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18 December 2014

How To Achieve Project Success With Executive Support: 5 Best Practices

A powerful ally is a decisive advantage. In the project world, we get work done through others. In a perfect world, the project charter empowers the project manager with all the authority they need to get work done. All too often, we hear about project managers complaining about insufficient power and resources to get work done.

Image by Bec Brown

What’s the solution? They need allies. And not just any allies. Powerful allies. Allies that can release resources and help you work through project conflict.

Project managers need allies at the executive level. In the corporate world, I’m referring to Vice-Presidents (and higher in rank) – perhaps even the CEO or President of the firm in the case of especially important projects.

Getting significant support from an executive is challenging. Have you ever tried to schedule a meeting with a high ranking executive? That process can take weeks! I encourage you to keep going. The following insights – gleaned from research at the Project Management Institute – demonstrate the vital importance of executive involvement in projects.

1) Participation in project meetings matters.

“The Executive should chair the steer committee for the program of change for which they’re actually responsible. This means actual attendance at meetings.”
  - Morgan Spillane, Change Management Director, AXA Insurance, London, U.K. (Executive superheroes, PMI)
 Of course, you have to apply your expert judgement to determine the right meetings for the executive to attend. Attendance at a weekly status meeting is properly too much – unless the project will determine the organization’s failure.

2) Proactive executives ask how they can support projects

In the stressful world of project work, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. A thoughtful executive can add tremendous value by regularly asking questions such as:

What can I do to help?
What is the status compared to plan?
What are the top risks and mitigation?
How do the stakeholders feel?
 One executive frequently involved in project work laminated the above questions and carried them around constantly.


3) Executive sponsorship is the single most important variable in project sponsor

For decades, the Standish Group research on IT project success has been widely read and cited. That’s why we need to pay attention to their findings:

“The Standish Group attributes the most important advancement in improving project success rates to an increase in the competency of the executive sponsor.”
(Source: Project success and executive sponsor behaviors, PMI)

4) Project sponsors regularly support the project manager

“One of the most significant things a sponsor can do to facilitate effective communication is to visibly empower the project manager.” - Project success and executive sponsor behaviors, PMI.

Let’s say your project has a robust and well written charter that assigns significant power and authority to the project manager. Should be good enough, right? Unfortunately, a document alone is not enough. In longer projects, project team members will come and go – they may never read the project charter!

Even if project team members do read the project charter, they may not take it seriously. Sadly, many organizations issue policies and other documents that are never read.

How do you counter these challenges as a project manager?

You ask the project sponsor to directly and indirectly support and enhance your authority. For example, the project sponsor can praise the project manager’s recommendations during a meeting or defer the project manager in certain circumstances.

5)      Effective executive sponsors bring a systems approach

When faced with a project problem, what is your first response? Some may choose to focus on finding a guilty party to punish. There is certainly value in maintaining a sense of accountability on projects.

However, executives can make a better contribution by applying systems thinking.
“Be a systems thinker. Look at inputs and outputs. When you have a problem, explore all alternatives,
and make sure they'll be effective.” - Louder Than Words, PMI.


These research insights show that executive sponsors have the capacity to make a tremendous impact on project success. Executive support is so important that it pays to think through this question at the project or program management office level. If you have no ability to influence the selection of your executive sponsor, then look at ways to provide training or a workshop to help the executive become more effective.

Every project manager needs to learn how to work effectively with project sponsors. That’s why I created the How To Start An Effective Relationship With Your Project Sponsor workbook.  Go here to download your free copy of the workbook: How To Start An Effective Relationship With Your Project Sponsor.

Bio. Bruce Harpham is the founder of ProjectManagementHacks.com, a resource for Generation Y project managers.