Project Sponsorship: A Leadership-Development Strategy That Pays Back

As a consultant and a corporate executive for the last 30 years, I have participated in, led and sponsored a dizzying array of leadership development programs. They ranged from life changing (like the six-week program based on the Senge’s Fifth Discipline sponsored by Arthur Andersen) to goofy (I’ll spare the company the embarrassment of a mention, but it involved some weird sailboat analogy and a facilitator who would stand behind you and yell “and!” in your ear every time you used the word “but”).

When human resource teams think about leadership development, it often goes down the path of things like rotation programs, mentoring, leadership classes, career mapping and the like.  Each of those tools has its role to play, and I’ve benefited from all of them as a leader over the years. That said, I’d like to advocate for a different approach–one more akin to learning to swim in the pool versus in the classroom.

Project Sponsorship

I’ve helped many people learn to mountain bike over the years.  It’s one of those things where you internalize the coaching after you’ve experienced the pain of trying and failing miserably (over and over again). Once someone has tried a trail and eaten dirt 20 times, they can actually hear “Don’t look at your front wheel, look 10 feet ahead.”

Human resource leaders know that many aspects of leadership are like this–until you’ve had a meeting blow up in your face or experienced an employee’s full passive-aggressive tendencies, you can’t really hear or understand the leadership training you’ve been given.

One of the very best ways to give a young leader experience can be to give them the opportunity to sponsor an internal project. Project sponsorship brings a lot to the table:

  • It normally doesn’t require a job change.
  • The project can be accommodated along with the “day job.”
  • This task demands use of a full spectrum of management and leadership tools, including financial, selling, change management, inspiration, project management and creativity.
  • Internal projects often provide exposure to cross-functional senior management.
  • Sponsorship often involves the use of outside consultants who have to be selected, managed, integrated, etc.

Building on the virtues of this approach to leadership development, let’s explore a hypothetical project. I happen to work in the enterprise-collaboration business, so I’ll use an example I know well: selecting and implementing a modern collaboration platform.

Most companies recognize that email is not the best solution for collaboration in the digital workplace. Consumer technology moved the needle substantially, and companies regularly find out the hard way that their employees–particularly younger ones–use consumer technology like iMessage, WhatsApp, Messenger and others to conduct business and do work.

Let’s say your HR team decides to choose and implement a next-gen collaboration platform. Furthermore, your leadership team decides to task a promising young HR leader, Jody, with sponsoring the project. Let’s explore what it takes for Jody to launch this project and reach a successful conclusion.

Key Leadership Developmental Outcomes of Project Sponsorship

The process below is not intended to demonstrate project-management methodology, but rather to illustrate the types of activities Jody will engage in throughout the project.

Development of Business Case and Budget

As it turns out, most companies won’t let you buy stuff or hire consultants without creating a business case.

Every company has its own process for approving spend, and building a business case is a great way for someone like Jody to learn the process. Leaders can coach her on what sells the capital committee (or whatever decision-making body is in place), and she can learn how to garner buy-in ahead of time by building a coalition of support from influential leaders throughout the company. Because of this, Jody can get fairly creative in identifying all the of the ways a program can benefit the company.

Using the example of collaboration, Jody might show value beyond a modern workplace and increased productivity. She could also point to the amazing insights–such that organizations can learn from the collaboration interactions (when the platform is paired with insight technology). My company, Aware, sells one of these platforms and we’ve seen these added-value insights–such as real-time employee sentiment based on conversation data–serve as the deciding factor for companies to achieve a successful rollout of collaboration.

Acquisition of Resources and Stakeholder Support

Once her business case is approved, Jody must start assembling resources to get the job done and recruit a top-shelf steering committee to help work through the inevitable hurdles that will emerge. This process will teach Jody critical skills as she grapples with how to negotiate for the best resources for each aspect of the project.

During this phase of work, Jody’s network will expand across functions and levels of the organization. She will also learn to effectively onboard, engage and inspire team members as they transition to the project–all great leadership skills.

