6 September, 2021

SRO, Sponsor, Director, or Executive: What does your Project Owner do?

SRO, Project Sponsor, Executive, or Director. Whatever you call them, they lay a vital role in your project’s success or failure. But what do the terms mean, what is the job role they need to fulfil, and what capabilities do they need? Let’s investigate in depth.

Our Exploration of Project Sponsorship and the SRO/Sponsor role

SRO, Sponsor, Director, or Executive: What does your Project Owner do?

After the Project Manager, there is no role as important as that of your Project Owner. There are plenty of labels around, which can cause a lot of confusion. So I will cover these seven topics:

  1. Defining Terms: SRO, Project Sponsor, Project Director, Project Executive
  2. The Three Roles of the SRO or other Project Owner
  3. The Governance Role of the SRO or Sponsor
  4. SRO or Sponsor as Project Champion
  5. The Sponsor’s or SRO’s Responsibility to the Project Manager
  6. The Competencies an SRO or Sponsor Needs
  7. Learn More about Project Sponsorship and Working with Your Project Sponsor

Defining Terms: SRO, Project Sponsor, Project Director, Project Executive

The most widely-used term, by far, is Project Sponsor. In fact, I’d say this is the standard Project Management term for the project owner. The others tend to appear in either:

  • specific methodologies, or
  • particular organizations

Project Owner Definition

If you are determined to speed read or skip over this whole ‘defining terms’ section, you’ll want a quick summary. In a nutshell, the Project Owner role has many titles. They all boil down a requirement to:

  • drive the project
  • be accountable for it
  • take responsibility for its governance
  • ensure the organization gets what it expects

Project Sponsor Definition

So, let’s start with Project Sponsor. Both the PMI and the APM define this term.

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

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, sixth edition
Project Management Institute (PMI), 2017

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 need individual needs.

APM Body of Knowledge, 7th edition
Association for Project Management (APM), 2019

The IPMA regards Project Sponsor and Project Owner as synonymous. However, they do not define the term itself (oddly), but see the Project Sponsor as one of the Project Leaders:

Project Leader
A person who has a role or position in a permanent or project organisation that makes him/her accountable for defining and/or enabling success of the business case, the project or its part (eg project sponsor, project manager, team leader).

Project Excellence Baseline version 1.0, Table 2: Terms and Definitions
IPMA Global Standard, International Project Management Association

Common Themes

The one word that comes up in all three definitions is ‘accountable’. But I’d like to highlight some other words that are repeated in different combinations:

  • Project, Program, Portfolio
    Both PMI and APM see the Sponsor role as one that scales
  • Enabling Success
    Accountable may describe how the organization sees the sponsor, but this term seems to me to really define the role
  • Provides Resources
    PMI focuses on one element of how a sponsor can enable success. As usual, they neglect the governance role. However, the APM…
  • Governance
    The APM places the sponsor in a clear governance role

All of these role definitions contain something of value. But none contains a broad enough assessment for my liking. Here’s one I prefer:

Project Sponsor
Also referred to Project Executive, Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) or Project Director. Represents the needs of the organisation to the project and the needs of the project to the organisation. 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
Free eBook by Dr Mike Clayton, OnlinePMCourses, 2019

Project Director Definition

Project Director is a common enough job title, but its detailed definition tends to be particular to an individual organization. We can assume that a Project Director will have overall accountability for deliver of a project and that the term is an alternative to that of Project Sponsor.

However, do not confuse it with the role of Projects Director. This tends to be a corporate leadership role and has responsibility for all projects within an organization or a part of the organization. They are therefore the owner of a portfolio of projects. But they may or may not also be the owner of individual projects within that portfolio.

Project Executive Definition

The term Project Executive is used within the PRINCE2 methodology.

The individual with overall responsibility for ensuring that a project meets its objectives and delivers the projected benefits. This individual should ensure that the project maintains its business focus, that it has clear authority, and that the work, including risks, is actively managed. 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, sixth edition
Axelos Limited, 2017

Note that this is consistent with our use of Project Sponsor, with the word ‘responsibility’ used here, rather than ‘accountability’. In my analysis, this word choice is also equivalent. Here, we should note:

  1. Benefits
    The focus on benefits and business focus is a valuable addition to other definitions. We have lots of free and paid resources on the topic of project benefits and benefits management. Start with our feature article, Benefits Management: What Every Project Manager Needs to Know [and Do].
  2. Chair of the Board
    Not every model sees the sponsor chairing the Board or Steering Group. Most do, but in some, they are one among colleagues.
  3. Represents the Customer
    This is something our other definitions of the sponsor role neglect. Yet it is important, which is why I included it in my own.
  4. Business Case
    The IPMA definition of a project leader includes this and I think it is valuable. It links well with my first point in this list.

The ‘Sponsor’ in PRINCE2

The 6th edition of the PRINCE2 manual describes (section 7.3.6) sponsor and Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) as alternate names for the executive. Whilst the glossary does not list SRO, it does describe a 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.

Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, sixth edition
Axelos Limited, 2017

This gives us two very useful ideas:

  1. Driving Force
    I think the idea of a sponsor as the main driving force behind a program or project is spot-on. It captures the essence of the role for me. In the APM Body of Knowledge, we do see a description of a role of the Project Sponsor as a ‘champion’ of the project.
  2. The person who has appointed the executive
    This places a sponsor at a potentially ‘higher’ level than a Project Executive or Project Director, as the overall owner of the project, who appoints this accountable role. In the PRINCE2 family of methodologies, we shall see in a moment that this is likely to be the SRO.

Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) Definition

In addition to PRINCE2, Axelos publishes a whole array of best practice guides and methodologies. Among them is Managing Successful Programmes. And this is where we can find a clear definition of the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO).

Senior Responsible Owner
The single individual with overall responsibility for ensuring that a project or programme meets its objectives and delivers the projected benefits.

Managing Successful Programmes, third edition

If this looks familiar, it should. Because it matches the PRINCE2 Project Executive role but operates at program level. Within the program, the SRO appoints Project Executives (or sometimes take on the role themselves).

Four Titles: One Large Cluster of Definitions

From what we have seen, we can identify two essential conclusions:

  1. There is a huge overlap in any potential definitions of these four roles. All contain something of value, none seems fully comprehensive, and it is the emphasis that differs.
  2. The key to any confusion is to focus on your particular situation. If one or more terms are in use, adopt them and learn how they are defined locally. If none are in use (or there is confusion), then make a reasonable choice and produce your own definition.

One additional piece of advice is this… The definition is nothing more than a handy explanation. Instead, what matters is the role description. That’s what we tackle next. And you should draft your own, to meet the needs of your project and the prevailing culture of your organization or client.

The Three Roles of the SRO or other Project Owner

The Project Sponsor or SRO has responsibilities to:

  • their organization
    This is the governance role
  • the project
    This is the role of a champion for the project… and more
  • the project manager
    This is the part of the role that the definitions barely even allude to

We’ll take them one at a time.

The Governance Role of the SRO or Sponsor

The Project Sponsor is responsible for the governance of the project. Although the Project Manager who is responsible for setting it up, the Sponsor is accountable to the organization for the good governance of their project. The sponsor or SRO must therefore work with the Project Manager to ensure that:

  • The governance structures and process are fit for purpose. Also that they are appropriate to the culture of the organization.
  • They maintain the governance structures and keep them up-to-date. Governance must meet the evolving needs of the project and of the business.
  • The project, its team, the sponsor, and any members of governance bodies adhere to the processes. Unless, of course, the Sponsor identifies a compelling reason otherwise.

There are three primary roles for Project Governance:

  1. Direction-setting
  2. Decision-making
  3. Oversight

You may like our feature article: What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us? [Ans: A Lot]

Let’s look at each of these three in turn:

Direction Setting and the Project Sponsor

The Sponsor’s primary governance role is to determine the project outcomes that will serve the organization. In doing so, they must:

  • Establish and communicate the purpose of the project.
  • Ensure alignment between the project and the wider mission, vision, and strategy of the organization
  • Set the Project’s primary focus on delivering benefits to the business that exceed its total costs. These include capital, revenue, and hidden costs. The surplus of benefit over cost is the value.
  • Oversee the creation of a business case.
  • Sign-off on the final statements of the project’s goals, objectives, and scope as a vision that defines success.

SRO Role as Decision-maker

Clearly, the Project Manager will make many day-to-day decisions. But big decisions that affect the project are the responsibility of the SRO or Sponsor. Indeed, should the decision extend beyond the authority the organization has given to the Sponsor, they will need to consult and seek a decision from a higher tier of authority within the organization. These decisions might include:

  • Scope changes
  • Revised deadlines or additional budget or resources
  • Go/No-go decisions to cancel a non-performing or no-longer-relevant project

Oversight by the Project Sponsor

The Sponsor must ensure that the project team follows the brief and works within any organizational constraints that include:

  • External legislation or regulation
  • Organizational policies, procedures, processes, and safe working practices
  • Adherence to business ethics and organizational values

Beyond adhering to constraints, the Sponsor will oversee:

  • Delivery of project to plan, schedule, budget, and specification
  • The general health and performance of the project team
  • Realization of project benefits by the business

Project Board or Steering Group

One way the Sponsor or SRO will discharge these roles is through a Project Board or Steering Group. Typically, it would be the Sponsor who forms, convenes, and chairs this governance body. In consultation with the Project Manager, the Project Sponsor will identify the right roles for the group. Then, the Sponsor will recruit individuals to fill the roles and brief them. The sponsor may also be responsible for:

  • Effective running of the meetings
  • Scheduling of meetings to assure good project governance
  • Agreeing the agenda with the Project Manager in advance of the meeting
  • Ensuring the group has enough time to discuss material issues
  • Making sure all opinions are heard and discussed before material decisions are made

SRO or Sponsor as Project Champion

The Project Sponsor needs to be a visible champion for the Project. This means promoting the Project, as needed, both within and outside the businesses. They must be the conspicuous business leader who says: 

“On behalf of this organization, I say ‘we need this project’”

This should include promoting the project among:

  • Senior people within the business – the Sponsors peer group
  • Staff and colleagues
  • External stakeholders

But the sponsor also needs to provide tangible day-to-day support to the project and the project team.

