GPM First
Chapter 4 of Advising Upwards (978-1-409-43430-6) by Lynda Bourne

From Commander to Sponsor: Building Executive Support for Project Success


Randall L. Englund and Alfonso Bucero


In the action and historical drama film Master and Commander, Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe) of the British frigate HMS Surprise, faces the problem of how to make his ship appear invisible in pursuit of the French privateer Acheron, a cutting-edge vessel both heavier and faster than his own.

His mission is to ‘burn, sink or take her a prize’. He walks into the cabin where the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (played by Paul Bettany) studies strange creatures that reside on the isles of the Galapagos Islands. The doctor and his young assistant describe the rare phasmid, stick insects whose natural camouflage makes them resemble a stick, difficult to spot, and able to confuse their predators. The captain gets an idea. The next scene shows the doctor coming up on deck and seeing the warship being disguised as a whaling ship. The privateer, in greed, would come in close to capture the ship rather than destroy it outright. Captain Aubrey says:

A nautical phasmid, Doctor. It’s amazing how much one can learn about naval warfare by observing nature. I intend to take a greater interest in the bounty of nature from now on. I had no idea that the study of nature could advance the art of naval warfare. Now to bring this predator in close and spring our trap.


The doctor corrects him, ‘Jack, you’re the predator.’

Several points from these scenes demonstrate how the captain transitioned from commander to sponsor. Faced with a clear-cut mission to accomplish, he practiced management by wandering around (MBWA). He sought out advice from people on his team and listened to what they were working on. He applied an organic approach to solving problems, realising that nature and natural living systems have much to offer when applied to work situations. The captain did not need to have all the answers or take the credit; solutions are present in the people, process, or environment wherein we reside. Innovative ideas can come from anywhere. Finding solutions requires inquiry, adoption, adaptation and application. In becoming a predator, he assumes the role of an aggressive, determined, or persistent person, all the while maintaining his role as a sponsor and leader. The captain has the authority to implement the creative solution and complete the mission.

While military models often portray a command and control approach, they also depict times when sponsorship is the desired role. Many people find themselves wanting to contribute more within their organisations but feel constrained by the limits of commander leadership. This chapter addresses both the role of sponsorship and how to advise upwards when a sponsorship culture is weak, ineffective, unfamiliar, good but not great, or missing. Much of the discussion draws from the discipline of project management and the world of projects, as that is where the authors live and breathe on a daily basis. The concepts and practices apply, however, to all forms of work, disciplines and industries.

This chapter is organised to first discuss the need for sponsors, followed by attitudes and steps to follow to manage upwards, and then summarises lessons learned to facilitate the transition from commander to sponsor.

The Need for Sponsorship

Why do we need sponsorship? Everybody does … on every activity worth pursuing. Chief Information Officers and other executives oversee a vast array of projects of which many, to their dismay, provide disappointing results. Who do you turn to for relief? How about the sponsors?

A compelling case can be made for raising the capabilities of sponsors. Terry Cooke-Davies (2005) and Human Systems International conducted research worldwide to find approximately 26 per cent of the variation in project success is accounted for by variation in governance or sponsor capabilities. The capabilities that matter most: 50 per cent improvement in effectiveness when sponsors ensure strategic options are largely considered, projects are fully resourced and project teams have the authority necessary to accomplish project goals; 70 per cent improvement in efficiency when sponsors support proven planning methods, fully develop the business case, staff capable and effective teams and identify clear technical performance requirements that achieve business goals. Cooke-Davies (2005) concludes that ‘the sponsor does indeed play a pivotal role. It is time for project management professional organizations to provide help and guidance to executive sponsors!’


When I (Bucero) was assigned as project manager for a government project that was considered a strategic project for the company, the Spanish CEO was assigned as project sponsor. At that time I lacked knowledge about sponsorship but did observe dysfunctional behaviours. My project sponsor was not confident in me; he duplicated many of my activities. He wanted to act as a ‘super project manager’. He used his high-level contacts at top management level in Europe to accelerate equipment delivery, and he also micromanaged me. That created a lot of stress for me. However, I discovered one thing that worked very well. Every time we had a customer executive meeting, I made the effort of travelling with him the day before, having dinner together, talking about my vision for the project and providing him a wide variety of project details. Six months later his behaviour changed to a very positive attitude towards me. This situation illustrates how executives (sponsors) and project managers need to spend time talking, discussing and getting to know each other better to achieve successful projects and positive business impact.

The Problem

Many executives are assigned as sponsors, but their organisations do not spend time training them in preparation for the role, explaining their expected roles and responsibilities during project life cycles. The accidental project manager role is well known, and the same applies to sponsors. Case study 4.2 depicts the challenges created by poor sponsors.

Recognise that the ‘sponsor’ is a universal role and has application for all activities that an organisation undertakes. Moving from a state of poor sponsorship to excellence in sponsorship is the goal set out by this chapter. The sponsor role can have a tremendous impact on organisational success. However, effective implementation in reality is quite different. The sponsor role appears confused in many organisations: sometimes the sponsor is not very involved in the work. On the other hand, sometimes a sponsor is too involved and acts or tries to act as a super project manager, generating more conflict and problems. Managing upwards involves shifting roles.


