Not a member? Join here

The Role of the Executive Sponsor

jason orloske pmo professional development project management Apr 11, 2023
The Role of the Executive Sponsor

When you're in the process of setting up or revamping a PMO you, as the PMO leader, will need support and direction. Enter the PMO Executive Sponsor! The sponsor will give your PMO street cred. Though a PMO Steering Committee is not guaranteed, make the PMO Executive Sponsor a must-have. Otherwise, you may not have any real authority.

Who is the PMO Executive Sponsor? Like the name suggests, they're on the executive leadership team. They're high enough up the corporate food chain that they give the PMO credibility and the right level of authority. This person helps with change management, adoption, and gaining the PMO traction in the organization. If the sponsor is a middle or lower manager who thinks a PMO is a good idea, I'll tell you it's a recipe for failure. The higher up the better. They're fully committed and bought in to the purpose and value of the PMO, even to the point their performance is tied to the PMO's success. If you get the feeling this person is not 100% bought in, find someone else.

Does the PMO Sponsor go away? No, the PMO sponsor is a big deal regardless of the stage the PMO is in. They're especially important at the beginning of a PMO's life or during a change. If at some point the sponsor who started the PMO hands it off to a functional leader, still consider them a sponsor. A PMO's value should be constantly reinforced at the senior level (they have credibility with their peers).

The Executive Sponsor can perform many functions. The following are some of the key that I've experienced:

  • Ensure the proposed PMO is aligned with organizational structure and goals of the company
  • Provide feedback and approve the PMO business case
  • Be a mentor to the PMO leader
  • Be a decision maker
  • Identify KPI's and/or key business success factors and give direction on how to report on those
  • Be a PMO Champion within the organization and promote its value
  • Provide high-level direction, oversight and support to the PMO leader
  • Be an escalation point for PMO issues
  • Ensure the PMO meets its defined metrics and goals
  • Approve PMO change requests
  • Assist with staffing and other necessary PMO resources

How do I know if this Executive Sponsor will be effective or not? When I'm asked this question, I think back to the effective and ineffective PMO sponsors I've worked with. Here are a few queues that will help determine if they'll be effective, and whether or not seeking someone else is in the cards:

  • Talk less, ask more. This is a trait of all good leaders. They take time to listen, ask thoughtful questions, and render a decision with the information available. If they do a whole lot of talking with few questions, or continually cut you off when talking, it's a red flag.
  • Have ideas around goals and what to report on. My least favorite answer to just about any question is "I don't know; you decide." That may work when going out to dinner, but not when talking about an important business unit. They should have an idea of the goal the PMO needs to achieve and the metrics that are important to the company. 
  • Willing to negotiation. Speaking of goals and metrics, if the sponsor does know what they want, they should be willing to negotiate to get it. For example, I had a PMO sponsor who wanted to essentially take their flailing PMO from a CMMI 1 to a CMMI 6 months. Well, I appreciated the drive but not the timing. Also, this was a fairly new PMO that was just trying to find their way. After some fairly lengthy discussions, we agreed to CMMI 2 in a year. We were able to achieve the goal of maturity, which is ultimately what he needed. No negotiation could have lead to us failing in his eyes, which would not have been good!
  • Goes to bat for the PMO and solves problems. Sometimes you have to call in that older sibling to step in and protect you. Same goes for the sponsor. If you're having an issue with someone at the company, the sponsor can help resolve it quickly (and sometimes aggressively). They can also quickly solve problems that would take PMO leaders more time to resolve on their own.
  • Not afraid to put their name on the line. This is literally and figuratively. They're the first to sign the PMO business case, give their approvals, and backup the PMO leader and the value the PMO brings to the company. It can be a risk for them, but they're not afraid!
  • Available. Sounds simple, but it's not. They have to make time for the PMO and not return your phone calls 3 days later. Execs are busy people, so make sure they have the time to fully support you and the PMO.

Lastly, if you're wondering how often you should meet with the Exec, I'll tell you as much as is necessary. In the early phases it will be more often. As things mature, less often. I've found informal meetings work better because we can talk more freely. Over coffee or beers, in person or virtually, all work great. Call each other when needed. Ultimately, keep the lines open!

The PMO Executive sponsor is a big deal! Ensure they're fully bought in to the PMO's value and the business results it will bring. Align with the sponsor and if you see any red flags in their ability to effectively champion the PMO, say something quick. Communicate often, and ensure you as the PMO leader are transparent. The sponsor is a valuable asset on the PMO journey!