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Project Manager to Project Sponsor: How to Make a Difficult Transition?

Project Manager to Project Sponsor: How to Make a Difficult Transition?

The transition from Project Manager to Project Sponsor is a difficult one. You have many great skills and a positive attitude to making things happen. But now, you need to change your mindset.

And, of course, you need to acquire some new skills to operate as an effective Project Sponsor.

Let’s not forget, though, that Project Managers already have much of the knowledge and skill-set that a good Project Sponsor needs. Indeed, my experience has been that too many Project Sponsors have little or no Project Management experience. Their understanding of the project environment is weak.

Former Project Managers can make some of the best Project Sponsors. And for some, this will be a welcome career step. So, in this article, we will look, in depth, at how to make the transition from Project Manager to Project Sponsor.

Project Manager to Project Sponsor: What we Will Cover

Project Manager to Project Sponsor: How to Make a Difficult Transition?

Project Sponsor as:

  1. Direction Setter
  2. Decision Maker
  3. Support Provider
  4. Political Operator
  5. Resource Finder
  6. Project Overseer
  7. Board Facilitator
  8. Border Guard
  9. Cheer Leader
  10. Project Referee

And, a bonus role

  1. Project Sponsor as Source of Wisdom

As you can see, we have plenty to tackle. So, let’s get started!

What is a Project Sponsor?

You’ll find plenty of descriptions of a Project Manager. But far fewer of what a Project Sponsor is and does.

For me, the sponsor is the driving force that pushes the project forward. They are the person who is prepared to stand up and say, conspicuously:

‘I believe that we need this project’

And, beyond that, they are prepared to take the action (and expend their political clout) to make it happen.

How the Associations Define the Project Sponsor Role

Of course, this would not be an OnlinePMCourses article without us digging out what the big names in Project Management have to say about a definition…

The Project Management Institute (PMI)

A simple, elegant definition. it captures a lot in a little space.

Sponsor:
A person or group who provides resources and support for the project, program, or portfolio and is accountable for enabling success.

Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide): 6th Edition (Glossary)
Project Management Institute (PMI)

The Association for Project Management (APM)

I find this a slightly clumsy definition, but I do like the focus on governance: ‘accountable for ensuring that the work is governed effectively’.

Sponsor:
A critical role as part of the governance board of any project, programme or portfolio. The sponsor is accountable for ensuring that the work is governed effectively and delivers the objectives that meet identified needs.

APM Body of Knowledge: 7th Edition (Glossary)
Association for Project Management

Axelos / PRINCE2

Taken together with the role PRINCE2 defines for ‘executive’, this is an excellent definition.

Sponsor:
The main driving force behind a programme or project. PRINCE2 does not define a role for the sponsor, but the sponsor is most likely to be the executive on the project board, or the person who has appointed the executive.

Executive:
The individual with overall responsibility for ensuring that a project meets its objectives and delivers the projected benefits. … The executive is the chair of the project board. He or she represents the customer and is responsible for the business case

Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 6th (2017) Edition (Glossary)
Axelos Limited and TSO

OnlinePMCourses

This definition is my own. It’s aged pretty well and I still like it.

Project Sponsor:
Represents the needs of the organization to the project and the needs of the project to the organization. Acts as ‘manager’ to the Project Manager. Part of the project governance process, the sponsor will either contribute to, or be wholly responsible for, oversight and decision-making. They are supported by a project board or steering group.

Be on the Inside: Decode the Jargon of Project Management (Second Edition)
Dr Mike Clayton, OnlinePMCourses

Conclusion on the Role of the Project Sponsor

I think you’ll agree that each definition adds something of value. Our understanding is enhanced by taking all of these definitions together.

However, what matters most is the components of the job. And for that, I see 11 roles, which we’ll look at below.

Governance and the Project Sponsor Role

Before we do though, I commended the APM definition for its focus on governance. You’ll mostly find this in the roles below, of Project Sponsor as:

Project Sponsor as Direction Setter

To begin, the Project Sponsor is the person who defines the original need for your project. They promote its necessity. Consequently, there are two principal roles they need to fulfill here.