An example of poor sponsorship appeared when I (Bucero) was assigned as a project manager to a large customer project in the financial industry in Spain; my general manager was assigned as project sponsor. He never came to talk to me or asked me about project progress. Periodically, I kept him informed. He only visited the customer twice in a three-year period. When I talked to him, he said it was my responsibility to take care of the customer. He had never been trained in project sponsorship; in fact, he believed it was my role as project manager to assume most responsibilities of the sponsor. I spent a lot of time treating him to coffee in order to let him know about my expectations and the customer’s expectations of him.

In that particular project, I played two roles (the project manager role and the project sponsor role), and it did not work. I always believe that communication is more effective when project managers talk to project managers, technical people talk to technical people and executives (project sponsors) talk to customer sponsors.

For me as project manager it was very difficult to wear two hats at the same time, but I did my best. I spent time, effort and passion to do that. Finally, I was considered a trusted advisor to my customer and was invited to attend customer executive committee meetings on a monthly basis. But the customer was unhappy about the situation and complained to the project provider organisation. The lack of effective sponsorship created ill feeling all around.

Invest in Relationships

One of our insights is that the project manager and sponsor should invest in relational chemistry. The key to developing chemistry with leaders is to develop relationships with them. By learning to adapt to the boss’s personality while still being yourself and maintaining your integrity, you will be in a better position to advise upwards.

To begin investing in relationships, be aware of cultural characteristics. For example, these characteristics have been observed as representative of European culture:

  • inordinate sense of reality;

  • a belief that individuals should be at the centre of life;

  • a sense of social responsibility;

  • a mistrust of authority; and

  • a desire for security and continuity.


We asked a number of professionals in Europe the question: ‘Was the chemistry between your project team, your executives and yourself working properly throughout the work cycle?’

Adriano Brilli from Ericsson (Italy) says:

The key is to mediate. Different interests can converge into a project, functional workload and project work. The solution of this is always in the ability to find mediation between needs, priorities and understanding the approach from both sides. If the project manager is able to find the best mediation, and the parties involved assume a proactive and cooperative approach, then the compound is stable.


Gregorio Tierno from HP (Spain) says:

I believe good chemistry can be achieved dealing with people as human beings, not only as employees. Being confident, respectful, sincere, creating a team spirit in the project, clarifying the common objective. These attitudes should generate enthusiasm itself.


We believe the job of leaders, no matter what their level in the organisation, is to connect with the people they lead. In an ideal world, that’s the way it should be. The reality is that some leaders do little to connect with the people they lead. Leaders need to take on the responsibility to connect not only with the people they lead, but also with the person who leads them (manager, sponsor). In order to lead up, it is necessary to take the responsibility to connect up.

Apply Best Practices

Here are a variety of practices that work for the authors in leading work efforts across organisations:

  1. Listen to your leader’s heartbeat;

  2. Know your leader’s priorities;

  3. Catch your leader’s enthusiasm;

  4. Support your leader’s vision;

  5. Connect with your leader’s interests;

  6. Understand your leader’s personality;

  7. Earn your leader’s trust; and

  8. Learn to work with your leader’s weaknesses.


Listen to Your Leader’s Heartbeat

You need to listen to your leader’s heartbeat to understand what makes them tick. That may mean paying attention in informal settings, such as during hallway conversations, at lunch, or in the chance encounter that often occurs informally before or after a meeting. If you know your leader well and feel the relationship is solid, you may want to be more direct and ask questions about what really matters to them on an emotional level.

If you’re not sure what to look for, focus on these three areas:

  1. What makes them laugh? This is very important.

  2. What makes them cry? This is what touches a person’s heart at a deep emotional level.

  3. What makes them sing? These are the things that bring deep fulfilment.


All people have dreams, issues or causes that connect with them. Those things are like the keys to their lives. Think about it from your own point of view for a moment. Are you aware of the things that touch you on a deep emotional level? What are the signs that they ‘connect’ for you? Do you see those signs in your leader? Look for them, and you will likely find them.

Know Your Leader’s Priorities

The priorities of leaders are what they have to do, and by that we mean more than just to-do lists. All leaders have duties that they must complete or they will fail in fulfilling their responsibility. It’s the short list that the boss’s boss would say is do-or-die for that position. Make it your goal to learn what those priorities are. The better acquainted you are with those duties or objectives, the better you will understand and communicate with your leader.

Catch Your Leader’s Enthusiasm

It is much easier to work with someone when you share an enthusiasm. If you can catch your leader’s enthusiasm, it will have a similarly energising effect and it will create a bond between you and your leader. If you can share in that enthusiasm, you will pass it on because you will not be able to contain it.

Support Your Leader’s Vision

When top leaders hear others in their organisation articulate the vision they have cast for the organisation, their hearts sing. It’s very rewarding. It represents a kind of tipping point, to use the words of author Malcolm Gladwell (2002). It indicates a level of ownership by others in the organisation that bodes well for the fulfilment of the vision. Leaders in the middle ranks of the organisation who are champions for the vision become elevated in the estimation of a top leader. They get it: they are on board. And, therefore, they have great value.

