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Do You Know What your Project Sponsor Wants?

Do You Know What Your Project Sponsor Wants?

Call them your sponsor, your boss, or your client if you like. But one thing we all know as a Project Manager is this. Our job is to do what our Project Sponsor wants.

But here’s the question… Do you know what your Project Sponsor wants? If you don’t, you’d better find out quickly.

And that’s what this article is all about.

By the way, is your job to do what your Project Sponsor wants?

Some will argue that it isn’t. It is to do what your employer needs, to serve your stakeholders, or to meet the expectations of the organization that’s paying the bills. These are all true.

But this article is going to make one giant assumption: that your sponsor’s job is to represent these faithfully. In another article, we’ll examine the vexed question of what to do if your sponsor goes rogue. For now, we’ll assume that serving our sponsor, and delivering what they want, is at the heart of your role.

Your Project Sponsor wants a Shopping-list of Competences

For most Project Sponsors, the starting place is to have a highly competent Project Manager. This way, they can feel comfortable leaving he day to day project management to you. A good sponsor will want to be as hands-off as possible, and as hands-on as necessary.

A good #Project Sponsor will want to be as hands-off as possible, and as hands-on as necessary. Click To Tweet

But I shan’t use this article to list the specific project management competences of an effective Project Manager. If that interests you, why not take a look at one of these articles:

Instead, let’s look at some of the general professional competences that your Project Sponsor wants.

22 Competences your Project Sponsor Wants

Do You Know What Your Project Sponsor Wants?

Do You Know What Your Project Sponsor Wants?

  1. Trust – first and foremost, they want to know they can trust you
  2. Confidence – that you are doing a great job with their project
  3. Order – your sponsor wants to know that everything is as it should be
  4. Predictability – knowing what is going to happen next
  5. Efficiency – minimum effort and wastage
  6. Effectiveness – maximum focus and results
  7. Progress – things constantly happening
  8. Control – knowing that they can influence outcomes
  9. Safety – confident that nothing serious will go wrong
  10. Risk control – knowing risks are being managed
  11. Durability – knowing the work will be robust
  12. Quality – standards are the highest
  13. Facts – getting the information free from bias or opinion
  14. Overview – not wanting too much detail. But…
  15. Details – wanting access to every bit of information
  16. Commercial – focus on the bottom line
  17. Economy – focus on costs
  18. Ideas – wanting concepts and grand visions
  19. Innovation – wanting new ways to do things
  20. Creativity – wanting completely new ideas
  21. Independence – wanting you to act autonomously
  22. Judgement – want you to make sound decisions

That’s a lot of stuff, and it’s only the start.

So how can we boil this big old list down into something manageable?

To get some real leverage on all of this, I recommend you focus on two things. These will form the substance of this article.

Communicate exceptionally well

Take what’s yours

PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

Communicate Exceptionally Well

I often find myself offering a simple piece advice…

The most important part of your job as a #Project Manger is communicating Click To Tweet

And the basics of good communication are pretty simple. So, it is surprising how many project managers seem to neglect them.  Yet, your project sponsor wants nothing more than the want great communication. It’s how they will trust you and is the basis of satisfying them on much of the shopping list above.

We will look at the basics, before turning to how to frame your message, for maximum impact.

The Basics of Good Project Communication 

If you get all of these basics right, then everything else will be the icing on the cake. Indeed, it’s these basics that will also enable you to influence your sponsor, when you need to. So don’t be seduced into worrying about sophisticated techniques of persuasion until you are confident you have got all of these five points right.  And the key to all of them is the golden rule for giving your sponsor what they want: respect.

When you truly respect your Project Sponsor, these five will be easy to get right:

  • courtesy
  • assertiveness
  • listening
  • timing
  • structure


Everyone deserves courtesy and, as long as you don’t confuse it with obsequiousness, it is a necessary part of the glue that holds relationships together. Respect the social norms of your workplace. And, if you and your sponsor come from different cultural backgrounds, be sure to find out what cultural norms they are used to. Then, you can pay them the courtesy of respecting their cultural standards, when working with them. This is an especially important point in multinational projects or global organizations, where you may be working with an expatriate, or a sponsor who lives and works in a different country or even region.

TIP: From time-to-time, ask your sponsor for their advice or opinion.  Show them that you value their insight and experience.  Not only will this flatter them, but you can learn a lot from it too.


