How to recruit the best executive sponsor for an IT project

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."

The project was a success. "We turned this into an enterprise initiative that became more than just the implementation of a software tool," Ladek says. Without the sponsor, things might have gone very differently. "There are plenty of examples in our industry of applications like this turning into shelfware," he notes.

Ladek himself has seen what can happen when IT tries to go it alone. "We've had times when we looked at a project and didn't think we needed an executive sponsor," he says. "And I can tell you, that's part of why it failed."

Experiences like these are why The Standish Group, whose Chaos reports offer regular updates on IT project success rates, says having an executive sponsor is the most important element in the success or failure of a project. "We used to say that user involvement was the No. 1 reason projects were successful," says Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group. "We changed that this year to having the right executive sponsor, because it's such a critical role."

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