Never underestimate the power of a verbal endorsement of the vision by a person with influence. As a leader in the middle ranks, if you are unsure about the vision of your leader, then talk to them. Ask questions. Once you think you understand it, quote it back to your leader in situations where it’s appropriate to make sure you are in alignment. If you have got it right, you will be able to see it in your leader’s face. Then you can start passing it on to the people in your own sphere of influence. It will be good for the organisation, your people, your leader and you. Promote your leader’s dreams, and they will promote you.

Connect With Your Leader’s Interests

One of the keys to building relational chemistry is knowing, and connecting with, the interests of your leader – both work-related and personal interests. It is important to know enough about your leader to be able to relate to them as an individual beyond the job. If your boss is a golfer, you may want to take up the game or at least learn something about it. If the boss collects rare books or porcelain, then spend some time on the Internet finding out about these hobbies. Just learn enough to relate to your boss and talk intelligently about the subject.

Understand Your Leader’s Personality

Two staff members were discussing the president of their company, and one of them said, ‘You know, you cannot help liking the guy.’ To which the other replied, ‘Yes, if you don’t, he fires you.’

Leaders are used to having others make allowances for their personalities. As you lead down from the middle of the organisation, don’t you expect others to conform to your personality? We don’t mean that in an unreasonable or spiteful way that you would fire someone who didn’t like you, as in the joke. If you are simply being yourself, you expect the people who work for you to work with you. But when you are trying to lead up, you are the one who must conform to your leader’s personality. It is a rare great leader who attempts or even considers accommodating to the people who work for them.

It is wise to understand your leader’s style and how your personality styles interact. Most of the time, personality opposites get along well as long as their values and goals are similar. Using temperament theory from the ancient Greeks, cholerics (doers) work well with phlegmatics (self-content and kind); sanguines (extroverted) and melancholics (ponderer) appreciate each other’s strengths. Trouble can come when people with similar personality types come together. If you find that your personality is similar to your boss’s, then remember that you are the one who has to be flexible. That can be a challenge if yours is not a flexible personality type.

Earn Your Leader’s Trust

When you take time to invest in relational chemistry with your leader, the eventual result will be trust, in other words, relational currency. When you do things that add to the relationship, you increase the change (surplus currency) in your pocket. When you do negative things, you spend that change. If you keep dropping the ball, professionally or personally, you harm the relationship, and you can eventually spend all the change and bankrupt the relationship.

Learn to Work With Your Leader’s Weaknesses

You cannot build a positive relationship with your boss if you secretly disrespect him because of his weaknesses. Since everybody has blindspots and weak areas, why not learn to work with them? Try to focus on the positives and work around the negatives. To do anything else will only hurt you.

People can usually trace their successes and failures to the relationships in their lives. The same is true when it comes to leadership. The quality of the relationship you have with your leader will impact your success or failure. It is certainly worth the investment.

Need for Management Support

Management support is always needed on every activity. In fact, the sentence: ‘we need more management support’ is very common in most organisations. In every project, the project manager and team needs management support. Each project needs a single sponsor: avoid multiple sponsors because that usually equals no sponsorship. To give effective management support, managers need to know what is expected from them. Many sponsors do not know very much about the projects they are sponsoring, and no one has explained the meaning of project sponsorship to them.

According to a study of change management research, the number one contributor to project success is visible and effective sponsorship. Participants cited:

The top changes they would make regarding project communications in the future would be to incorporate more frequent communications earlier in the project, conduct more face-to-face communications, offer more communications from executive sponsors and senior managers, and deliver more information about the impact of the change.



Many managers spend the better part of their time focusing on technology or system issues surrounding organisational changes, rather than creating a comprehensive plan to facilitate critical communications with all the sponsors and target audiences that will be impacted.


Also required is the need to ‘promote visible support from executives’ (Urban 2004).

Many organisations focus on key initiatives that may be different at various times in the life of the organisation. Some examples would be:

  • The improvement of project management processes and practices in the organisation.

  • The implementation of specific project management methodologies.

  • The development of a project management career path for the organisation’s project management personnel.


However, few organisations are aware of how to develop the skills of their managers and top executives to enable them for understand and better exploit the influence they can have on overall success. Graham and Englund (2004) target this audience, Dinsmore joined them to document how to implement a project-based organisation, (Englund, Graham and Dinsmore 2003). New work by Englund and Bucero (2006) focuses on the role of project sponsors within the guidelines established by the previous work. The goal is to help generate excellence in project sponsorship.

Few professionals in organisations have a clear idea of what sponsorship entails. We find different degrees of understanding and different behaviours from sponsors across the vast variety of organisations with whom we have made contact or worked. Some professionals and managers think that sponsorship is just work authorisation, signing up contracts, funding the activity and deciding to go on or not go on to the next phase. Provision and guarantee of funding are essential roles of sponsorship, but there is much, much more.

Sponsor Definition

There are common definitions of the role of sponsor that apply to a multitude of work situations:

  1. One who assumes responsibility for another person or a group during a period of instruction, apprenticeship, or probation;

  2. One who vouches for the suitability of a candidate for admission;

  3. A legislator who proposes and urges adoption of a bill;

  4. One who presents a candidate for baptism or confirmation: a godparent;

  5. One who finances a project or an event carried out by another person or group, especially a business enterprise that pays for radio or television programming in return for advertising time.


Another definition of sponsorship more useful in the context of this chapter is ‘a commitment by management to define, defend and support major activities from the start to the end’.

