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The Project Sponsor: A Critical Project Management Role

The Project Sponsor: A Critical Project Management Role

Last Updated April 29, 2022

What is a Project Sponsor?

No matter the size or scale of a business or organization, a project sponsor is always at or near the top of any project management hierarchy. The project sponsor sits at the top of this hierarchy because they’re expert leaders who can align the needs of an organization with internal workflows. 

To understand the true value of this essential role, it’s important to clearly define the responsibilities of the project sponsor and how it differs from other project management roles. 

Defining the Project Sponsor Role

Project sponsors are known as the drivers and in-house champions of the projects they are involved in. Broadly, project sponsors advocate and shape business-related projects, while also participating in high-level project oversight and execution. Every project needs a project sponsor, but depending on the organization, the title of the individual occupying the role may be different. 

For example, in a large company, a project sponsor might be a member of upper management who acts as a liaison between a CEO or executive and a project manager. In a smaller company, a project sponsor might be a business owner who also works directly with a project manager or project team members

Project Sponsors vs. Other Project Management Roles

There are many different project management roles within an organization. However, project management functions at its best when roles are clearly defined. Here’s a look at how the project sponsor role differs from two important project-oriented positions.  

Project Sponsor vs. Project Owner

Project sponsors are almost always individuals, which is different from a project owner, who could be either an individual or an external stakeholder. A project manager might be responsible for delivering the final project to a project owner or even presenting a business case to an executive or outside organization that will eventually become the project owner.

Project Sponsor vs. Project Manager 

These two roles are most similarly aligned in terms of responsibility and skill set, but the project sponsor is above the project manager in a project management hierarchy. The main difference between the two roles is that project managers are responsible for the day-to-day management of a project, whereas project sponsors do not manage or complete project tasks.

Project sponsors are responsible for approving projects and determining scope and budget. They will then select the project manager and allow the project manager to handle aspects of the project, such as timeline and execution. 

During that time, a project sponsor may offer support to the project manager to ensure the project stays on track and also resolve any existing conflicts that are outside of the project manager’s authority. 

Project Sponsor Responsibilities and Skills

Project sponsors have a clearly defined set of responsibilities that fall largely within three main areas: strategy, oversight, and delivery/evaluation. 

3 Key Responsibilities

As senior managers or business owners, project sponsors have a firm grasp on a business’s needs and objectives. At this level of seniority, project sponsors can clearly identify and conceptualize areas where certain projects are critical to the success of the business. 

Not all executives are sold on projects from the start, though, and many require seeing the anticipated return on investment (ROI) before granting project approval. In this strategy phase, project sponsors are the ultimate project champions, working to scope out the project, build the business case and make the pitch.

The pitch is often in the form of a proposal that details not only the project’s scope but how it aligns with business objectives and what the anticipated ROI or value benefit will be once the project is complete.

After the project receives executive approval, the responsibilities of the project sponsor shift to oversight. During this phase, a project sponsor will negotiate funding and serve as a consultant to the project manager and team members to help guide them through the creation of deliverables. Additionally, project sponsors can remove roadblocks by escalating and resolving issues or obstacles at the executive level. 

Once all deliverables have been completed, the project sponsor is responsible for officially handing off the final project to the executive team or external stakeholders. Once the handoff is complete, project sponsors are also responsible for clearly evaluating the value and outcome of the project and also presenting any necessary findings. 

Project Sponsor Skill Set 

Two main skills, leadership and effective communication, are the foundation for the overall skill set of a productive project sponsor. 

A project sponsor’s ability to act as an advocate for change and gain buy-in from everyone in the organization, from executives to team members, is a critical skill during the strategy stage of a project. Additionally, project sponsors should know how to assess the capabilities of their project managers to match them to the unique objectives of each project. 

In the oversight area, it’s essential for a project sponsor to have the skills to effectively build and maintain a clear working relationship with the project manager. By cultivating an open line of communication, a project sponsor can be a sounding board for wise consultation or even a critical mediator in conflict resolution. 

Additionally, project sponsors must have the skills to adapt quickly to unforeseen changes in a project, with the ability to maintain a sense of calm among the entire project management team. At the same time, project sponsors need to be able to provide solution-oriented support to keep projects on target without setting unrealistic expectations. 

Since the project sponsor is an integral part of a project’s inception, project sponsors must be able to effectively evaluate the success of the project once it is complete, based on the initial business case, and even be willing to nix a project when it’s not working. 

A project sponsor is accountable for a project from start to finish. They handle the overarching project strategy and leave the day-to-day details to the project manager. 

Prepare for Project Management Roles

According to the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) 2021 “Talent Gap” report, employers will need to fill nearly 2.3 million new project-oriented roles each year through 2030. 

Not only do companies need workers to fill these new roles; they need skilled workers. PMI’s 2017 Job Growth and Talent Gap report noted that the ideal skill set for a project-oriented professional not only features technical competencies, but also strategic management, business management and leadership skills. 

Prepare yourself for future project management opportunities by developing essential skills through a project management certificate program. Villanova’s Certificate in Applied Project Management teaches students practical project management principles, people-based project management approaches and key project measurement and management tools to help professionals grow their project management knowledge and make an impact on the projects they support or manage. This program can also prepare you for valuable industry credentials like the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification from the Project Management Institute.

PMP is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.