How to effectively interact with different types of project sponsors

by Sylvie Edwards

Projects differ from one another in a great number of ways but, the one thing they all have in common is a sponsor. In the course of one’s life, working as a Project Manager (PM), you will come across a number of individuals assigned the role of sponsor but you will soon realize that each of these are not all sponsors are equal in their commitment or support of the project they are made to champion bringing about challenges for a PM.

Sponsor TypesIn working on projects with individuals assigned the key role of sponsor, it is important to truly understand each of these individuals as you will have to work with them closely to deliver on the objectives of the project; sometimes against the odds, the politics of the organization and when it might seem like everything is pushing you backwards. It would be nice to be able to quickly size up a sponsor to determine if he/she will have to be resistant or if they will be in your corner to support you. After dealing with a few challenging projects several years ago, I came up with my own simple categorization technique for sponsors. I noticed that you can distribute them among three distinct types. I have labeled each of these as the “Left,” the “Middle” and the “Right.” Let’s discuss each of these types to see if you agree with my observations.

Type 1: “Left” sponsors

First, one of the most difficult of the three to deal with is the “Left.” A “Left” sponsor will be overly involved in the project; so much so that they will often go over your head as a PM to get things done. I have had several sponsors of this type throughout the years. You can recognize them by certain traits but mostly “Left” sponsors tend to want to take charge and will often voice their displeasure with having to go through a PM to get things done.

To give you the perfect example, let me introduce you to sponsor X. Sponsor X is quite knowledgeable on every aspect of the project, having been a PM themselves for a number of projects before being promoted to their current role. Sponsor X likes to take charge of the project, starting with meetings, and has been known to want to approve all agendas and send them to the team and stakeholders.

For a PM, sponsor X is both a challenge and a blessing but not conducive to work. Sponsor X is highly-motivated but will totally roll over the PM, making the role irrelevant. People will not seek the PM’s opinion but rather go directly to the sponsor for a decision. Being so involved takes any authority away from the PM.

What to do if your sponsor is a type “Left”? You do need to set clear lines of responsibility and authority for both roles before the project starts and often at intervals during the course of execution as well.

Type 2: “Middle” sponsors

Now let’s discuss the “Middle” sponsor type. This type of sponsor stays clear of any decision-making, somewhere between committed and disconnected. These sponsors present a different set of challenges for a PM in the sense that it is rare and difficult to get the appropriate support from them. At the sight of any issue needing support, our “Middle” sponsor will become unengaged and elusive in their decision-making. A PM can only rejoice in the fact that they have all the control of the project. Another symptom in these situations is that the timeline will often suffer due to the lack of clear guidance from the sponsor.

What to do if your sponsor is a type “Middle”? You need to attempt to talk to their sense of value so as to engage them and make them believe that without them, this project cannot be successful. Assigning them clear items on a set timeline will work to ensure that you do not catch them by surprise.

Type 3: “Right” sponsors

Finally, our “Right” sponsor. Every PM deserves to meet one of these pearls of sponsorship in their lifetime.

How does a “Right’’ sponsor differ from the other two? They will be as involved and engaged in the project as the PM will need them to be. Leaving the room and the authority to oversee the project’s activities to the PM but stepping in to support, direct and deal with obstacles. These are gems and, unfortunately, quite rare to find. Chances of having these on more than a few projects are slim to none. Count your blessings if you have a “Right” sponsor on your project.

PM, as your project is about to start, make your first activity to clearly identify which of these types of sponsors yours belongs to. With a little bit of preemptive work, you can hopefully steer them in the right direction and put some strategies in place to help you deliver successfully.


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