Sponsorship needs to be an active role during the life cycle of an activity or project.

Obviously, the types of sponsor roles and activities may vary, but there are some things all sponsors have in common, including:

  • obligation;

  • devotion;

  • achievement;

  • in other words, commitment.


Making the Commitment

Sponsorship means commitment to people in organisations. Sponsors are managers who need to be committed to active involvement throughout the activity. These are professionals who meet regularly to track progress. One basic characteristic of good sponsors is that they are clear about the objective for the activity and at the same time consistent, acting as a parachute for the project team. Project sponsorship does not mean doing project planning or work directly.

Sponsorship means dealing with people. The sponsor is both a supplier and protector of resources and the focal point of escalation for the project manager. During product or project life cycles, the sponsor acts as a high-level decision-maker because they are usually more knowledgeable about the business context in which the work is happening. Case study 4.3 provides an example.


When I (Bucero) was assigned as a project manager for a software development project in an insurance organisation, I started running into problems with a third party. That third party did not follow the project procedures – the established methodology – and missed some key meetings. I talked to his manager but the manager did nothing. So, I talked to my sponsor to ask him to substitute that third party with another company to benefit the project. I was surprised when my sponsor’s answer was ‘No’. He explained to me that the third party had an intimate relationship with the customer and was also involved in five more projects with my delivery organisation. Strategic information such as this may be known to an executive but not be known by project managers.

Sponsorship means owning the objective, determining priorities and keeping the work going. Many problems with a particular activity can be avoided if it has a sponsor who defends the priority of the work, the task manager and team members. For example, it is very common in organisations that provide information services to have conflicts in terms of resource assignments among various activities. The sponsor plays a key role in keeping the project priority as established at the very beginning of the project. Success often comes from a sponsor who gives teams the benefit of the doubt and supports the project manager and the team. The sponsor also guides change when business priorities dictate change in the work that supports the business.

Proactive People

Sponsorship means dealing with a variety of people. Unfortunately, many project and organisation professionals operate without a clear definition of sponsorship. Sponsorship requires taking an active role during the whole project. Serving as the sponsor requires making a commitment to define, fund, defend and support major activities from the start to the finish. The task continues to ensure the benefits that the intended outcomes offered are realised.

The ideal situation is proactive sponsorship – getting a sponsor who is committed, accountable, serious about the work, knowledgeable, trained and able not only to talk the talk but also to walk the walk. Such people are trustworthy in all respects. Their values are transparent and aligned with the organisation and its strategy. Such sponsors protect the team from disruptive outside influences and back the team up when times are tough. It is far better to start out with the right sponsor rather than having to correct a bad sponsorship situation down the road. That is why it is so important to select the right sponsor and train the person for the role. Do not be surprised by this reaction:

Who Me? A Sponsor?

We find a number of cases where executives do not believe they need training on sponsorship. Usually this is because nobody has spent adequate amounts of time with them explaining how critical their participation and teamwork with project managers and their teams is in order to achieve better business results. Explaining the strategic impact of project management to executives is still a real challenge – difficult but not impossible. An organisational culture committed to a proactive approach is a desired goal. It represents a well-developed, mature organisation. Do it right the first time and save grief later on. The best way to sustain good sponsorship is to start out with good sponsorship. Anything less is remedial.

Achieving Role Transformation

Coaching and mentoring are desired characteristics of a good sponsor. Many sponsors have not managed projects or other task-oriented work, making it difficult for them to be effective mentors. Furthermore, they allow themselves to remain woefully ignorant about daily project obstacles, issues and problems.

Usually, the sponsor is a professional with a higher level of authority than the project manager and team in the organisation. It is preferable for the sponsor to be an experienced executive. The person’s experience is crucial to ensure that activities execute organisational strategy because the sponsor is aware of the strategy and can affect resources to support it.

Probability of greater success is massively increased through better sponsorship. Sometimes executives are unable to pull the plug on troubled projects. Yet all the resources, energy and passion not poured into those activities could substantially improve the organisation’s bottom line. Sponsors fulfil a crucial role by guiding right decision-making throughout every development life cycle. Sponsorship means commitment and assuring alignment to objectives from the beginning to the end of every project.


To illustrate the extent to which executives may be ignorant regarding the value of sponsorship, when I (Bucero) was a consultant for a multinational company in the oil and gas industry in Barcelona one goal of the company was to develop a culture of sponsorship in the organisation. The current project culture was poorly understood and poorly developed. I organised a meeting with all of the management team in order to explain the importance of project sponsorship. Before that meeting, I asked them to do some homework. I asked every one of them to prepare a list of the projects they were sponsoring. When I asked them to present the required list, more than 75 per cent of them had very little information about project status, customer relationship, or potential future business. As the senior manager was in the room, he said to the attendees, ‘Do you really believe that with so little data about the projects your people are managing we will be able to make the right decisions and maintain a successful business relationship with our customers?’

I then had the opportunity to explain very clearly what they, as sponsors, might do in order to improve. The sponsorship and presence of the upper manager were key to moving forward. They established goals to achieve and measures to be applied. Executive commitment started that day, and now they are moving forward.

