In an earlier article, we gave you eight approaches for how to engage your project sponsor. But the commonest challenge is ‘what if I have a difficult project sponsor?’ So in this article, we’ll look at seven flavors of difficult project sponsor, and tactics for handling them.
Before we start, we need to define what we mean by a ‘difficult Project Sponsor’. After all, people just do what they do. The difficulty we have is when we don’t have the flexibility to deal with their behaviors. So, let’s start by listing some of the behaviors Project Managers find challenging to handle.
Here are seven difficult Project Sponsor behaviors I’ve frequently encountered. In one way or another, I’ve had to deal with most of them myself. But I also get asked about each of these a lot. Some come in a range of subtly different flavors:
This is the commonest in my experience, and comes about when your project sponsor does not take enough interest in you or your project. Some of the common variants of this behavior are:
This is also a common behavior. Here, your difficult Project Sponsor wants to be too involved and gets in your way. They focus too much on the details and the tactical project issues, rather than strategic governance topics. And they cannot resist meddling with your day-to-day decisions.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this sponsor has their own agenda. And they pursue it without due regard to wider organizational concerns. They won’t listen to advice, and they put your project at risk by their narrow focus on what matters most to them.
As challenging as a sponsor who always decides in one direction is a sponsor that finds it hard to decide at all. Decision-making is a vital part of the governance of a project (See our article ‘What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us?‘). If your difficult Project Sponsor can’r make decisions, or takes too long, you will often lack the direction you need. This will have significant cost, schedule, and quality implications.
Like the Directional Sponsor, the Political Sponsor has a particular axe to grind. But in pursuing their agenda, they are keen to play one stakeholder off against another. They will be adept at building alliances and sometimes will stoop to manipulative and unscrupulous behavior.
One of the roles of a good Project Sponsor, is to help you solve problems, and access the resources you need. They must be good negotiators with the organizational clout to get things done, and the will to use their influence on your project’s behalf. If, for whatever reason, they canoot or are unwilling to do this for you, you have lost a valuable ally.
This one also comes in a lot of flavors. Your critical sponsor may be:
or just plain Critical of what you do!
All these types of difficult Project Sponsor fail to make your role easier, at best. And at worst, they can make your life a misery. So, to help you, we’ll look at:
Before we look at specific strategies for the seven types of difficult Project Sponsor, let’s consider some basics that apply in all cases.
There is a simple four-step process that will help you with difficult Project Sponsor behavior. It isn’t guaranteed to work: nothing is with people. But it will get you started in the right direction.
You need to build respect from your sponsor, so at all times you must show you are competent in your role, and confident of your abilities. Prepare well each time before you meet your difficult Project Sponsor, and put on your ‘game face’.
For your sponsor to gain confidence in you, you need to show calm competence and real progress. This is, of course, a case of needing to under-promise and over-deliver.
Take the attitude that, no matter how challenging you find their behavior, your sponsor is just a person. They will have their strong points and there will be things you can learn from them. So slowly and surely set out to woo them and build a good relationship. Don’t rush it. But, by a series of concessions, small favors, thoughtful acts, and taking an interest in them, you will gain their trust.
And never under-estimate the power of asking for advice. IT flatters and also gives a measure of control. Indeed, let’s not forget that you may learn something too!
Listen to what they have to say and read the mood music. You need to understand what is important to your sponsor, because their difficult behavior is almost certainly their attempt to serve their own needs. If you can gauge those meeds and meet them directly, your difficult Project Sponsor may just become a pussy cat!
Take a look at our article: ‘Do You Know What your Project Sponsor Wants?’ It will set you up to succeed with this step.
The things that motivate you and your team will also motivate your sponsor. Recognize their contributions and praise them, so they feel good about helping you and your project. And offer genuine compliments, to build liking.
Now let’s get into specific strategies to help you handle particular difficult Project Sponsor behaviors.
There may be many reasons why your absentee sponsor is hard to get hold of, but your first strategy will always be ‘commitment’. Create a commitment that they will find hard to break.
One common tactic is putting meetings into their diary. For this, building a good relationship with their secretary or executive assistant will be a valuable investment.
Another way to create commitment is routine. This means you may be able to rely on a small commitment of a few minutes a week, at a time and place that suits your sponsor. Regularity has a huge value, and you can focus the short time you have on either what is most vital to you or on what is most engaging to your sponsor.
Depending on their reason for being an absentee sponsor, you can emphasise the importance of their limited engagement by reference to:
Typically a meddlesome sponsor wants to be in control. So micro-managing your project is their way of achieving it.
Therefore, the best strategy is to give them control. But focus their attention on areas of your project where that control will be either of most value or of least harm.
If you can, discover why they need this level of control. This way, you can find ways to give them the control they need, without them needing to meddle.
For me, this is the toughest difficult Project Sponsor behavior. This is because a directional sponsor is often focused on their own gain. This makes them potentially dangerous, so you need to handle them with care.
