Project managers often work for someone higher up in the hierarchy than them, and they don’t spend much time with their actual manager. You’ve guessed it: I am referring to working for a project sponsor.
Many of my project sponsors were C-suite executives with many other demands than responding to my emails. These are five tips that I have used over the years to build trusting relationships with sponsors when communicating and managing up.
1. Trustworthiness is key
This is the most important point. Trust is the best way to get sponsors to engage with you.
Trust is not something you can acquire overnight. Therefore, it is important to start with mutual respect. Respect their authority and position, and act as though they trust you, even if there is no evidence to the contrary. Trust is built by:
Delivering on your promises
Completing tasks, especially those they have requested
Demonstrating that you are able to do the work and then getting it done.
Reflected trust is another option. In other words, your reputation will influence the opinion of project sponsors. Trusting you and your team by a senior manager is a good sign. This will help you to make sure that any new contacts are also trusted.
Trust builds engagement because the sponsor will not feel like they have to micromanage your work to get tasks done. Aren’t you more likely to respond to the emails and requests from your trusted colleagues than someone you have never dealt with before?
2. Be structured
Structured communication is a way to set expectations. They will expect you to send your project report on Friday afternoons if they know that you do.
This type of commitment can be covered in your first meeting with your sponsor.
You will be viewed as trustworthy and reliable if you have structured interactions. It is easier to connect with someone who arrives at a meeting with a clear agenda. They will also be more efficient and less likely to waste your time.
3. Be clear
Get rid of the jargon. Your executive sponsor may not be able to understand the terminology of project management. Instead of talking about CSFs or Gantt charts, start talking about how you will measure project success and plan the work.
A team that doesn’t understand the language you use is one of the fastest ways to lose interest in a project or any other business situation. It is important to feel like you are all in this together.
Worse, some senior managers may be averse to asking questions that reveal what they don’t know. They will either disengage slowly or perform poorly because they don’t understand what’s expected. You might even be asked to leave so they can find someone to help them.
4. Transparency is key
Sponsors are no exception. Nobody likes surprises at work. I have never worked with a project sponsor who would rather I hide the truth than talk to them about a problem. They can help you solve the problems if they are aware of them. You also reduce the risk of them appearing stupid if a colleague discovers the problem before you do.
Your sponsor will be more involved because they will know that you are doing everything possible to keep them informed, and to provide information that will help them do their job.
5. Flexibility is key
Every project is unique, as is every project sponsor. You won’t only be working with your sponsor, but you will also likely to come in contact with their colleagues as well as other very senior managers. To make the most of your interactions with them, you will need to be flexible.