Support is Required

Executives are advised to support project management in organisations in order to reap the benefits. This means they need to spend time understanding their roles and responsibilities during project life cycles. Case study 4.4 provides an example of an encounter that helps clarify these responsibilities. The sponsor has a relationship with all stakeholders, especially the project manager. The sponsor performs various roles (such as seller, coacher and mentor) during all phases of each project. Many of these roles require new skills that need to be developed and different behaviours to be adopted (see Figure 4.1). That development process takes time.

Figure 4.1 Roles and behaviours of sponsors


When the sponsor role appears confused, making changes and speaking the truth to those in power may not always appear viable.


One of my (Englund) clients in a government setting worked for a director who took a commander approach to roles and responsibilities. The director thought he could resolve the issues on his own between his people in headquarters and others out in the field. But interviews with a cross-section of key people revealed that while they were willing and able to perform at higher levels, lack of resolution around roles and responsibilities hindered them from doing so. The client manager had an uncanny ability to protect and manage his director. But we were unable to get through to the director how engaging his people in discussions about the issues might be more productive.

Results are difficult to achieve when emphasis appears to be on controls. Some managers want to do everything themselves. What can you do when support is not present or adequate or politics appear to rule? Take the initiative!

Surveys and data gathering are useful tools to establish awareness of a problem. Here is a simple benchmark quiz to get started. Which one of the following answers to the question ‘Describe your sponsor’s behaviour?’ most accurately describes the current reality?

  1. What sponsor?

  2. The sponsor started the project but then disappeared until…

  3. The sponsor was too distant to be helpful.

  4. The sponsor tended to micromanage the project.

  5. The sponsor was moderately helpful.

  6. The sponsor made it clear what was needed and assisted in every way to make that happen.

  7. The sponsor defined the project, identified constraints, funded the project with adequate resources, made timely decisions, resolved conflicts and supported the project team.

Obviously, the preferred answer is to be close to response G. In almost all groups where we’ve conducted this quiz, we get a normal distribution with the peak in the middle between slightly negative and slightly positive responses. Often there will be one or two who reach the ideal definition described by G. Those people describe environments where very enlightened managers successfully transitioned from commander to sponsor. Moving from A to G takes awareness and explicit commitments to make changes and continuously improve the sponsorship role. Invoke a quiz like this to measure progress. Use positive examples and dialogue, coupled with patience and persistence, to stay the course.

Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities

Get clear understanding about roles and responsibilities to ensure that all projects achieve successful outcomes. Do this by developing a plan to work with sponsors on a regular basis and seek a better outcome from this interaction. Project managers need to manage their sponsors as well as how sponsors do their jobs to optimise project success. Case studies (Englund and Bucero 2006) illustrate how people can (and have!) successfully managed upwards. Another (Englund) client, again in a government setting, was able to muster support across a variety of sponsoring departments when he drew support from his own sponsor and then actively recruited support from sponsors in other departments. He systematically met with them one on one, starting first with those from his stakeholder analysis who were most supportive, progressing then through others who were perceived as less supportive. This process created a critical mass of support. He educated them about their roles as sponsors at the same time as he ‘sold’ them on the value of the initiative and cajoled them into operating differently than in the past. The programme achieved its objectives due to this manager’s initiative, belief in the programme and active recruiting of sponsors.

Often a positive attitude in the relationship between executive and project manager helps: this is a critical pairing for project success. Executives do not like complaining project managers – it is not the right attitude for good business results. Executives like action- and business-oriented people and need project managers who are leaders. The desired end result is to dramatically and sustainably increase the probability of success, especially in political yet innovative environments. The bottom line message is … take the initiative.


It is also important to understand expectations that sponsors have of the people working for them. Here is a recent example for an employment opportunity posted by a PMI chapter for a local organisation: ‘The position requires a hands-on, get-the-job-done, attitude.’

  1. You understand the theory of project management principles, but even better, you know how to adapt them to the situation at hand;

  2. You’re a fan of process, but only the right amount;

  3. You understand and drive issues to conclusion;

  4. You’re a great communicator, even the people you pester like having you on the team; and

  5. You love the Web, how it works, how sites are developed, and where it’s going. If you have a track record for delivering customer-facing Web projects in a fast-paced, constantly changing environment, we’d like to talk to you.


This somewhat unorthodox set of requirements nonetheless helps potential candidates know what is expected of them. Expectations are a double-edged sword. They serve well when clear, articulated and congruent with organisational goals. They are problematic when vague, unexpressed and out of alignment. Put in the effort to bring expectations and assumptions to the surface and engage in dialogue until mutual understanding is achieved.

Applying Lessons Learned

In thinking about applying lessons learned while working in high-tech new product development, here are lessons distilled from the authors’ experiences that assist the transition to becoming a more effective leader and advisor.

Success Means Taking the Initiative

It is important for managers and leaders in general to lead and manage all stakeholders, often requiring them to manage up the organisation. Successful managers are the ones who take the initiative (’This is my job’), realising they still do not have control over stakeholders, but nevertheless they seek to influence and guide them for the sake of the project and the good of the organisation.

Encourage Senior Managers to Work as a Team

A suggestion for an action step that starts at the top and ripples throughout all the components of an action plan to create an environment for successful projects is to get upper managers working together as a team. Ask them to document strategic goals, establish criteria for prioritising and selecting projects and communicate this information among all stakeholders. By asking these questions, you demonstrate initiative to mentor upwards and your interest in helping the organisation to perform better. Inevitably you can reach the conclusion I realise that stakeholders need to be managed, which was something I always thought was not my job, or beyond my control.

