Delivering a big project is not for the faint of heart. Amidst fierce competition for management support and limited resources, your project must stand out among other worthy (and perhaps less deserving) causes.
Most projects get off to a strong start with great fanfare and abundant energy. However, the true challenge lies in maintaining focus and commitment through to completion.
When the inevitable roadblocks emerge, many projects run out of steam. They either wither and die or worse become zombie projects doomed to live on in name only.
Implementing a large project is not just a series of tasks to be completed. It’s about enacting social change.
Genuine leadership backing is a vital catalyst for success. A supportive senior leader with the influence and authority to drive things forward can help you navigate the executive maze when things get difficult.
So how can you effectively secure the active sponsorship of a senior leader and ensure their sustained focus throughout the project’s duration?
Most projects get off to a strong start with great fanfare and abundant energy. However, the true challenge lies in maintaining focus and commitment through to completion
Being a senior leader responsible for a major initiative is not easy. Committing time and attention to a new project alongside juggling existing work can be challenging.
It’s crucial to take a proactive approach to managing your sponsor instead of assuming they automatically understand their role due to their position and salary.
It’s a curiosity of corporate life that project sponsor is one of the most important, yet least understood roles in an organisation.
Very few leaders receive training on how to be an effective sponsor and no two sponsors will support your initiative in the same way.
It’s a common flaw that a sponsors’ duties are not defined and documented. Whilst tools like the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) encourage accountability, they aren’t explicit about what a sponsor should do.
Be clear on what you want from them
When you find your sponsor, it’s important that you’re crystal clear on what you need from them. This is not a time to be timid and assume your sponsor will intuitively know what you want from them.
- Do you want them to identify and engage with stakeholders who aren’t fully onboard?
- Do you want them to be available for decisions related to scope, schedule and costs?
- Do you want their help in resolving conflicts around issues such as prioritisation or cross-departmental friction or to act as a buffer between your team and any political issues?
- Do you want them to be available as a sounding board and to provide advice and guidance?
- Do you want them to acknowledge and to promote the achievements of the project?
- Do you want them to attend reviews and retrospectives to identify what is going well, and what can be improved?
It’s crucial to take a proactive approach to managing your sponsor instead of assuming they automatically understand their role due to their position and salary
Establish what they need from you
Clarity is also crucial in understanding what your project sponsor expects and needs from you.
Defining clear communication channels and determining their preferences for updates, such as the frequency and format, is key.
It’s also critical to agree upfront rules of engagement for when you need them urgently and they become occupied with other pressing matters.
Remind them to be active champions
You need your senior leader to be a ready and willing advocate for your initiative, actively rallying support.
In practice, leaders are often swamped with competing priorities and can be prone to suffering from ‘shiny new thing syndrome’ – easily distracted by the next ‘big idea’ which promises to be the silver bullet to the organisation’s issues.
Senior leaders often underestimate the persistent effort needed to maintain momentum for the projects they are sponsoring.
They may believe, or hope, that a single announcement is sufficient to get everyone onboard. According to Patrick Lencioni, the best leaders understand that they are CROs (Chief Reminding Officers), and that there is no such thing as too much communication.
In the absence of active and visible support from senior leaders, your initiative can be seen as a fad and progress can fall prey to the boomerang effect with people reverting to old ways of working and behaving.
Senior leader commitment needs to endure until changes are fully integrated into the organisation’s fabric.
Senior leaders often underestimate the persistent effort needed to maintain momentum for the projects they are sponsoring
Be on the lookout for early signs of disengagement
You need to look for signs of wavering commitment from your senior leaders.
This might take the form of limited involvement, hesitance, reluctance to make tough decisions, mixed messages or a lack of public focus on progress. By catching these signs early, we can address and prevent issues.
Prevention in this context is about equipping leaders with the knowledge, tools and support they need to effectively champion and sustain change.
Skilfully reinforcing how your project’s goals contribute to overarching organisational strategies will strengthen perceptions and increase the chances of active senior leadership support.
Be ready to coach
Irrespective of your role or seniority you can employ coaching techniques and use probing questions that encourage leaders to pause, reflect and think deeply about their roles in driving change.
You can ask questions that get them to explore the implications of failure. By identifying the risks, they can understand the trade-offs they are making with their time by not providing their unconditional support.
Equally bringing them together with the team to conduct a pre-mortem, a method for brainstorming all the potential ways the project could be derailed, can help them get insights on how they may contribute to the project’s failure.
Skilfully reinforcing how your project’s goals contribute to overarching organisational strategies will strengthen perceptions and increase the chances of active senior leadership support
Small but mighty
Navigating the executive labyrinth calls for strategy, clarity, and a nuanced approach to secure unwavering senior leadership support.
Here’s your brief but powerful action plan:
1. Align objectives
Seamlessly intertwine your project’s goals with overarching organisational strategies, ensuring it is viewed as indispensably aligned with company aims.
2. Champion continuously
Unceasingly inspire senior leaders to be vocal, passionate champions, communicating the initiative’s vital importance at every juncture.
3. Coach consistently
Maintain vigilance for early disengagement signs and be ready with a coaching blueprint to realign leadership’s active involvement and support.
By incorporating these steps into your strategy, your path through the executive maze is not only navigated but masterfully conquered.
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