How to recruit the best executive sponsor for an IT project

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Every big project needs a high-ranking exec with a stake in the game and solid connections within the organization. Here's how to find and train the right one for the job.

About five years ago, the IT department at CH2M Hill set out to install a new piece of business software. An engineering company based in Englewood, Colo., with more than $5 billion in annual revenue, CH2M Hill has many lines of business, ranging from nuclear cleanup to waste water treatment to construction of clean rooms, each with its own technological needs and priorities. David Ladek, global IT business alliance partner at the company, knew it made most sense to deploy something equally useful for all. But getting the various lines of business to agree on specifications was a challenge.

Ladek knew he needed someone with enough authority throughout the company to bring competing priorities together. Fortunately, there was organizationwide recognition that the software was necessary, and a president of one of the business units agreed to be the project's sponsor.

CH2M Hill is a fairly non-hierarchical organization, and the sponsor couldn't force the other business units to cooperate, Ladek says. But the sponsor's passionate enthusiasm as well as his influence as a high-level executive drew all the required parties to the table. "He went back to our businesses and said, 'I want a senior person from each business group to sit on this committee with me,' " Ladek recalls. "Essentially, it became a steering committee made up of all the business groups with the right people to take what we were doing back to their users and bring us feedback. I don't think IT could have gotten them there by ourselves."

Who Benefits?

How do you decide who makes the ideal executive sponsor for a given project? Start by considering who is likeliest to be affected by the project, but also who will benefit the most from it. The two will often be the same -- but not always. "Let's say we're dealing with an efficiency initiative," says James Damoulakis, CTO at GlassHouse Technologies, an IT infrastructure consulting company based in Southborough, Mass. "One big area is growing data storage costs. IT is under the gun to address that and wants to apply different levels of storage for different kinds of data. There's no benefit to most business functions to say, 'Oh, my data is going to be on cheaper storage!' They may resist that, thinking, 'If it ain't broke, don't break it!' So you need a push from someone like the CFO to make sure everyone will comply."

You also need someone with excellent relationships throughout the company, not just in his own department. "You want someone who understands how things get done in the organization," says Tres Roeder, president of Cleveland-based Roeder Consulting and author of A Sixth Sense for Project Management. "Organizational politics, budgeting, process, procurement. The executive sponsor needs to help the project manager get this stuff done."

However, be careful not to promise anything your project can't actually deliver. "Instead of saying, 'I believe this will do this for you,' try 'Let's explore this together and see if it will solve your problem,' " Heusner says.

You should already be well known to your prospective sponsor, adds John South, Heartland's chief security officer. "If my first contact with an executive sponsor is when a project comes up, then we've failed," he says. Security carries a lot of weight at Heartland, in no small part because the company suffered a major and very public security breach in 2008, in which more than 100 million credit card numbers may have been compromised.

"My advice is to start relationship-building early, and be engaged with the senior leadership team so you have those close relationships," South says. "You should have already met with these people face to face and had enough conversation with them prior to the project that you feel comfortable with their point of view and focus on business." When you already have a good relationship with a project's executive sponsor, it's that much more likely to succeed, he says. "Whereas, if the engagement starts between two executives at the beginning of a project, you have the whole courtship or learning process starting from that point. You shouldn't be trying to start a project at the same time as you're trying to find out how the other person thinks."

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