Good Questioning Techniques

When probing for status, a sponsor or project manager may ask a project team member a ‘Yes/No’ question. However, open-ended and probing questions are more effective. To better understand what is going on, for example, ask, ‘What preparations have you made for the inspection?’ or ‘How have other team members helped prepare for the upcoming review?’ Likewise, ask open-ended questions when managing upwards, such as ‘What is your vision for this department?’, ‘What are our strategic goals for this year?’ and ‘What are the criteria for selecting projects?’

Presenting Lessons Learned

To increase the power of knowledge management dissemination, ask for a ‘what I learned from previous projects’ presentation by each project manager when assigned a new project. That presentation can be made to the sponsor, an upper manager business team, and/or to the project team at a project start-up event.

Build on Strengths

While it’s laudatory to improve weaknesses in any performance challenged situation, the real pay-off – and opportunity for extraordinary results – is to build upon strengths. These are areas that are more natural, take less energy to do and are easier – all recipes for greater success. It’s also good to start any review or plan with strengths. For example, if strategic planning is quite good but the environment for execution is not, suggest that upper managers include a strategic goal to improve project manager selection and development, organisation support for projects and the project management culture. Use data from surveys to help make the case.


A good lesson to apply when faced with the oft-experienced challenge of contributing something of value in a tense setting, is to tell a personal story. Nobody else can tell the same story, so by its nature it is unique. Of course, it’s important that the story is relevant and contributes some way to better understanding the human condition, even if it’s your own admonition to keep or stop doing certain behaviours. Participating in discussions is a great catalyst for storytelling and learning. The authors experienced this in writing business management books. While talking about the material, stories inevitably popped up that could be used in the text. We cherish these collaborative moments.

Scope Creep

With regards to scope creep, demonstrate to stakeholders the consequences of their actions. Find a creative way to itemise the delays, impact on costs, or resource challenges: just the data. No judgements, emotional outbursts, or accusations. Workers are very close to this information – make it publicly visible and let people come to their own conclusions.

Intimidating Behaviour

Apply a negotiating rule about not rewarding intimidating behaviour. Invoke tit for tat. When the other party is aggressive, ignore their behaviour, take a time out, or withdraw your concessions. When the other party is conciliatory, make generous offers, acknowledge the good behaviour, smile. You train other people through your own behaviour.

The Rule of Exchange

Don’t forget this rule: always get something in exchange for every concession you make, especially when being asked to do more, do it sooner, or at lower cost. Failing to get something in return creates regrets, bad feelings and poor outcomes. Creativity or ingenuity or good plain business sense may decide on what that ‘something’ is, but never, ever, violate the rule.

Fast-Paced Environments

A suggestion for getting responses from stakeholders in a fast-paced environment is to address a process for short-term requests or changes up front at a work start-up meeting. Solicit suggestions from team members about how they want to operate. When you come up with a ‘solution’, ask team members or stakeholders to commit to rapid responses. For example, people will read the website or emails daily and respond within 24 hours to all questions, reviews, or requests for changes. Then your job as leader is to enforce this expected behaviour (instead of having to beg for responses or do it all yourself).

Using Default Responses

A technique when sending out time sensitive material to be reviewed is to say, ‘If you do not respond within XX days/weeks, then your default response will be logged as [accepted or rejected]’. Pick a default response that will be most detrimental to the person or department; this way you get their attention. The fact that you log default responses means the responses become public record. If people complain, your response is to say you are only the reporter; people have full control over their choice and what gets logged by simply responding to your request. This process helps to engender more accountability, especially when dealing with busy people. This approach is not a case of offending people; it’s expressing leadership on a time-critical activity to keep an important process moving and completed on time. Explain the process up front to people and state it’s a condition of participating on the project. You can always give more time on a case-by-case basis if necessary, but you’ve set the expectation that people need to be accountable and meet commitments.

But Above All: Follow Your Bliss

Most of all, life is too short to spend precious time in a miserable job, regardless of the pay or benefits. Find a way to be happy, ‘follow your bliss’, and believe finding purpose and meaning in your job is important. The only thing you’ll regret about moving on or making a change is that you didn’t do it sooner.

Managing the Transition

Sponsor activities and behaviours vary with the organisation. The lack of good sponsorship is a major cause of difficulties and problems. Well-executed sponsorship by senior executives brings better results.

In our research on sponsorship (Englund and Bucero 2006), we found a number of examples of how people can successfully manage upwards. What are some common steps?

  • Sell the features to upper managers about their roles as sponsors.

  • Emphasise the value of sponsorship and the advantages that accrue to the organisation when it is done well.

  • Ask sponsors what they know and what they do not know about the projects they are involved in. This question is not meant to reveal ignorance but to get their attention. This questioning process may also demonstrate to senior executives that their sponsors are not as active and knowledgeable about their activities as they should be.

  • Create a training programme on sponsorship.

  • Ask for the order: get executive commitment to engage fully in the sponsorship role.

  • Establish agreements about next steps (action plan).

