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How To Manage Your First Meeting With A Project Sponsor

Make a good impression on your project sponsor

Meeting a project sponsor for the first time is an opportunity to impress. It’s also your chance to start the project off well by understanding exactly what it is that your sponsor wants from you. You can start to get an idea of how the two of you will work together to achieve those objectives.

But what do you actually talk about when you meet a project sponsor for the first time? I asked five project managers to share what they do in that first conversation with their project sponsor. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Learn About Them

I find out as much as I can about them, what they do, what their background is, what they enjoy most about their job – it gives me a good insight into the best way to tailor my interactions with them.

Helen Curel, UK

2. Establish Trust

In short, try to get to know them and establish trust. One of the best training courses I attended for Project Management was on influencing strategies with Learning Tree. The course model stated that without trust, influence is almost impossible. Much of the course focused on ways to quickly establish trust by determining what the values of others are through observation.

I currently have three projects. One sponsor is a senior manager with extensive sponsor experience. She is organised, pragmatic and driven. She likes detail and to be aware of all issues and risks.

Another sponsor is uninterested in the detailed issues but needs to feel that the project is going well. Meetings focus on people-related issues and she wants the project manager to filter out the issues that need to be discussed. For her a detailed agenda is frustrating as she will concentrate on how members feel. She is really good with people and getting others involved.

A third sponsor is a mix of the two. He lacks experience with projects and feels threatened by risks of things going wrong. However he is great in getting people involved and making quick decisions once he understands the issues.

As the project manager I need to quickly understand what strategy I follow in interacting with the sponsor. Establishing trust requires that I understand their values. I therefore do not dive into project-related issues until I know how they will respond. Ideally this is done in a team meeting where I have opportunity to observe them and get a feel for them. I follow up with a 1-to-1 if I can.

Paul Nicholson, MBCS, UK

3. Start Building A Relationship

I try to focus on building a relationship. Of course factual discussions are a must e.g. what is their rationale for the project (and that is also what most sponsors expect from a first meeting), but I use that more as a lever for relationship-building rather than an end in itself.

Hopefully there will be more meetings to discuss the issues. An important part is to get our expectations of each other out in the open from the start. Including how much time the sponsor will be able to devote to the project…

David, Sweden

4. Listen

Listen. Take notes. I always have my own agenda. What are the underlying issues? How can we overcome them?

Claire Sezer, FCILEx, UK

Dave Gordon5. See The Bigger Picture

Ask them to describe their role and responsibilities, and the impact to the organization that they expect the project to deliver.

Dave Gordon, USA, who blogs at The Practicing IT Project Manager and is on Twitter as @PracticingITPM

Getting Your First Discussion Right

You can draw a lot from what real project managers do, and hopefully the experiences shared above have given you some ideas for your first meeting with a project sponsor.

You’re aiming for a blend of big picture thinking and forward planning – what are their overall objectives for the project and how much time are they going to dedicate to it – alongside starting your relationship off in the right way.

I’d argue, like Paul and David say above, that the detailed stuff can come later. Right now you want to leave the meeting with a good idea of what this person will be like to work with. You want the sponsor to leave the meeting thinking that you are someone who can be trusted, who will be calm, who won’t hide the truth and who will have the project under control (at least most of the time).

There will be plenty of opportunities to talk about project issues and the actions required to get the project deliverables from concept to reality. There won’t be another opportunity to make a good first impression, so prepare, as Claire says above, and know what’s on your agenda.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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