But it’s also possible that they are driving your project in a specific direction because they think it is right. In this case, your priority is to determine, as best you can, whether they are correct.
Building a guiding governance structure around your sponsor is also the most secure strategy when your Project Sponsor’s difficult behavior is related to poor, slow, or absent decision-making. If your sponsor is unable to set clear expectations and make tough choices that are beyond your remit, your project will stall. Good governance demands good decision-making.
So treat this next suggestion with great care…
Sometimes, you can help your Project Sponsor make their decisions, by the way that you present options to them. This obviously risks placing the decisions with you, and using your sponsor as a shield. That is wrong. But sometimes, you need to proceed, you are clear what is right, and you are prepared to take the consequences.
Whatever you do, however, you must NOT manipulate your sponsor. And you must be transparent in making a recommendation, justifying it, and giving them the final choice.
Too many options will make it hard to decide, so start by limiting the options. If there are genuinely several options, don’t hide some. Instead, start by presenting a triage:
There are six options. We’ve analyzed them and rejected these three, for the following reasons…’
Now you have three options to present. Often, people favor the ‘middle’ option. To nudge your sponsor in that direction, show how the others represent extremes. And also focus your case on the things your sponsor believes are most important. These could be: cost, return on investment, risk, quality, safety, customer experience, timing, or any of a large number of considerations.
One other way to help a sponsor make a decision is to help them feel safe in doing so. Often indecisiveness is focused not on the consequences of making this choice or that. Rather, it’s about the risk of not making that choice, or this. Ask yourself in what ways each option is safest for your sponsor and how the alternatives are safe to abandon.
The political sponsor is rather like the directional sponsor. But the direction is motivated by self-interest. And it often lacks objective evidence in its support.
First you need to figure out what their agenda is. Is it one that you can accommodate without threatening the integrity of your project? The best way I know to surface an agenda, in terms that your sponsor should find comfortable to share openly, is to ask their ‘evidence procedure’. Ask them, in their role as Project Sponsor, to articulate their answer to:
At the end of this project, how will you assess whether it has been a success?’
This brings us to the possibility that your political Project Sponsor could potentially undermine your project. This is a nightmare scenario.
You could, of course, struggle against them at every turn. This will sap your energy and risk creating a dangerous adversary, with the likelihood that you’ll lose more battles than you win. The nature of the Project Manager – Project Sponsor relationship is, by necessity, rarely one of equal power and influence. So, you need allies.
Distasteful and uncomfortable as it may be, you need to gather some senior-level support. But you need to avoid getting drawn into political game-playing. So, the best way to do this is to try to build a governance structure around your sponsor. This way, other senior people can be part of the direction-setting and decision-making and so keep your difficult Project Sponsor in check. And their role is transparent and open to scrutiny.
One of the things you most want from your Project Sponsor is access to resources. Their advocacy for people, budgets, or even more time, can get you out of a bind. Often, they are politically astute, and know where to go for the resources you need, and how to negotiate for them. So a sponsor who cannot or will not do this less than ideal.
The strategy here has to be to help your sponsor to help you. Be very clear about what you need and flatter them by asking advice about how to get it. Instead of asking them to do things, try asking for their permission to do it on their behalf. Maybe they can make introductions, or at least allow you to drop their name.
If you need them to negotiate, help them by preparing briefing materials that include persuasive arguments they can use. Help them to look good and they will want to help you for their own benefit.
Our last kind of difficult Project Sponsor behavior is often the most unpleasant. They’ll criticize or undermine you or, at best, they simply won’t give you the help and guidance you need from them. Often this type of behavior arises from character flaws in your sponsor, so it’s the hardest to deal with.
At one extreme, this can be a form of bullying from someone who wants to feel powerful, but lacks any idea how to gain respect in an appropriate way. With bullies, your best strategy is to calmly, respectfully, but assertively, stand up to them.
Accept that you aren’t going to get the support and guidance you want or need – there’s no form of compulsion that would work. Instead, go looking for it somewhere else. Most experienced project managers are only too happy to mentor and guide newer project managers. So find someone you’d like to work with and ask politely. If you are already an experienced PM, then look to a peer to coach and support you, and maybe to bounce ideas around with.
As with all feedback, welcome it and be curious. You can always learn from someone. But if this is a sponsor who gets their kicks from making you feel small, then by welcoming their critique and asking questions, they’ll soon realize you aren’t the pushover they’re looking for. They’ll move on to an easier target.
Have you had to deal with a difficult Project Sponsor. If you have, what strategies did you use? As always, we welcome ideas from our community, and we’ll respond to all comments.
In the meantime, don’t forget to take a look at some of our other articles on working with project sponsors:
Project Sponsors are just one part of the Project Governance process. If that’s where you need to develop your knowledge, we have you covered:
Difficult sponsors are just one of the communication problems you’ll need to tackle, as a Project manager. So, take a look at these resources too:
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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