Any sales process needs to focus on features, benefits and advantages. To sell sponsors on accepting their role, first recognise the rewards for sponsorship.

The Rewards for Sponsors

  • An improved standing and profile within the organisation: important projects may empower project sponsors to success

  • (while also being aware of the attendant risks to their reputations from failed projects).

  • Being linked with an exciting and very successful project: exciting projects have high visibility in organisations.

  • An opportunity for project sponsors to promote their professional background and prestige: marketing potential and image selling.

  • Media opportunities: at official launches, presentation evenings and mentions in local newsletters or news.

  • Get an agenda implemented: sponsorship represents an opportunity to turn a vision into reality through a set of assigned resources.

A complete manager develops the aptitude, attitude, and skills to manage up, down and across the organisation (see Figure 4.2 which is an outline of forthcoming material from the authors).

Figure 4.2 Developing a complete skill set


Achieving a state of completeness 1 [27] involves:

  • Focusing on your strengths;

  • Reframing your attitude;

  • Assessing your environment;

  • Developing action plans, targeted at the environment, to increase management commitment;

  • Integrating skills from multiple disciplines; and

  • Applying learning to get better results.


Realise that a command and control leadership style is the old story of applied leadership; the new story is a focus on coaching and mentoring, engaging people to do their best work, learning from each other and from experiences, both good and bad, and doing it faster than competitors. Create a political plan that accesses the power to do good and get results. If necessary, become a project office of one (POO). Be the instigator of a learning organisation. Motivate others to join in the quest to create a greater good. Throughout this process, have fun!


Key lessons are these:

  • Illustrate where the absence of thoughtfully assigned sponsors with well-defined and clearly understood responsibilities is a major cause of difficulties and frustrations in many types of work.

  • Complex programmes that cross internal and external organisations require a structured approach to sponsorship.

  • Senior executives are more effective when they understand their role as sponsors and do not delegate this responsibility to lower levels.

  • Publicise how well-executed sponsorship brings financial results, increases motivation and participation and improves the productivity of the organisation.

  • Accept managing upwards as part of your purpose as an effective leader, regardless of where you are in the organisation or what work you do.

  • Know that sponsors need followers who urge them to be better sponsors and care enough to help them move forward.

  • Workers at all levels, for the own well-being as well as for the organisation, have both an obligation and the means to manage upwards.

  • Both sponsors and leaders of work need to convey a positive attitude that extends across the team and all stakeholders.


A good sponsor needs to deal with resource availability, minimise functional barriers, get help from senior management and be sure the right tools are used. A key obligation of every sponsor is to create the right environment for success. Problems and issues that arise from people at work are greatly eased when effective sponsors are fully present and skilled in fulfilling their roles.

Success starts with a strong commitment to improve. Leaders become better prepared as sponsors of work by taking inventory of their talents, skills and behaviours and putting appropriate action plans in place. They need to acquire skills and knowledge to transition from commander to sponsor.

Knowledge management encompasses the ascent of a stairway from data to information to knowledge and wisdom: this is shown in Figure 4.3. One objective is to unlock and open the doors to effective sponsorship. Reaching the doors at the top of the stairway represents enlightenment – eyes are fully open about why, what and how to invoke excellence in sponsorship. The reader has choices: ignore the opportunities the open door represents, approach it cautiously, or pass through it eagerly. As you stand before an open door, you can spend time and energy on non value-adding activities or embrace sponsor and management commitments that achieve greater success … and take on attendant responsibilities to manage upwards.

Figure 4.3 Ascending steps to excellence in sponsorship


Sponsorship is a required and critical success factor for all projects and almost all work, in all industries and disciplines. Executives need training, experience and practice to be effective sponsors. Most of all, they need followers who urge them to be better sponsors and care enough to help them move forward. Believe that every day is a good day for change. Excellence in sponsorship needs to be every manager’s mantra for achieving more within the organisation.


[1] See Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 10 this volume.

[2] Chapter 4 offers insights on how the culture can move from ‘command and control’ to a ‘sponsor’ culture.

[3] These ideas are covered in detail through alternative perspectives on the culture of management in modern Western organisation in Chapter 8.

[4] This will be a product of many factors: national, professional, industrial, even the dominance of specific generations – see Chapters 6, 7 and 8.

[5] Chapter 1 defines a structured process for developing an understanding of the relationships within the stakeholder community and mapping this community to ensure awareness of its networks and complexities. Chapter 3 discusses the most appropriate ways to craft communication to engage those stakeholders.

[6] Chapter 9 discusses the concepts of metaphors in more detail and its application in organisations for advising upwards.

[7] Chapter 5 discusses aspects of decision-making and Chapter 10 looks at how teams and their managers can assist the organisation’s leadership in making this transition.

[8] Chapter 4 provides direction on how to build the sponsorship culture within an organisation.

[9] Chapter 1 uses the case study of Heathrow Terminal 5. For another more personal case study see Bourne (2011) ‘Advising upwards: managing the perceptions and expectations of senior management stakeholders’ Management Decision.

[10] The Stakeholder Circle® is a registered trademark of Mosaic Project Services Pty Ltd, Australia.

[11] The terminal was designed by Richard Rogers Partnership – now Rogers, Stirk, Harbour and Partners: see The firm received a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) London award in June 2008 for the building.

