Last year, I worked alongside someone who demonstrated the powerful effect that a good sponsor can have over the execution of a successful project.
The Managing Director of Group Technology at a large telecoms organisation acted as the sponsor for the largest project ever undertaken by the company. The project consisted of replacing the core revenue and customer management systems; a huge task which required the support of a new team of over 200 people, and impacted on every part of the business.
Despite the vast scale of this project, the sponsor’s attributes, experience and skills proved that anything is possible with the support of an effective sponsor. These can be summarised in four key areas:
Strong leadership is one of the most vital characteristics of a good sponsor in their contribution towards the project’s success. Our sponsor proved this by displaying decisiveness and assertiveness at all times, as he was prepared to make tough decisions quickly when presented with the right level of supporting information. He consistently maintained strong commitment to the programme and never faulted, even during the most difficult and challenging times. Many sponsors would have fallen by the wayside and taken a get-out when things got really tough, but he didn’t, because he genuinely believed in the project and our ability to deliver.
Whilst strong leadership demands a disciplined approach, our sponsor demonstrated the importance of pairing this with support. Although he provided constant, consistent, and robust challenge to ensure that the team was always on the ball, this was always implemented in an accommodating way. For example, he understood that a team working as hard as we were, may miss things; so he voiced any neglected areas he could identify with honesty, but never with accusation.
A sponsor’s interaction with the programme board is an area that demands both discipline and support for the project to run smoothly. Our sponsor’s method of managing the programme board involved enabling us to get on with delivery, whilst he dealt with their issues and concerns. Nevertheless, he was always on-hand to support the team with difficult messages. It was this fine-balance that enabled the programme to go live successfully despite significant compromise along the way from the senior stakeholders.
The sponsor ensured that the programme board was effective by making sure decisions were always made in a timely fashion, and guaranteeing collective responsibility from all involved. Members of the board all had a voice, which was respected; and whilst the sponsor supported the programme team, he rightly did not prevent us being subjected to significant challenge.
Led from the front with a truly inspiring work ethic, the programme team were working six or seven days a week and fourteen hour days for long periods during the programme, yet the sponsor matched the team hour for hour. I spent several hours on the phone with him at weekends and in the evenings on conference calls; he proved himself to be a do-as-I-do sponsor not a do-as-I-say sponsor.
Another valuable, yet often rare attribute of a sponsor, is the ability to remain personable and approachable, despite being under enormous pressure. During critical periods, our sponsor not only maintained this attitude, but also managed to reflect it onto the behaviour of his peers. He encouraged them to give us space when we needed it and to have a presence when appropriate – something the team very much appreciated. For example; on one occasion both the sponsor and the finance director stayed in the office until 2am, waiting for us to finish something, because we needed them to support our validation of a particular activity so that we could continue.
Challenge, Focus and Detail
Sponsors must be able to provide challenge, and accept challenge in return. During difficult times there were some robust conversations which our sponsor respected, reacting impeccably to ensure that the right outcome was reached. This sponsor thus demonstrated a great attention to detail, and the ability to identify potential issues and potential opportunities from a very high level. He was genuinely able to provide solutions to problems as well as providing the challenge.
When Pelicam was asked to intervene with this project, it was an outwardly impossible task. The programme team and leadership must take enormous credit for making the impossible possible; however, this simply would not have been possible without, what I can call, the most complete, committed and competent sponsor I have ever worked with.