depth and the following paragraph stands out:
Most U.S. corporations today are over-managed and underled. They need to develop their capacity to exercise leadership. Successful corporations don’t wait for leaders to come along. They actively seek out people with leadership potential and expose them to career experiences designed to develop that potential. Indeed, with careful selection, nurturing, and encouragement, dozens of people can play important leadership roles in a business organization.
One word in that last sentence is key – nurturing.
So what should be done?
Developing sponsors takes more than just turning them loose on a project – the same development strategies which are used with project managers could be adapted for sponsors. Assessing skills and experience is the first step – those can help to provide insights into which executives are NOT suited to be sponsors. Those assessments can also provide input into the creation of personal development plans which should combine formal training on project leadership with experience-based learning. The latter might start with roles serving on steering committees and then moves into progressively more challenging sponsorship roles.
A sustainment component required within such a development program is an onboarding process which gets executed whenever a project is ready to kick off. That process would provide the sponsor with a refresher on their role including expected behaviors and responsibilities.
Lies, damned lies and statistics can certainly be used to support just about any argument, but the better trained a sponsor, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to effectively support a project.