Project managers manage projects for a living. Even if you only manage the odd project here and there as part of your day job, the chances are that you have more experience doing that than your sponsor does in sponsoring projects.

There are three simple reasons for that.

1. We don’t train sponsors.

Project managers are trained (mostly) to do their job. At least, if you want to go on project management training then there are plenty of courses that cover what you need to know from the most introductory level to the detailed use of tools and techniques.

Do a quick search of what training you can find in your area that relates to how to sponsor a project. Did you find anything? I bet you found far fewer results, if any, from training providers. Added to that the reluctance of many senior managers to say they don’t know what they are doing.

2. Senior managers are busy

Most project sponsors are senior managers. They don’t have much time to dedicate to sponsoring projects. They do it alongside their day job and it’s rarely a full-time role.

3. Sponsors expect you know what you are doing

The role of the sponsor is one that should provide support and governance, oversight and management confidence, to the project manager. So as long as the project manager knows what he or she is doing, that should be good enough…

The upshot of all of that is that many sponsors don’t have a clue what the role of sponsor involves. How do you find out if this applies to your sponsor? Interview them.

Setting up a sponsor interview

The right time to set up an interview with your sponsor is during project initiation. It’s one of the first conversations you should have with your sponsor, although I personally wouldn’t call it an ‘interview’ in discussion with them. Invite them to an ‘introductory meeting’.

It should just be you and the sponsor, with the aim of introducing yourselves to each other and establishing how you are going to work together to deliver the project successfully. It’s a good opportunity to talk about roles and responsibilities and to find out what they expect from you. Agree project tolerances for your budget, the reporting deadlines and what information they need from you. You can also gauge if they are interested in having access to your project management software tools. All these things can go on your agenda as discussion topics, along with your additional questions around their background.

What your sponsor interview should cover

The point of interviewing your sponsor is to find out how much experience they have in managing projects and the maturity of their level of knowledge. Some areas to discuss are:

Experience: You’ll want to find out how many projects they have sponsored as this will help you judge their understanding of project terminology and whether they are comfortable working with a project manager.

Depth of experience: Even if they have sponsored lots of projects before they might not have been deeply involved. Some project sponsors act as figureheads in the main. If you are happy working with someone who has little practical involvement in the project day to day then this could suit you. However, on strategic projects where you’ll need lots of support you may start to hear alarm bells ringing as they may not be the right person for the job.

Success rate: If you can, find out whether their last projects were successful. If so, what made them successful. What made them fail? And what would they do differently this time? Talk to them about how the personally define success and what they are looking for on this project.

Availability: Can you rely on them to help out in a crisis or make decisions in a timely way? Your initial discussions with them in this meeting should allow you to make a judgement about how available they will be to your project needs.

You need to approach all these areas in a non-threatening way, and be able to bring up the topics without coming across as annoying. It’s important that you don’t make the sponsor feel out of their depth as it could affect your longer term relationship with them.

Adapting your behaviour

Now you know more about your sponsor and their experiences on projects you’ll want to do something about it. More often than not, this will be changing your own behaviour to get the results you want through:

· Providing more process guidance to the sponsor
· Providing detailed information
· Meeting them regularly
· Briefing them before meetings and providing recommendation papers

 And other activities along these lines.

The most drastic course of action is deciding that the sponsor is not a good fit for this project and finding a way to have them removed from post. This is a difficult thing to do and you have to be very sure that you are doing the right thing. You’ll also need the support of your manager so you might want to discuss this course of events with someone prior to making the final decision.

Project sponsors can be a huge asset to the company but they need to be active supporters of the project. An informal ‘interview’ with your sponsor will help you uncover more about their working practices and preferences and allow you to make a call as to how much support they will need to do their job.