Six Archetypes of a Bad Executive Sponsor

Originally published February 28, 2008

“To increase revenues through better customer knowledge.”

This is the vision statement for a business intelligence (BI) initiative I came across recently. The reason I came across this vision statement is because it’s ubiquitous. It’s been printed poster-size and hung in the company corridors. It’s been laminated and tacked to break room bulletin boards. And it sits prominently framed on desk of the initiative’s executive sponsor.

But the company is no closer to increasing revenues through better customer knowledge than it was over a year ago when a consulting firm helped the BI team craft the vision and build the corresponding plan. What went wrong on the journey toward business intelligence? A lot of things. But all roads lead back to the executive sponsor.

For most strategic IT initiatives, the executive sponsor fills an important and multi-faceted role. She is alternately coach and tiebreaker, advocate and adversary. She manages upward and downward. And she can clearly proselytize the value of the initiative to the business. A 2005 research study reported that project success rates were proportional to the organization’s sponsorship capabilities. But the combination of fuzzy role definition and re-interpretation of priorities means that more often than not, executive sponsors don’t measure up.

Concerned about your own executive sponsor? Perhaps you have to enlist one before the project ball gets rolling? Perhaps you have more than one choice and can’t decide whom to target? Or perhaps someone’s anointed him or herself already? Whatever the circumstance you’re in, here are six archetypes that serve as red flags that your executive sponsor might not cross the finish line.

1. The Figurehead

You’ve doubtless seen an ivory tower manager somewhere in your company. He’s the one that never leaves his office. Sometimes he shuts his door to avoid interruptions. In his case, the acronym MBWA doesn’t mean, “management by walking around,” but “management by waiting around.” If no one walks through his doorway or schedules a meeting, it’s all good.

But it’s not all good. While he’s in the office tinkering with spreadsheets, monitoring his online calendar, and making sure that the picture of his boat is hung just-so, people are trying to work things out themselves. Or worse, they’re avoiding him altogether. People on his project team may actively circumnavigate his office on their way to the break room for fear that the Figurehead might ask them about the project and they’ll have to honestly break the bad news that things aren’t going well.

Not that he’ll do anything. This Figurehead has agreed to be the executive sponsor, but that’s a mere title. He’ll sponsor what he’s asked to sponsor, no more, no less. If the project is successful, he will be proud to represent it at the next executive management meeting off site. If the project’s a failure, he’ll point an index finger in the direction of the project manager or the development team, shrug his shoulders, and roll his eyes. Then he’ll close his door and hide behind the undeserved title that invited the sponsorship request in the first place – until the next sponsorship opportunity rolls around.

2. The Nice Guy

The most effective executive sponsor I ever met was someone with whom I had the following conversation:

Executive sponsor: “Okay, I’ve never done this before. Tell me what you need me to do.”

Me: “Give me four months.”

Executive sponsor: “Okay. You’ve got four months. Is that it?”

Me: “No. I mean, I need four months during which you’ll keep people out of our way.”

Executive sponsor: “Out of your way?”

Me: “Yeah. I need the people on the team to focus on delivery and not be distracted with political debates or other project teams who have competing agendas. A lot of people expect this to fail, and they might get in the way.”

Executive sponsor: “Okay, I’ll keep people out of your way for four months if you promise me that your team will deliver something new and useful after four months are up. Deliver something valuable to us. Deal?”

Me: “Deal.”

And we did, and he did, and it wasn’t easy but it worked. This executive sponsor had enough organizational clout to move people out of the way in an informed manner, and enough personal credibility to get people to heed his advice. But sometimes it wasn’t pretty. He had to call people’s bosses and have so-called sit-downs with potential saboteurs and the noisemakers who come out of the woodwork when new projects drive change.

But some executive sponsors won’t do the hard stuff. They shirk decisions, try to gather belated consensus and, when push comes to shove, will claim ignorance or blindside the team with bad news. (“It’s out of my hands.”) They won’t go out on a limb, which means they either never believed in the project objectives, or didn’t have the emotional fortitude to take a hard stand and represent the effort. Either way, the Nice Guy executive sponsor winds up being neither an executive nor a sponsor.

3. The Self-Promoter

The flipside of the Figurehead is someone who cares too much. I once watched a mid-level manager at a retailer campaign to be an executive sponsor. It was as if she was hoping that by being considered an executive sponsor, she’d be seen as an executive in the eyes of, uh…executives. But she hadn’t yet earned the right to represent a major strategic effort, and had neither the political clout nor the deep expertise necessary to carry the project forward.

She saw the project as a strategic one, and did everything she could to push it through. She donned the mantel of executive sponsor proudly, using it as a pretext for meeting with people she wanted as allies. She combed through vendor contracts, hand-picked team members, and built the project plan herself. She pitched the project to people who weren’t even stakeholders. Never mind that this sponsor had a full-time job in the finance organization that needed attention. She saw the master data management (MDM) project as her ticket to the next promotion.

But her single-mindedness and her enthusiasm put people off. Absent an alternative sponsor, the team decided to change course and “released” the Self-Promoter from her sponsorship duties. The project would be better off actually delaying executive sponsorship and launching as a proof-of-concept. This way, the development team could demo the initial functionality and enlist support from executives who could actually experience its value as well as its vision. While not the best answer in every case, such a “bottom up” approach avoided the inevitable guilt-by-association that would have occurred if the Self-Promoter had stayed in the role.

It’s usually easy to spot the Self-Promoter and steer clear of her as a sponsor. Why? Because the Self-Promoter usually volunteers for the role before being targeted as a sponsor.