The Fixer-Facilitator Role

The Project Sponsor helps to make the Project happen. So, part of their role is to overcome obstacles that are blocking its way. Whether it’s finding the right resources, getting a tricky question answered, or operating at a political level, we can see the Project Sponsor as being like a movie producer. Their contacts and willingness act as the fixer of last resort get things moving when the Project Manager has exhausted all their own contacts, experience, and ideas. This part of the role involves:

  • Business and political acumen
  • A willingness to listen, ask questions, and get involved in problem-solving
  • Accessing the right extra resources at the right time

Communicating with Senior-level Stakeholders

The Project Manager and their team are responsible for the stakeholder engagement strategy and its day-to-day management. However, the Sponsor will support them by working with stakeholders at a senior level, where the sponsor’s relationships, experience, authority, or status allow them to be the most effective representative of the project. This aspect of the role requires:

  • Open information sharing
  • Good listening – especially when engaging stakeholders with serious concern
  • Updating and securing soundings from the Executive Board

The Sponsor’s or SRO’s Responsibility to the Project Manager

The Project Manager has a challenging job, often under pressures of time, budget, and politics. They need a supporter who can listen to their concerns and help them through the process. It is the Project Sponsor who provides that support to their Project Manager.

To fulfil this part of their role, the Project Sponsor must:

  • Maintain an open, positive demeanor that makes the Project Manager feel comfortable approaching the Sponsor for support, guidance, or a simple listening ear
  • Take a pragmatic and non-judgemental approach in discussing issues and problems with the Project Manager
  • Let the project manager manage – not try to take over the project 
  • Help the Project Manager to negotiate with senior colleagues

But there is also a mentoring role for the Project Sponsor.

The Project Sponsor provides Guidance to their Project Manager

As well as supporting their Project Manager, the Sponsor also has a role to guide them appropriately. But they should do this in such a way as to avoid directing the PM and therefore leaving them feeling disempowered. This is a fine balancing act, and it involves deploying their experience of:

  • The organizational structure and how it operates
  • The politics of the organization and how to get things done
  • The needs of the business and of its business units
  • Project Management
  • The technical aspects of the current project

As well as helping the Project Manager with advice, guidance, and support, they need to help the PM stay at their best. This means the Project Sponsor provides a constructive challenge to their Project Manager.

This aspect of the Project Sponsor role is about acting as a critical friend to the Project Manager, and bringing an additional – ideally more objective – perspective. The essential skill is asking questions that get to the heart of what is going on.

  • Questioning needs to be rigorous but done in a friendly spirit of inquiry
  • The Sponsor needs a good understanding of the context of the project and enough technical understanding to ask pertinent questions
  • It is a big advantage for the Sponsor to see the Project from different perspectives – and to use those to challenge the PM and evaluate their assessments

The Competencies an SRO or Sponsor Needs

The Project Sponsor or SRO role is a big one. To fill it well, an executive needs:

  • some experience of the project and project manageent environment
  • a wealth of general business and organizational experience
  • high levels of interpersonal skills

Here are my priorities for Project Sponsor competencies.

General Experience and Understanding

There will be different views about how important specific experience is, for the Sponsor role. The real answer is probably highly situational. However, it is likely that some understanding, skills, and experience in the following areas will be helpful. For many of them, you may consider it essential!

  • The technical aspect of the project
  • Project Management
  • The wider organization and its strategy
  • Governance
  • Financial management

Of course, Sponsors do not come into the world fully-formed. So, where a new Sponsor has gaps in their knowledge and experience, they might seek either:

  • An experienced sponsor to act as a mentor to support them
  • Support from experts to advise in a specific domain

Critical Thinking and Mental Agility

A Project Sponsor needs to be able to assimilate a large amount of information and think critically about what they receive. They must be able to both:

  • Assess detailed information to get to the nub of an issue
  • Step back and see the project in the widest of contexts

Asking the right questions at the right time is a critical skill. This means an ability to step back from making quick assumptions. Sponsors need to be able to connect the dots and make sure they are connecting them up the right way.

Excellent Communication Skills

Project Sponsors also need the twin abilities to listen and to influence. There are many people they need to keep informed. And they must be able to influence stakeholders and help drive their project through, by connecting with people across the organization.

A big part of this is the ability to articulate a vision and describe what success is and is not. This will create the clarity to help the Project Manager and their team stay true to the core vision for the project.


Project Sponsors need to be able to make the hard decisions. And, to support this, Sponsors need to stay calm, clear, and focused under pressure.

Learn More about Project Sponsorship and Working with Your Project Sponsor

Here are some other articles and videos you may enjoy:

What are Your Thoughts about the SRO or Sponsor Role?

Every Project Manager has worked with a Project Sponsor. And some have also worked as Project Sponsor. So I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and opinions in the comments below.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

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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