Have you ever gotten frustrated because your sponsor didn’t do what you were expecting them to do? I have. I used to get really frustrated that they seemed to not care as much about their own project as I did. It was super annoying.

Many years ago, I went to work for a company that wanted me to “turn their project managers into program managers and make them a PMO.” Hmmm…OK, that sounded like fun!

I went there all super charged to teach their project managers how to raise their game and take on a more strategic perspective of the organization. I wanted to help them see the big picture and put themselves in the shoes of the business leaders while helping the executed business strategy. It turns out, that was the easy part, or so it seemed…but things still weren’t improving as fast as I felt they should. Something was still not right. I knew instinctually that the results should have been even better than the incremental improvements we were seeing…what was up?

I shifted my focus to the sponsors. I saw how long things were dragging out because sponsors were almost completely unreachable. They never had time on their schedules for the program managers, yet were saying that all decision had to go through them. I’m sure it’s obvious to you why this would be an issue. Why wasn’t it to them? The only time you could get them, if you were lucky, was in sponsor meetings. The senior-level business guy addressed the attendance issue in short order, but that was only the first issue. What was happening IN the sponsor meetings was even worse.

I sat in sponsor update meeting after sponsor update meeting, watching as the cowering and nervous program managers I had coached and developed sat fearfully in meetings waiting for the “beating” they were likely to take from the sponsor. The conversations would go something like this (consistently):

PM: Here’s where we are on the program. We have a variance from baseline on X triple constraint item. Here are the issues.

Sponsor: This is unacceptable. What are YOU going to do about that?

And a back and forth ensued, ultimately leaving the PM in the position of defending themselves and having to figure out how they were going to solve all of the problems by themselves. They were afraid to ask for help and didn’t know it was OK to do so.

Then it hit me. After watching this for long enough to make sure it was a consistent issue and not an isolated sponsor problem (I had learned from prior experience, not to go in guns blazing with process and such – watch and listen to uncover the real problems you can help solve), I knew we had some work to do.

I kept thinking, “Why are they doing this? Don’t they understand that we are here to run their programs with them? If we fail, they fail.”

After a few conversations with the sponsors that were brave enough to tell it like it is (and yes, this did take time and patience to peel back the layers and build trust before they spilled the beans), I understood what was happening. They didn’t understand their role. They had never had a PMO before and project management was something IT did. The PMO was a business function there to execute business strategy for this division (and ultimately later the entire organization) but it was new to them and the concept was championed by a business leader that was also fairly new to the organization.

Program Management was a much more business-focused experience than what they had typically seen by project managers in the past. They just didn’t know there was another way. And they certainly didn’t know their role in supporting these more strategic programs lead to successful outcomes. It was just a different way to do things than what they had done in the past.

In order to help them, I had to understand where they were coming from. Now, I got it. It was naivety, not lack of interest or desire to support these programs. No one really explained to them what a sponsor was or what they did.

This is why it’s so important to never assume they “get it” when you are bringing change to an organization. You make assumptions and you can get way too far down a path without bringing your stakeholders along with you.

So, we had to teach them.

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The first order of business was to get agreement from the PMO sponsor (the person that insisted upon us being there in the first place) that his business leaders had more than a stake in the outcome of these programs, they OWNED these programs. They were going to be measured by the success of failure of these initiatives and they were accountable for making sure the program managers had what they needed to do their jobs, which was to execute these programs with the sponsors.

Then, we had to agree to some basic tenants of sponsorship. We had to explain the role and help them understand how they were to interact with the programs.

We also had to be crystal clear on our side. We had to explain to them the role of the PMO and the program managers running their programs. It’s important that you do this both ways. They need to know how you will communicate with them, what you will share, what you will need from them, when you will need it, and how you will engage with them throughout the lifecycle. This will be your foundation that trust is built on. Lay that foundation thoughtfully.

Then, we had to bring it all together in a DRAFT form (the reason for this is important) to discuss and collaborate on so that we could ultimately reach agreement around accountability and everyone’s role in the process.

Why is the draft so important? This gets to all of the change management stuff I talk about. If you want people to come along with you in a change you are trying to create, you must do it with them, not to them.

In order to figure out what the right level of expectations and services should be for the PMO and PMs, you should definitely go back to doing your homework and understanding what the organization needs from you. This will help you figure out how you support the execution of business strategy for the organization. It depends on the culture of the organization, the trust you’ve built with your stakeholders, the strengths and weaknesses of your organization, and the needs of the business you are there to solve. This will inform you role as a PMO and for each PM.

For the sponsor, we developed a basic set of expectations we felt they could live up to. While this list is not exhaustive, it’s a pretty good start. The key is not to come with all of the answers, but with an outline of some of the answers and then let them think about how they can help and add to the list. If you want them to own it, you definitely want them to contribute to the process of creating it.

Here’s what we told them in this scenario:

Be an actively involved sponsor

1. Hold yourself and others accountable for their role in the program

2. Lead by example: respect and support the role of program manager

3. Hold your employees responsible for their engagement

4. Attend appropriate meetings to set expectations, remove barriers, and enable the program process

5. Clearly define program objectives and assist in setting realistic milestones

6. Be accessible to the team: Make it easy to get on your calendar!

7. Ensure that other managers required to support the effort are also accessible

8. Engage in the appropriate level of decision making and delegate responsibility for decision making authority to the right level

9. Actively work to remove barriers for the program team: ask “How can I help?”, every chance you get

Support the change with your peers and other senior leaders

1. Create awareness of the need for the change

2. Build support for the change at all levels

3. Clearly communicate expectations to team and all stakeholders

4. Manage change resistance from stakeholders

5. Ensure stakeholders/peers are building support within their own teams

6. Provide frequent updates to leadership

7. Act as a voice and champion for the change

8. Negotiate for resources and other support on the program team’s behalf


1. Communicate the need for the change

2. Create a sense of urgency and communicate risk of inaction

3. Connect business strategy and outcomes to the program/change

4. Use metrics to reinforce value and impact

5. Actively pursue stakeholder feedback throughout the change process

6. Be available to answer questions about the change and promote two-way communications

7. Provide your voice of support in key presentations and meetings

8. Support managers in communicating consistent message to employees

Remember to make this list your own. You can start small and work WITH your sponsor to figure out what will work best for you…but if you get stuck, this list is a great place to start.

Finally…before you get frustrated with your sponsor for not caring enough or being there when you need them, consider that they may not know that this is their role. This could be their first time in the role of sponsor…or maybe no one ever taught them how to engage. Or even worse, they have learned bad habits over the years that you will now have to help them break. Now you have to teach them. Be the leader. Be a teacher. Help them, help you, help them.

For more on sponsors, read these articles: Your role as a sponsor: A letter on behalf of your project manager; How to Train Your Sponsor

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