A Difficult Project Sponsor: How to Handle Them [6 Different Types]

How to Handle a Difficult Project Sponsor

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 flavours of difficult project sponsor, and tactics for handling them.

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What Sort of Difficult Project Sponsor?

How to Handle a Difficult Project Sponsor

How to Handle a Difficult Project Sponsor

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 six 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.

The Absentee Sponsor

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:

  • Not approachable – you can’t get enough access to your sponsor. This can be because either they make themselves scarce when you need them. Or, quite simply, they are too busy and your project is too far down their priority list.
  • Not interested – your project just doesn’t excite them. They may have lots of priorities, or few. But your project is not even on the list. They have no intention of helping any more than they absolutely must.
  • Rejecting the role – your project sponsor doesn’t want to be your project sponsor. They may have many reasons, like over-work, fear of the responsibility, or not believing in your project.

The Meddlesome Sponsor

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.

The Directional Sponsor

Not to put too finer 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 an put your project at risk by their narrow focus on what matters most to them.

The Indecisive Sponsor

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.

The Unresourceful Sponsor

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.

The Critical Sponsor

This one also comes in a lot of flavors. Your critical sponsor may be:

  • Demanding and unreasonable
  • Overbearing and aggressive
  • Unsupportive and uncaring
  • 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.

Strategies for Difficult Sponsors

Before we look at specific strategies for the seven types of difficult Project Sponsor, let’s consider some basics that apply in all cases.

General Strategies to Handle a Difficult Project Sponsor

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.

Step 1: Confidence and Competence

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’.

Step 2: Build Your Relationship a Little at a Time

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.

Step 3: Acknowledge their Needs

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!

Step 4: Recognition, Compliments, and Praise

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.

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Now let’s get into specific strategies to help you handle particular difficult Project Sponsor behaviors.

How to Handle an Absentee Sponsor

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 tactics are putting meetings into their diary. For this, building a good relationship with their sercetary or executive assistant will be a valuable investment. Another way to create commitment is routine. This means 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:

  • Risk and responsibility
  • Duty and obligation
  • Benefits and advantages
  • Control and Power
  • Reputation and kudos

How to Handle a Meddlesome Sponsor

Typically a meddlesome sponsor wants to be in control. So micro-managing your project is their way of achieving it. So 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. An example is fear of failure. If your difficult Project Sponsor is afraid your project will fail and reflect badly on them, then focus their attention on risk management work, to comfort them. Engage them in helping to identify and assess risks. Then share your mitigation plans and progress with the.

If their concern is progress, develop a reporting process that addresses that need, and if it’s budgetary control, then keep a tight rein on the finances, and report budget status regularly – as often as they want. One tactic that can help with all meddlesome sponsors is to work with them to develop a dashboard of information that they want to see, and update it as often as they feel they need.

Another need that a meddlesome Project Sponsor may expressing is to feel valued and important to your project. If this is the case, then use your meetings to ask their advice. Bring concerns, challenges, and problems to them. Flatter them by listening to their suggestions and taking their advice. If you choose the topics, they won’t have as much need to poke their fingers into other parts of your project.

How to Handle a Directional Sponsor

For me, this is the toughest difficult Project Sponsor behavior. This is because a directional sponsor is often playing a political game for their own gain. This makes them potentially dangerous, so you need to handle them with care.

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. If they are, then you only need to ensure you wrap good governance processes around their judgment. If you think they are wrong, you need to find a way to subject them and their opinions to external governance processes that will test their thinking openly and have the authority to over-ride it.

The Political Sponsor

Let’s come back to the political sponsor. 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. 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 nature, 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 and 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.

How to Handle an Indecisive Sponsor

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 wth great care… Sometimes, you can help your Project Sponsor make their decisions, by the way you present 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, and you are clear what is right, and you are prepared to take the consequences.

Guiding your Sponsor’s Decision

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, but 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.

How to Handle an Unresourceful Sponsor

One of the things we most want from our Project Sponsor is access to resources. Their advocacy for people, budgets, or even more time, can get us 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.

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How to Handle a Critical Sponsor

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 a respectful 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 to 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.

Finally, how do you deal with more criticism than you feel is  fair, or criticism dealt-out harshly? 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.

What are your Strategies for Your Own Difficult Project Sponsor?

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 our article Eight Approaches for how to Engage Your Project Sponsor.

About the Author Mike Clayton

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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  • Alan says:

    I am currently working with a directional sponsor. Various aspects of the project require multiple approvals from other areas. I include the sponsor in those discussions to provide transparency to the organization and an opportunity for the sponsor to share their vision and gather supporters. That way I utilize the existing governance to show the sponsor that I am going through the proper channels to complete the project. However, the sponsor is now saying that we do not need those approvals. Did I choose the correct course of action?

    • Mike Clayton says:

      I would say that you did choose the right approach, Alan. It can never be wrong to expose important decisions to scrutiny by the right people.

      In your situation, I would aim to get an open validation on your sponsor’s assertion that you don’t need these multiple approvals. I’d first find out what your sponsor’s reasoning is – or the case they’d like you to put. Then, I’d address a simple email to each approver individually, making the request and reflecting the sponsor’s arguments, requesting their comments on how you can streamline the process, whilst still maintaining proper accountability. Let each one know you are making the same or a similar request to their peers. Don’t put your own views. Reflect your sponsor’s views accurately, copying him/her in.

      I suspect the other approvers will chat with one another and state their preferences robustly. If challenged, represent your own interest as finding ‘the best solution for effective delivery, in the interests of the organization’. Because that’s what it is: to balance the needs of efficient delivery against those of proper governance.

      I wish you well, and do drop me a line (or add to this thread) to let me know what you do and how it plays out.

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