[12] ‘Airline tie-ups loom as crunch hits’; 18 May 2008, Dominic O’Connell.

[13] ‘What went wrong at Heathrow’s T5?’; 31 March 2008.

[14] This is still the case at the time of writing (2011).

[15] The concepts defined in this chapter and the methodology applies to all activities that an organisation approves, resources and funds to achieve its strategies and goals. Many organisations now use the discipline of project management to deliver these goals and strategies. So when ‘project’ is referred to in this chapter it can be interpreted in the widest sense to mean any activity, temporary or ongoing, that an organisation performs.

[16] In working with organisations using the Stakeholder Circle methodology and software for mapping and managing stakeholder relationships, the author has assisted in projects that have over 300 stakeholders (both individuals and groups) identified in the first step.

[17] Proximity simply defines how stakeholders are involved in the work of the project or activity.

[18] This research, conducted in the 1980s, may soon be superseded by research into Generation Y’s communication preferences for online forms and text messaging: see Chapter 7, ‘The new new Confucian communication game’.

[19] Colours are not shown here: for a full colour representation refer to or Bourne (2009).

[20] ’Best’ involves balancing what is realistically achievable against the importance of the stakeholder moderated by the amount of effort that team can allocate to the communication process.

[21] It is not essential that all stakeholders have a high level of support and receptiveness toward the activity: part of the key decision the team has to make is whether the stakeholder in question is important enough to warrant any additional work to achieve this high level of support.

[22] Beware of how you use email! Too many conflicts have been exacerbated by unplanned, intemperate use of email as a primary means of communication. A good rule of thumb is this: will you be prepared to say directly to the recipient what you have written in your email? If the answer is NO then you will need to rewrite it!

[23] This could be described as the ‘zero cost of stakeholder engagement’, a direct analogy to the concept of ‘zero cost of quality’ from the quality movement of the 1980s.

[24] A video demonstration is available at

[25] A Stanford University study subsequently revised the figures to 35, 20 and 45 per cent respectively. But the import remains the same: persuasive communication is about far more than the words we speak.

[26] The concept of ‘learning organisation’ is a critical aspect in this context, but is outside the scope of this discussion. The works cited here provide a good starting point for readers interested in pursuing this topic. A good practical application of the power inherent in a more questioning approach to leadership is provided by Captain D.M. Abrashoff, former commander of the USS Benfold, in his book It’s Your Ship (2002).

[27] See the assessment tools and action plan templates in the ‘Offerings’ tab of

[28] Chinese influence will continue to strengthen around the world: some of the author’s European friends are sending their children to Chinese language weekend classes to broaden their future job opportunities.

[29] This has been the experience of the author.

[30] Theory Y supposes that employees may be ambitious, self-motivated and exercise self-control: employees who enjoy their work and achieving work-life balance are not commonly seen in Chinese companies.

[31] Quanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favour or service, or be prevailed upon. The two people need not be of equal social status. Guanxi can also be used to describe a network of contacts which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which they can exert influence on behalf of another. In addition, guanxi can describe a state of general understanding between two people.

[32] A second reason for the survey was to ensure that the author’s past experiences, which are the basis for this chapter, were still relevant. The results of the survey have supported the case studies and the analysis and guidelines for advising upwards in a Chinese organisation.

[33] This situation also occurs in Western organisations.

[34] This strategy is also often employed in Western organisations.

[35] The real world is the physical world excluding virtual worlds.

[36] The Analects of Confucius are the written record of the words, acts and discussions of Confucius and his students.

[37] This chapter is focusing on the demographics of people who were born between the late 1970s and early 1990s who especially have a ubiquitous familiarity with digital communication. Gamers may refer to ‘Generation Y’ or ‘The Nintendo® Generation’ (Black, Eng and Oispov 2009, p. 1).

[38] The Six As model is described in more detail in Chapter 5 of this book.

[41] At the time of writing (end of 2010).

[43] PipeCo facilities consisted of pipe and pipe support infrastructure manufacturing, inventory and distribution centres and construction sites. PipeCo also performed operational support and consulting so facility managers also include support managers for offshore oil platforms, and oil and gas processing facilities.

[44] From an interview conducted with Elaine Krantz on 27 August 2007 in Denver Colorado as part of the research for an update of my Intelligent Disobedience Workshop.

[45] Between March 2007 and July 2010, 62 Intelligent Disobedience Workshops have been delivered to over 1100 participants. The workshops have been delivered in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia and Singapore.



Cooke-Davies, T . 2005. The executive sponsor: the hinge upon which organisational project management maturity turns? Proceedings of PMI, EMEA Congress, Edinburgh, Scotland, conference paper. Newtown, PA: Project Management Institute.


Englund, R. and Bucero, A . 2006. Project Sponsorship: Achieving Management Commitment for Project Success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Englund, R ., Graham, R. and Dinsmore, P . 2003. Creating the Project Office: A Manager’s Guide to Leading Organizational Change. Jossey-Bass Business and Management Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Gladwell, M . 2002. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston, MA: Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company.


Graham, R. and Englund, R . 2004. Creating an Environment for Successful Projects, 2nd edn. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Urban, C . 2004. The human factor of change management. Training, 22 December. Available at, accessed May 2001 .

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