Your Project Sponsor wants you to be assertive. But you need to recognize assertiveness as a balance of:

  • Respecting your sponsor, and also
  • Having the self-confidence to avoid feeling inferior and allowing yourself to become a passive recipient of their opinions, without standing up for your own.

It is common to feel a little intimidated by your project sponsor. Especially if they are older, have more experience, or have a dominant personality. Whatever the difference in personal power, status, or professional authority, you are both intelligent, mature professionals who should be able to communicate ideas based on their merits, in a way that seeks the best outcomes for you both and for your organisation.

TIP: If your boss makes you feel small in some way, ask yourself if this is:
1. a result of deliberate actions on their part (which we might call ‘bullying’), or
2. a result of you carrying your childhood perceptions of authority into a context where it should now mean something very different.


We all think we are good at listening, because we have been doing it all day, every day, since our youngest days.  In fact, most of us spend a lot of time only half-listening, while the other half of your attention is focused on figuring out what we are going to do or say next.  Pay your sponsor the respect of listening carefully to what they say, before pausing to think through how to respond.

During that silence, your boss is less likely to be thinking:
‘Aha, they don’t have an answer’.

They are more likely to be thinking:
‘Good, I’ve said something important, and they are taking the time to consider what to say next.’

The more carefully you listen, the more likely you are to spot the subtleties of what they are saying. And, in complex situations, you’ll want to spot the subtleties of what they are not saying too.

TIP: It can be lonely being a senior person. Sometimes what your project sponsor wants is a good listening to, while they get something off their chest.  If you get the chance to do this for them, take it; it is a huge compliment. But you absolutely must treat whatever you hear in confidence (unless, of course, there are legal or regulatory reasons to do otherwise).


Choose the timing of your communication with care. First check what else your sponsor may be concerned with. The more you can schedule conversations, the more likely your sponsor will be to feel prepared for them – and you too.  In general, give bad news as soon as possible, but don’t let your enthusiasm to communicate intrude on more important matters that your sponsor may be dealing with. Your project is not their only concern.

Get to know their moods too – sometimes a tactical delay can get you a better response.

If in doubt, ask:
‘is now a good time to talk about… ?’

And, when you start a conversation, even if there is a specific time slot in your diaries, always check:
how much time do you have?’

What you don’t want is to assume they have half an hour, only to find ten minutes in, that your sponsor has an urgent, un-scheduled call to make, and you have not got to the nub of the most important conversation you need to have.

TIP: The more often you can initiate meetings with your sponsor, the more you can control the agenda.  This will then relieve them of an unwanted job, allow you to get what you need, and show your sponsor that you are in control of your project.


Possibly, more than anything else, your Project Sponsor wants an easy life! So, put your message into a clear and succinct structure that will enable them to assimilate your key points quickly and easily.  Here are three examples:

Example 1
“Here’s what happened…
“This is what it means…
“Here are our principal options…
“This is my recommendation, which I’d like you to endorse…”

Example 2
“This is what I’d like to do…
“These are the implications if we do it…
“And these are the implications if we don’t…
“Here is what I need, to get started…”

Example 3
“These are the problems we are having…
“Here is the solution I have discovered…
“This is what I need from you…”

Framing your Message 

You will get the best response from your sponsor, when you are able to assess what their primary concerns are in the current situation. This is not only about their own agenda; it is also about which stakeholders they are most concerned with. In order of proximity, your boss may be thinking about:

  1. me (themselves),
  2. us (their team),
  3. us (the organisation), or
  4. them (customers, clients, regulators, suppliers, or any other outsiders to your organisation).

WAM: ‘What about me?’

The WAM factor is often dominant: it is human instinct. If this dominates, you need to focus your comments on addressing your project sponsor wants for themselves.  What are their needs, concerns, and priorities? To accept your recommendations, for example, they need to feel that they will be good for them, personally, and further their own agenda. To do this well, you have to put yourself into your sponsor’s shoes and see the situation as they will be seeing it.

WAU: ‘What about us?’

Some sponsors are fiercely protective of their units, divisions, or teams. So, the effects on that team will be their first concern. Now you have to think through all of the ‘local’ implications and make sure you are able to address them.

WAO: ‘What about the organization?’

Of course, your sponsor’s job must include acting in the best interests of their organization. Where there is conflict, good sponsors will subordinate their own agenda and be prepared to disappoint their own team, so their project can do the best for their organization. In this case you need to frame your message in terms of how it affects the organiszation. So, any options you offer and recommendations you make need to be couched in terms of what is best for the organization.

