Executive Sponsors: What They Really Do

An effective executive sponsor is critical to the success of IT-enabled business programs. Most corporate leaders agree that this person should be the executive receiving the lion's share of the program's benefits. There are widely differing opinions about what the executive sponsor actually does, however. Therefore, they have vastly different roles in different companies.

In order to enhance the success of a program, the executive sponsor must provide leadership, especially direction, protection and problem-resolution skills. The most effective executive sponsors perform the following activities, at minimum:

Sponsor the business case. All major programs need a convincing business case driven by an executive sponsor. The IT staff may need to assist with some preliminary work and data gathering, but the executive sponsor needs to "own" the final version. When it's finished, he must get all of the other stakeholders to support and approve it (in writing).

Get approval to proceed. The executive sponsor needs to be the primary advocate for the program, presenting the business case to the appropriate audience and securing its funding. Unless the project affects only IT (such as infrastructure upgrades), the CIO should not be the sponsor.

Monitor program progress. Few executive sponsors are experts at (or actively involved in) day-to-day program management, nor should they be. But someone they trust must be involved actively enough in managing the project to assure them that it is being well run. Typically, the executive sponsor will assign a full-time business manager from his staff to the program, though outside consultants may be used for expertise and objectivity. But the executive sponsor is ultimately responsible for keeping the project on schedule and on budget and achieving its planned benefits.

Chair the program steering committee. Every major program needs a steering committee to monitor progress, make trade-offs, remove roadblocks and motivate the team. Chairing this committee will ensure that the executive sponsor is close enough to the issues to help the other executives make effective decisions.

Sponsor a risk assessment. In major business programs, the executive sponsor may commission a project risk assessment. Although the program team frequently views risk assessments as a threat, the real goal should be risk mitigation. The point is not to cancel the project but to protect it. A risk assessment performed by an outside firm can provide an independent perspective and valuable objectivity to help prevent disasters down the road.

Be the cheerleader. The executive sponsor has to motivate team members and make sure they know that their efforts are valued by upper management. In addition, the executive sponsor needs to promote the program's progress and reaffirm its importance to any critics. This is particularly important when problems occur, which is inevitable in large efforts.

Remove roadblocks. Roadblocks take a variety of forms, but most are related to resource availability, competing priorities or politics. Business processes may have to be changed. Departmental turf wars may explode. Suppliers may drop the ball. The executive sponsor needs to resolve whatever catastrophe arises so progress can resume.

Assess program deliverables. As deliverables occur, the executive sponsor will decide whether the predefined acceptance criteria have been met. In addition, he has the final word regarding whether the finished program's overall acceptance criteria have been met.

Capture the benefits. Unless someone is personally responsible for making sure the program's advertised benefits are actually captured, they may never show up on the corporation's bottom line. For example, many business cases include "reducing costs by eliminating staff." But many programs never deliver. In practice, those staffers are likely to be redirected to other jobs. The most effective approach for holding the executive sponsor accountable for seeing that the proposed benefits are realized is to tie his personal compensation to delivering the benefits.

All these activities are crucial to program success. An executive sponsor who concentrates on only two or three (as many do) leaves the project vulnerable to attack and failure. An effective executive sponsor provides the leverage needed to promote, defend and enhance the success of the business initiative.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. He was previously CIO at Tricon Global Restaurants Inc. and Dole Food Co. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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