The Project Sponsor Interprets Business Need

In determining tat a project is necessary, the sponsor is relating business mission, vision, or strategy to a need for some new process, asset, or product.

This requires a level of strategic thinking that most project managers are not exposed to, early in your careers. However, the PMI rightly emphasizes the need for Business Acumen in your continuing professional development (CPD). It places Strategic and Business Management as one side of its Talent Triangle.

For more on the relationship of Organizational Strategy to Projects, check out these videos, which asnswer the question, What is…

The Project Sponsor Supports Project Definition

The earliest stage of a project is about defining what it is and what it is not. And this is where the Project Sponsor needs to be most actively involved. But, the transition from Project Manager to Project Sponsor is one of letting the Project Manager get on with their job.

Your role is now to advise, prompt, and then review and challenge. Your active part is in consulting with other senior stakeholders and feeding their thoughts to the Project Manager and their team.

The two documents you will take greatest interet in are:

  1. The Project Definition, Terms of Reference, or Outline Project Initiation Document.
    At a strategic level, here are three important questions you should be asking.
  2. The Business Case, Project Investment Appraisal, or Project Proposal.
    If you need to guide your Project Manager to writing an effective Business Case/Project proposal, send them to this video.

Project Sponsor as Decision Maker

A second governance role is as a decision-maker for decisions that your Project Manager is not authorized, qualified, or experienced enough to make. Some decisions you will, of course, refer to your Project Board (see below).

But a big part of your job will be as your PM’s first line of decision-making escalation. Be careful. Don’t get into the habit of making decisions for them that are within their competence. That way, you risk stifling their professional development and independence. And maybe also you risk saddling yourself with more work than you want or need!

So, the skills you need to accumulate to fulfill this role are:

  • forensic questioning
  • careful challenge
  • robust evaluation
  • critical thinking
  • and finally, understanding what a sound decision-making process is

Project Sponsor as Support Provider

Project Managers often do not have a simple line-manager in the way that senior operational managers do. So, in the context of the project, this is your role to play.

Appraisal

Yes, there may be a formal appraisal role for you here. This would require you to set goals and assess the Project Manager’s performance against them. But I consider this the least important of your support roles. Far more important are the informal roles…

Listening Ear

Project Management is a stressful profession. And no Project Sponsor will understand this as well one who started their career at the sharp edge of the project world. So you will know and understand that sometimes your PM will need nothing more than someone to listen to them, uncritically. Someone to share their triumphs and tragedies. And someone to empathize with their experiences. That should be the Project Sponsor.

Mentor

I have written a long article about how to mentor Project Managers. A Project Sponsor with PM experience will make a fabulous mentor (as long as the chemistry is right).

Mentoring is sharing the benefit of your experiences with a less experienced colleague.

Coach

I have also written at length about coaching. The coach will ask questions and listen hard to the answers. The purpose of the questioning and coaching is to help a learner to figure out their own solutions to how to:

  • improve their performance
  • fix their issues, or
  • resolve their problems for themselves

Project Sponsor as Political Operator

As a Project Manager, you probably tried your best to stay out of politics. It isn’t possible of course. But PMs do like to minimize their exposure to politics, so we can get on with the task of delivering our projects.

But, for a Project Sponsor, politics will become your natural habitat. The politics of the:

  • project
  • department
  • division
  • service line
  • organization
  • industry
  • community
  • … and more

The transition from Project Manager to Project Sponsor is one of becoming more confident and more adept at the game of project politics.

Two roles for Sponsor as Political Operator

You have two roles asa political operator:

  1. Political Advisor
    You need to become a political adviser and consigliere to your Project Manager. You must use your experience to help them navigate the necessary political labyrinth that they will encounter.
  2. Political Player
    But you must also be ready to play the game, yourself. However, you will be playing at a higher level – with better players and for higher stakes. So you’d better hone your skillset here. You will be dealing with senior stakeholders with significant interests and power… and also with considerable political skills!

