Project managers are often in a position where their boss is someone several levels above them in the hierarchy and they don’t spend a lot of time with their actual line manager. You guessed it: I’m talking about working for a project sponsor.
Many of my project sponsors have been C-suite individuals with plenty of other demands on their time than answering my emails. Here are five of the tips I’ve used to my advantage of the years to help build successful relationships with sponsor when managing and communicating up.
1. Be Trustworthy
This is probably the most important point. Sponsors will be more inclined to engage if they trust what you doing.
Trust isn’t something that is earned overnight so start with mutual respect. Respect their position and authority and act as if they are going to trust yours, even if you have no evidence of that yet. You build trust by:
- Delivering on your promises
- Completing tasks, especially the ones they have asked for
- Showing that you know what it takes to get work done, and then getting it done.
You can also bask in reflected trust: in other words, your reputation goes before you and will help shape a project sponsor’s opinion of you. If another senior manager trusts you, and your team trusts you, this all goes towards ensuring any new contacts do as well.
Trust builds engagement because the sponsor won’t feel as if they have to micromanage you in order to get tasks completed. Also, aren’t you more inclined to deal with the emails and requests of your trusted colleagues than a sales person you have had no dealings with before?
2. Be Structured
Structured communication helps set expectations. If they know you are going to send your project report every Friday afternoon, then they’ll expect it (and think badly of you if you fail to meet your commitments).
You can cover this kind of commitment as part of your first meeting with your project sponsor.
Structured interactions also help set you apart as a trustworthy and reliable colleague. It’s easier to engage with someone who turns up to a meeting with a clear agenda and runs through the points in order, not wasting any of your time.
3. Be Clear
Ditch the jargon. Your executive sponsor doesn’t understand the terminology of project management, and they shouldn’t have to. Stop talking about CSFs and Gantt charts; start talking about how you are going to measure project success and plan the work.
One of the fastest ways to lose engagement on a project (or in any business situation) is to alienate the team by using language that they don’t understand. You should feel as if you are all in it together and you can’t do that if you have to question what the project manager means every few minutes.
Worse, some senior managers are – shall we say – averse to asking questions that highlight what they don’t know so will either disengage slowly or perform their role poorly because they don’t understand what’s required. Or even try to get you side-lined so they can work with someone they trust to be clear and helpful.
4. Be Transparent
No one likes surprises at work, and sponsors are no exception. I’ve not worked with a single project sponsor who would have rather I hid the truth about a problem instead of gone to them straight away. If they know about the problems you are facing, they can help you fix them. And you stop the risk of them looking stupid if one of their colleagues finds out about the problem before they do.
Your sponsor will be more engaged because they will understand that you are doing your best to keep them informed and to provide them with information that helps them do their job.
5. Be Flexible
Every project is different, just as every project sponsor is different. And you won’t just be working with your sponsor – your project is likely to bring you into contact with their colleagues and other very senior managers too. As a result, you’ll have to flex your style to make the best of your interactions with the different personalities.
What do I mean by that? I mean that if someone prefers email communication, you use email. If someone prefers that you make an appointment to see them via their assistant, then you do that. One senior leader might prefer to take a back seat unless asked to contribute, another might prefer to dominate your project board meetings (which might be one of the reasons why your project board isn’t working).
Use your skills at facilitation, observation and listening to understand the preferred working styles of the executives you are engaging with, and tailor your own interactions accordingly. They will feel more engaged as a result.
Finally, I’d add that being certified helps build good working relationships with your project sponsor and their C-suite colleagues (here are some other suggestions for building good working relationships at the office).
You could take a project management credential, my masterclass in stakeholder management or simply take time out to do professional development in the form of another training course. Having invested in your career shows stakeholders that you are serious about improving your skills and that you know what you are talking about.
Again, they are more likely to engage because they believe you are doing the best job that you can and that you are likely to get results. No one wants to align themselves with a project that is at risk of failing, so working with someone who is taking career development seriously is a good thing.
Every project sponsor is going to be different and demand a different response from you. The best advice I can give is that you should be alert to signs of engagement and be fast when you see them dropping away.
Step in early to talk to your sponsor honestly and you could avoid a costly project failure – both in business terms and in terms of your personal career. Find out why the engagement isn’t there and switch up what you are doing to bring them back on board.
A version of this article first appeared on the PMO Perspectives blog.
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