Firing Your Project Sponsor

A dysfunctional executive sponsor can pull your project down. Here's how to cut him loose.

The $9 million project was behind schedule because the executive sponsor was incompetent. "He was a very nice guy," recalls the project manager, Virginia Robbins, who's now director of IT at a different company, Chela Financial Cos. in San Francisco. "But he got caught up in details."

Robbins talked to the sponsor's boss about her problems with the sponsor's performance, but the boss asked her to continue muddling through. As weeks passed, she became increasingly worried. Finally, she asked the sponsor's boss to meet her for lunch and helped him understand that the sponsor's failure would soon be his failure. "I pulled out our plan, showed him our progress to date and explained why we would be six months late," she recalls. Soon after, the sponsor was replaced.

The project sponsor is the executive or manager with the fiscal authority, political clout and personal commitment to see a project through . An effective executive sponsor can remove barriers and get key support for an IT project. But some sponsors -- whether from flagging interest, overwork or unsuitability for the job -- turn out to be so dysfunctional or underperforming that they drag the project down.

"We've seen sponsors ditching projects, or they do a slow withdrawal from the project," says Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif. "They don't meet with the project managers or do what they need to do."

But replacing an underperforming sponsor is a dangerous game. "It's politically touchy," says Catherine Tomczyk, a project manager at First Data Corp. in Greenwood Village, Colo. "It's risky because if the sponsor is in a position to cause you pain, he might."

Here are some strategies for getting a bad project sponsor out of your way:

Plan Ahead

Work upfront to be sure you get a great sponsor from the beginning, says Neil Love, author of The Project Sponsor Guide (Project Management Institute, 2000). "It's easier to influence the choice than to have to fix it later."

Sign a Prenup

When the project charter is signed, meet privately with the sponsor and hammer out the procedure you will follow in case of inadequate performance, Kapur suggests. Follow it up in writing. Later, if things go wrong and you begin to talk to others about the sponsor's performance, "you're not going behind the sponsor's back," he says. "You're just following the process agreed upon in first place."

Give Him an Easy Out

State in the sponsorship agreement that if the sponsor can't fulfill his obligations, he will pass the role to a new sponsor, suggests Sue Young, CEO of ANDA Consulting in Williston, Vt. That gives him a graceful exit and the option to "fire the project" before you fire him.

Do a Reality Check

Be sure replacing the sponsor will solve the problem, says Love. "Maybe he's a Neanderthal, but you'd better be sure there's someone less Neanderthal in the company to replace him," he says. "It could be a company-culture problem."

Line Up a Replacement -- Carefully

Identify a new sponsor candidate and get an informal, confidential agreement that he is willing and able to take on the project if asked. That way, if you're asked for a recommendation, you'll be ready. Ideally, get someone on the project steering committee who understands the problem and is already involved, Young says.

Arrange a Show-and-Tell

If possible, let the sponsor demonstrate his own incompetence. Robbins once had a sponsor who turned every meeting with business customers into a confrontation. The business owners got turned off and stopped attending meetings. "We lost all the dialogue and very quickly became very seriously behind schedule," she recalls.

Robbins invited the sponsor's boss to sit in on a project meeting. "The sponsor went into one of his behaviors," she says. "The big boss watched him interact, and that was all he needed." He soon appointed a new sponsor.

Communicate

If you decide to take the problem to the sponsor's manager, key stakeholders or the CIO, state exactly what's wrong and document it in writing: meetings unattended, questions unanswered, issues unresolved.

"Talk about issues, not feelings," says Kapur. "Don't say the sponsor lost interest; just document what has happened and say how that is impacting the project."

Robbins recalls that when she went to her sponsor's boss, she said, "'You've got a business to run, and I need a different skill set,' not 'This guy sucks and has to be off the project.'"

Frame the Future

In your critique, note when various portions of the project will have to be suspended because of the sponsor's performance: gateways that can't be passed, or scope, budget or schedule changes in limbo. "Give them a warning that this project may come to a halt," Kapur says.

Leave It to the Boss

Don't ask to replace the sponsor, Young says. "Just lay out the problem, prove that you've done everything in your power to fix it and say, 'What do you suggest?'" If you get a cryptic answer, don't worry about it. "It might be shorthand for 'It will all be handled behind the scenes. Keep your mouth shut,'" she says.

If All Else Fails, Kill the Project

If no one will listen, it may be because no one really cares about the project. If that happens, try to generate interest, Robbins says. If you can't, try to have the project killed. Whatever you do, don't put up with an underperforming sponsor, she says. "If you have a bad sponsor, get a new one or get the hell off the project," Robbins advises. "You're going to fail."

Melymuka is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at kmelymuka@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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