WAT: ‘What about them?’

Often, the best interests of the organization will be served by doing the right thing by its customers, clients, regulators, and other stakeholders. Even if there is a short-term cost to the organization of doing so, your sponsor may well be interested in the longer-term reputational implications of their choices.  In these cases, you need to assess who all of the stakeholders are and what their conflicting interests and differing levels of influence dictate for your alternative choices.

Take What’s Yours

What your Project Sponsor wants is not just a set of competences and good communication. It is also about what you do. Do you take responsibility for your project, and do you take the initiative when issues or opportunities arise?  How do you respond to stakeholders, and are you able to take control of a situation?  These are things your sponsor will expect of you and are therefore the subjects we will look at in this section.

Take Responsibility

First and foremost, take responsibility for your project’s performance.  Responsibility is not just assigned; it is a choice you make to follow through and to allow your reputation to grow or diminish according to your performance.  Consequently, if you do not perform as well as you wished, or if you make a mistake, take responsibility for your failings: own up, say you are sorry, and put things right.

We all make mistakes; it is an important part of how we learn. What matters is how you respond to them: will you understand that the mistakes were yours, and learn from them, or will you disown the mistakes and pretend there is nothing you could have done differently?  Not only will the former approach make a better impression on your sponsor, but it will also make you a better project manager.

TIP: Take on more than you are asked to, if you want your sponsor to see you as a star performer.  But don’t take on too much: you will only get the bigger projects if you constantly deliver to the highest standards.

Take the Initiative

When the right opportunities arise, a good project manager will seize the opportunity. But equally, you will also know when the risks or importance of what you are about to do mean that you need to check first. There is a saying:

It is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission’

This is not always true. Firstly, it depends upon how much forgiveness you are going to need. If the consequences of misreading the situation, or of failing, are relatively minor, then this could be the right approach. But where you are going to need a mountain of forgiveness, you would have been best to seek permission first. This also depends on your sponsor’s personality: some are more comfortable with higher levels of forgiveness.

What your Project Sponsor wants is for you to take the initiative to solve problems for yourself, rather than continually reverting to them for help.  Yes, you sponsor may well have seen this problem before and be able to solve it more quickly than you can.  But likewise, the benefit of you solving it will be learning from the situation, as they once did.  Only bring your sponsor the problems that need their specific knowledge, authority, or access to resources.  Even then, it is far better to come to them with your recommendations than with questions.

Take Control 

Things go wrong on projects. It’s their nature. And your Project Sponsor wants to know you will take control of the situation, by:

  • evaluating it for yourself,
  • making your own plans, and
  • requesting the resources that you need, to get the job done.

You will need to lead your team, and sometimes, your stakeholders. Nothing inspires confidence more than calm and a sense that you know what you are doing. So, think things through, and brief your people carefully.  Your sponsor will be far more likely to trust you bigger projects, when they feel you are able to take control, and remain in control of the situation – even if things do not go exactly according to plan.

Take Feedback

Some sponsors are better than others at giving feedback. But it is a vital part of your learning and career development, so if your sponsor is less proactive in this area, then request feedback at appropriate times, and in a respectful way.

When your sponsor offers you feedback, the right response is to:

  • listen carefully to what they have to say,
  • respond to their questions directly, and
  • ask clarifying questions, if you do not fully understand their comments.

If they do not cover a particular area of what you have done, ask about it.

The mistake we often make in receiving feedback is to take observations about our performance as criticisms, and then to try and defend ourselves.  Good feedback will help you become more aware of what you have done and how it was part of a sequence of causes and effects.  It will help you understand your choices and reflect on their impact.  It is about learning from, not justifying, your experiences.

TIP: Financially, the most successful professionals are those with greatest self-control.  So, take the tough feedback as a valuable lesson, and reflect on it.  Getting upset or angry will tell your boss that you haven’t really learned and so are not ready for the next level of responsibility.

If you have made a mistake, don’t worry: your sponsor knows that you will make mistakes.  And if they are a good manager, they will know that this is how we learn.  Indeed, it is probably how they learnt a lot of what they know now, so they should be taking the attitude that, as long as you learn from your mistakes, then they can forgive anything but disobedience, dishonesty, or carelessness.

What are Your Thoughts?

I have set out what I think are the most important things your Project Sponsor wants from their Project Manager. What would you like to add to this?

I love reading your ideas and will respond to every contribution. So, please do add your comments below.

By the way…

You may also like our earlier article:



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 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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