Wednesday, 10 July 2013 08:00

Connecting with Your Project Sponsor

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Connecting with a Project Sponsor is something that you may struggle with at some point in your career. There are sponsors who you establish a natural emotional connection with, who can always be reasoned with, and who provide support through even the most difficult times. But then there are sponsors who you can’t get on the same page with, no matter how hard you try. Without question, support from a project sponsor is critical to a project’s success. You may have completed a few successful projects and are now working your way from tactical and necessary projects to high-visibility and strategically important ones. Even with your proven track record, you inevitably encounter a Sponsor you are unable to connect with. When this happens it is time to step back, evaluate your strategy, and use key emotions and skills to build a relationship with your sponsor. Examples of key emotions and skills that should be leveraged are: empathy and willpower. Both are important in order to overcome not only your day-to-day obstacles but also the one(s) keeping you from connecting with your Sponsor. Empathizing with your sponsor and other key stakeholders will allow you to better understand their needs and motivation in order to ensure a complete understanding of what they are truly trying to accomplish with a given project. Your willpower will also be tested like never before as you will need to work through obstacles and issues without the confidence in knowing the sponsor is there to provide guidance whether directly or indirectly. Your negotiation skills and consistently proving your competency will also be needed more than ever in order to establish the most basic human connection with your sponsor: trust.

  1. Empathy

    Empathy is a powerful and often misunderstood emotion. Empathizing is to sense, understand, and experience others’ thoughts and feelings without experiencing them yourself. Empathy is often referenced in challenging situations where one feels the pain or distress of another without words being exchanged. It can occur with a simple glance of a person going through a difficult situation or a physical struggle; the feeling of a true connection to that person even though you’ve never met. That is empathy. Watching someone sacrifice their reputation and possibly career to protect their team and feeling the same sense of sacrifice and fear they are going through is another example of empathy. When working with your Sponsor take a step back and listen to them. If they are sharing a story give them your undivided attention and try to place yourself in their shoes. Only by listening and putting aside your preconceived ideas and emotions can you connect through empathy. This connection is a major step in establishing someone’s trust.

  2. Willpower

    Willpower is described as many things: self-determination, self-restraint and self-confidence. Willpower is an incredibly strong emotion that can get you through the toughest of situations. People use willpower to push themselves to accomplish a goal: for instance, seeing a soldier come home after incurring a horrific injury and their determination to walk again, watching a loved one cross the finish line of a race they never thought possible, or spending your time reading and researching to better understand how to handle difficult situations. When you cannot seem to connect with a Sponsor, it will take a considerable amount of willpower to gain their trust. Focus your energy and stay determined to break through the barrier that is keeping you from connecting. By persevering, you will find that you may have underestimated the strength of your willpower.

  3. Negotiation

    Negotiation is a skill that you will really need if you wish to establish a connection with a difficult Sponsor. Through your experience as a successful Project Manager, you continue to refine and hone your negotiation skills. A prime example is convincing a team member, stakeholder or customer to do or provide something that they are not obligated to or, similarly, bringing team members together to overcome a personality conflict and refocus their efforts to accomplish a goal. Examples can be found at any point throughout the life of a project. The door is never closed to negotiations. Project Managers working in a matrix work environment can appreciate the importance of honing negotiation skills. In a matrix environment where project priorities don’t align with a functional manager’s priorities the Project Manager must negotiate to secure the time of the people needed for the project while ensuring the functional manager’s goals or priorities are not at risk. This is rarely a one-time event and is not necessarily something that can be planned making it a constant test of your negotiation abilities. By successful negotiating challenges like these you will be one step closer to delivering a successful project and by doing so it will help establish trust and your Sponsor’s confidence in your competency.

  4. Competence

    One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of competence is “the knowledge that enables a person to speak and understand a language.” Without being competent in your field you cannot be successful in your career. Would you trust a surgeon that you did not feel was competent in his/her specialty? I certainly would not. To expect a Sponsor to trust you falls along the same line. You need to prove that your successful track record up to this point was not by luck—it was by your skill. You must figure out what motivates your Sponsor and focus on this to allow them to place their confidence and trust in you for such projects. A few examples of motivational factors: influencing their nomination and placement on the Board of Directors for a well-known charity or City Council committee, or showing their commitment for political gain in a local or regional election. Financial incentives are routinely motivational factors as well. Significant cash bonuses, stock options, or a partnership being offered upon successful delivery of your project are all examples of financial incentives. By identifying your Sponsor’s motivational factor(s) you can better relate the significance and severity of issues you encounter throughout the life of the project so they too will put their support behind you in order to quickly overcome the obstacle(s).

Connecting with a difficult sponsor is a challenge that can take a significant amount of time and effort. By focusing your efforts on the qualities and skills outlined above, you will be able to make a connection. Up to this point in your career you have harnessed these emotions and skills to overcome obstacles of every magnitude—this challenge is no different. Remember to continue empathizing with those around you, stay determined and focus your willpower, leverage your experience in successfully negotiating, and continue to learn and prove your competence in difficult situations like these. By doing these you will no doubt secure the trust not only of the sponsor but also of those around you.

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Chris Merryman

Chris Merryman, MBA, PMP, is an avid Project Management practitioner and everything-Agile enthusiast. Chris has over 10 years of experience in the IT industry and has developed and worked on several complex software and hardware projects using PMI’s Project Management and Agile with Scrum philosophies. Chris can be reached on Linked In.

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