Project Sponsor as Resource Finder

Project Managers will hit a roadblock from time-to-time. They’ll need access to resources yet they won’t know how to get them or maybe won’t have the clout to secure them. This is where your experience and seniority as Project sponsor can be a big asset to the project.

Access to Funding

The first and most tricky resource to secure is financial resource: funding, budgets… CASH! This starts with getting the initial project funding, based on the Business Case or Project Proposal.

But during the project, the team may need more money. Therefore, you will have a role in:

  • Releasing contingency budget, or maybe even
  • Finding new, additional funding

Securing Resources

Sometimes, however, the Project Manager will just need your organizational experience, connections, and clout to help them access the resources they need for the next stage of their project, or to help resolve an issue they have encountered. You will need to help them access people or assets from within the business.

Project Sponsor as Project Overseer

A primary governance role of any Project Sponsor is overseeing the project and its progress. Is it on plan: budget and schedule? And is the team conducting it according to the organization’s procedures, policies, and processes?

The skill you will need to develop is that of knowing when to use a telescope and when to use a microscope.

Telescope: the Long-view

The first skill is your ability to step away from the detail of your project and see it in the wider organizational perspective. What is the ‘big picture’? This requires to to see your project in broad strokes and focus only on the biggest issues and the overall status.

Sometimes, former project managers find this hard. They are more familiar – and therefore more comfortable – with the details. Stepping back and seeing the project from a distance is a new skill to acquire.

Microscope: the Detail View

Some Project Sponsors take the need for a broad perspective as an excuse to avoid the details. But, when things are not going right, you will sometimes need the ability and willingness to roll your sleeves up and dive into the details. You need to get in amongst the problem if you are to properly assess the situation or support your PM.

Project Sponsor as Board Facilitator

A vital part of Project Governance is the Project Board or Steering Group. It is the role of the Project Sponsor to gather, corral, and facilitate the members of the Board in fulfilling their role.

As a Project Manager, you may or may not have attended Project Board meetings. I hope you will have done. I strongly advocate for a role for the PM on the Project Board. But I am aware that some organizations exclude Project Managers from attending – let alone being an active participant.

As Project Manager turned Sponsor, I hope you will welcome your PM as a full member of your Project Board.

Facilitation is a Skill

Chairing (or facilitating) a meeting is a real skill. You’ll have gained a lot of experience as a Project manager. But now, you’ll need to hone those skills still further. Especially as you’ll be chairing meetings of far more senior and experienced people.

Project Sponsor as Border Guard

Projects run on dependencies and interfaces. Managing these, day-to-day, was a big part of your role as a Project Manager. Now, you need to guard the borders between your project and outside influences that could cause problems:

  • Attending to interfaces and dependencies with other projects, programs, and organizational units
  • Protecting the project, the project team, and your PM from organizational interference. Yes, as Project Sponsor, the model of Servant Leadership is highly relevant!

Project Sponsor as Cheer Leader

I’ve already stated my view that it s the Project Sponsor who actively says:

‘I want this project… We need this project’.

So, what could be clearer than your need to advocate actively for your project within your organization? You need to become a cheerleader – although you really don’t need to wear the costume!

This will mean gaining skills in advocacy, influence, and even in marketing.

Project Sponsor as Project Referee

There will, of course, be disagreements along the way. Within the team, these conflicts are the responsibility of the Project Manager. And, indeed, your PM should be able to resolve many of the standard conflicts that arise between their project (or project team) and:

  • Suppliers, contractors, vendors, and consultants
  • Operational managers, team leaders, and business owners
  • Other projects
  • Program managers and PMO team members

However, you will be a point of escalation, should the conflict grow and your Project Manager is unable to resolve it.

Project Sponsor as Source of Wisdom

Your final role (or have I missed something) is to share your wisdom and experience. And, as a former Project Manager, with loads of experience behind you, I hope you will have some wisdom and insight to share.

What is Your Experience of Making the Transition from Project Manager to Project Sponsor?

Or, what are the challenges you are anticipating. If you have any observations, experiences, or questions, I’ll be delighted to read them in the comments and respond to all contributions.

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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