Imagine, you have been in a leading role for some years, with a good broad base of leadership experience and training. You know your institution well and are respected and influential. ...And then you are approached to sponsor a programme or project.

Managing significant change often needs a formal programme or project infrastructure to ensure success, and if you are new to the world of programmes and projects, taking on a Sponsor role can be daunting. Here, Claire Nuttall, SUMS Associate shares some insights from her assignments on reviewing approaches to sponsorship in the sector and developing guidance and support.

Programmes are more complex than individual projects, as a programme often incorporates a number of projects aimed at achieving significant institutional change, and the sponsorship roles for programmes and projects can be subtly different. But we are not going to go into detail here about the definitions and differences between programmes and projects, however we will seek to answer a few questions that apply to either.

With universities gearing up for yet another busy year, many colleagues will be kicking off new change projects and programmes in the coming weeks.  Having an effective Sponsor in place during times of institutional change is arguably the single most important leverage for successful change being delivered from a programme or project.

Getting the right person, at the right level, with the right skills is critical.

The most impressive and experienced Programme/Project Manager will face a number of challenges and barriers. An effective Sponsor can navigate the politics and unblock obstacles in a way that the manager cannot.

We recently spoke to a number of universities about their approaches to sponsoring change. While the role titles varied – ‘Executive Sponsor’, ‘Senior Responsible Owner’, ‘Senior Accountable Executive’- we found that overall, the role was poorly understood.   While many ‘Sponsors’ could broadly articulate what they thought the role was, they expressed uncertainty about some of the detail.

We also found instances where more than one role existed, which caused issues around clarity of areas of responsibility.

When asked about the degree to which institutions prepare their leaders to sponsor transformational change initiatives, we found a range of approaches:

  • One-to-one sessions with a member of the change team for leaders new to the role
  • Informal processes to steer and advise
  • General projects and programme sponsorship training embedded in university leadership training
  • Mentoring and coaching by peers

Of the above, Sponsors learning from each other and sharing tips through mentoring and coaching was found to be the most effective. However, in all cases, Sponsors expressed an aspiration to have better guidance and a more formal approach to building sponsorship capability.

Below we have responded to the top five questions posed by Sponsors.

1.  What exactly is the Sponsor role?

The Sponsor role changes through the life cycle of the programme or project but in general, the role is accountable for:

    • Driving the change. Sponsors need to oil the political wheels to influence, champion – and often challenge – the status quo with senior leadership
    • Communicating and selling the benefits from the change. Sponsors need to get buy-in for the investment required to deliver the change and achieve outcomes and long-term benefits.

A good Sponsor is passionate about the change and committed to success.

2.  What should I expect from a Programme/Project Manager and how should I work with them?

The ‘Sponsor’ and ‘Manager’ are a complementary duo who need to trust and respect each other to be effective.

The Programme/Project Manager is responsible for delivery. A good Programme or Project Manager is efficient, well-organised and astute; a leader of people and able to build high-performing delivery teams.

Each programme or project will be different and articulating the roles and responsibilities for both the Sponsor and Manager at the start can help to ensure clarity.

The Sponsor and the Programme/Project Manager need to agree communication mechanisms, boundaries on decision-making, levels of authority and escalation processes early on.

These topics should be part of the first conversation between the Sponsor and the Programme/Project Manager.

3.  How much time will I need to commit to the Sponsor role?

This is one of the first questions that Sponsors want an answer to in order to ensure that they can manage this responsibility with their other commitments. However, it is also one of the most difficult questions to answer because it depends on the scope and scale of the change.

A good rule is to think about the expected timeframe of the programme or project, work out how many meetings there are likely to be each month and build in preparation time, follow-up time, and time for the meeting itself.

However imprecise, it is useful to make estimates early on – even if it is just to conduct a self-check on availability to take on the role. One of the biggest complaints made by Programme/Project managers about Sponsors is that they do not have enough access to their Sponsor, or time together to do justice to the role.

4.  What are the responsibilities of the Programme/Project Board that I chair as the Sponsor?

The Board has oversight of the programme or project. Each member will have a role to play in making the investment decision, defining the direction, and ensuring ongoing alignment with the strategic direction of the university. An important point to note is that Board members will often need to represent a viewpoint wider than just their own department or faculty.

5.  There’s a lot of unfamiliar terminology I am coming across, and what are all these documents I am being given to review and sign-off?

Institutions all have their own approach and methodology, some more prescriptive than others. It is important to note that these are all tools to enable the successful execution of the programme or project.

A ‘jargon-buster’ explaining all the roles and documents is a good addition to the programme or project portfolio, and useful for both the Sponsor and the delivery team. Sponsors need to understand their responsibilities in relation to these documents before “signing them off”.

There’s a lot to think about when delivering programmes and projects if they are to achieve the expected outcomes and benefits for the institution.

To improve the effectiveness of your transformational change initiatives and increase your chances of success, talk to SUMS about how we can help you and your leadership team to develop tailored guidance and support linked to your institution’s level of maturity in the sponsorship of programmes and projects.

For more information on guidance and support for Sponsors, or to discuss your specific needs in more detail, please contact us at 

Other News