4. The Talker

Many managers are in their element when they are engaged in constant dialog. Such managers are often those who “think out loud,” working through concepts and ideas as they debate them. They love convening impromptu brainstorming sessions, armed with white board markers or laptops, where they do most of the talking. They use terms like “lateral thinking” and “think outside the box.” They cling to words and repeat them.

And that’s the problem. For all the dialog goes on, the Talkers can’t get off the dime. They’ll brag that they “do their best work” in meetings. Talkers envision the role of “executive sponsor” as someone who solves big problems with big ideas. But at some point, horizontal idea-gathering must give way to vertical planning.

Often, the problem lies in the sponsor’s failure to apply critical thinking to the sponsorship role. The best executive sponsors form their judgments based on the guiding principles and objectives of the project at hand. This allows them to understand when to talk, when to listen, and when to weigh in. And, when they do weigh in, their decisions are prompt, firm and reasoned. Lacking such clarity, the talker is only as effective as his last conversation.

But eventually, someone needs to decide on a set of tactics, build a plan, and assign personnel to discrete tasks. Absent someone on the team with the ability to translate ideas into tactics, an entire initiative can break down on the watch of an executive sponsor who feels more comfortable discussing the goal than helping to achieve it.

5. The Reticent Executive

Some executive sponsors actually do an admirable job propelling a project forward. They actively participate in the vision, attend status meetings regularly, and are decisive and clear. They reiterate objectives and intervene during political strife or bona fide development dilemmas. They will coach individual team members and applaud their successes. They will review progress and realign objectives when they need to. And, they will simply check in with team members to make sure everything is okay. When things aren’t okay, they’ll deconstruct the root causes over donuts or dim sum, and come to resolution.

But when the executive team requests an update, these sponsors retreat. While very comfortable among developers or business analysts, they are loathe to press the “up” button and ascend to the twenty-ninth floor to provide an executive update. They get tongue-tied discussing the project’s milestones with their boss’ boss. When asked to present a demo of the project’s first release to the executive steering committee, they mumble excuses. And God forbid the board requests a project update!

“You’re my secret weapon,” one of them said to me recently. “I need YOU to go in and present this to the executive steering committee.”

His look was imploring, as if he wanted me to represent him in front of a firing squad. Where anyone else would see an opportunity to shine – the MDM project had already delivered better data with only two source systems on-boarded, and there was an ambitious plan to continue – he looked at the opportunity with unmasked dread.

And this was a successful project. For projects in the weeds, an otherwise popular and effective executive sponsor would rather hide in the supply closet than delay promised features or approach management for additional funding. Giving bad news to higher-ups is the nightmare of these exposure-wary sponsors. The fact that they can help the team deliver the goods simply isn’t enough. Managing the expectations of executives is a critical sponsorship role. Absent this role, a project can fail due to nothing more than lack of visibility.

6. The Delegator

Then, there are the executives that can’t be bothered at all. Unlike the Figurehead sponsor, who isn’t really sure what to do – naively figuring that people will come to her when they need something, the Delegator assigns tasks to others. “It’s my job to keep the show on the road,” one Delegator sponsor explained recently when I inquired about his involvement, and that became his mantra. It worked perfectly, too. It conveyed leadership, but at the same time, it was vague enough to absolve him from having to do anything. He would attend the requisite status meetings, staying quiet most of the time, and then run through a litany of to-do items, assigning them to various individuals.

The less talented team members got wise and began skipping project status meetings in an effort to escape additional work. The best team members were overworked and eventually became resentful of the executive sponsor, who responded to requests for more resources by delegating even more work to the team.

Indeed, Delegators are among the most experienced managers of all the sponsor archetypes. They have heeded the well-worn management adages of “hire smart” and “ask what needs to be done.” Thus, they are unusually well-versed in trite management aphorisms that absolve them of direct responsibility. (“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team” is a frequent giveaway.) But, like the Self-Promoter, the Delegator is usually more than happy to assume the limelight when the project goes well.

What’s the lesson in all this? It’s that in business, as in the rest of life, people “stress” to their comfort zones. In choosing an effective business sponsor, IT teams should understand how the candidate sponsor operates in crisis mode. There’s no rule book for executive sponsors, so each sponsor must personify the role as he or she sees it.

The executive sponsor is most likely adding the role to an already full plate and so must be comfortable with the additional time demands. Put another way, if the executive sponsor’s career were a house, he should be able to knock down the walls between the rooms and behave the same way irrespective of the different rooms, which are the different jobs required of him. The best executive sponsors are those who choose the role. The second best sponsors are those who vet the role that’s requested of them. They ask what needs to be done in the role, decide whether or not they could contribute, and inherently know that they’ll be effective before saying yes.

Of course, the best way to choose an executive sponsor is not to choose one at all, but for the sponsor to self-select. With most IT-enabled business initiatives, there’s a businessperson at a high enough level to envision the desired outcome and make it happen. He has the energy to propel things forward, the organizational authority to get people to listen, the passion to evangelize the benefits, and the time management skills to participate at the level he’s needed. In this role, he performs a service not just to the project at hand, but to the company at large by setting an example of not just good project sponsorship, but solid leadership. 

  • Jill DychéJill Dyché

    Jill is a partner co-founder of Baseline Consulting, a technology and management consulting firm specializing in data integration and business analytics. Jill is the author of three acclaimed business books, the latest of which is Customer Data Integration: Reaching a Single Version of the Truth, co-authored with Evan Levy. Her blog, Inside the Biz, focuses on the business value of IT.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Jill's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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