Building of Cross-Functional Engagement

As projects like this are funded and kicked off, a variety of stakeholders inevitably emerge from the woodwork demanding the project team to accommodate, acknowledge or address an amazing array of interests.

Jody will get the chance to tackle these requirements proactively, learning that inviting stakeholders to the table early creates the opportunity to make adjustments as needed, while maintaining influence. With the introduction of modern workplaces, we’ve seen sponsors get blindsided by the requirements of the compliance, risk, human resource and legal teams.

By actively seeking engagement, emerging leaders like Jody can avoid show-stoppers or expensive delays later in the program.

Change-Management Planning

A leader who truly understands change management has a huge leg up. We’ve all experienced leaders who undervalue this discipline, and they often fail to deliver while making others around them miserable. Program sponsorship early in a leader’s career can prevent against the “Just send out an email from the boss” type of leaders.

Back in my consulting days, I used to tell young consultants that people would rather live in excruciating pain in the light than take one step into the darkness. So, it is critical to prepare people for the change–and hold their hands through it.

In the example of enterprise collaboration, this project would literally change how employees work together. Jody will grow from learning the processes, techniques and tools for guiding, training and nurturing people through a change curve. She will also learn how to find and contract the needed skills from both inside and outside the organization to accomplish this.

Solution Selection and Planning

The type and scope of the solution impacts the implementation timeline and complexity. No matter how perfect a solution might seem, a mismanaged selection process can severely hinder the ability to get leadership buy-in.

This stage of work is where influencers often emerge with thoughts and opinions–another opportunity to broaden the leader’s network of influential people on a variety of topics throughout the company.

In Jody’s case, the selected digital-work platform will affect essentially every employee. And, of course, different levels and types of employees will also have varying perspectives and opinions on the selection. For example, some senior leaders will struggle to understand the need for the platform and will be uber cautious. Middle managers may view change as a threat to their power. Meanwhile, employees may celebrate and welcome the change.

In addition to learning how to give employees a voice and build enthusiasm, this stage is also a great opportunity to learn how to intentionally plan project work and gain new strategies and tools, such as critical path management, milestone planning and more. It’s at this stage that young leaders like Jody will learn that failing to plan is truly planning to fail.

Implementation and Pilot

Sometimes, the implementation and pilot phases can feel like getting lost in the desert. The project seems to go on forever, teases you with mirages and demands a seemingly never-ending list of mundane tasks necessary for survival.

This is where Jody can shine. She can keep everyone motivated, celebrate all of the wins (even the minor ones!) and lean on the ever-crucial steering committee to knock down hurdles. Pilots are a time to flush out and deal with problems, not hide them, which means that Jody will have plenty of opportunities to flex her problem-solving muscles in dealing with the inevitable issues that arise during the pilot.

It is during this stage that projects often stray from budgeted timing and dollars. Jody will learn to triage, focus and manage the critical path that she so carefully developed earlier in the project.

Project Rollout and Branding

Once the pilot achieves success, the project is ready for widespread adoption from the masses. This phase typically gives a young leader broad exposure in the organization and a lot of opportunity to speak in public–the perfect chance to see how the person resonates within the organization.

In the example of enterprise collaboration, going wide with the new platform affords Jody the opportunity to put on a marketing hat and really sell the employee base.

This fun part of the project requires creativity, branding, marketing and selling. Jody can try on new personas and tap into those aspects of leadership that aren’t often exercised, but critical as a leader moves up in the organization.

Operational Handoff

Implementation of the project is complete, and it is now time to transition the program to become the new normal. Often, by now, someone like Jody has adopted this project as their baby and feels proprietary ownership for it. Letting go can be hard, but it is a critical lesson. Doing this well is essential to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Ensuring strong go-forward ownership and handing off the program publicly is critical so that Jody can move on to the next thing and is not identified with the project forever.

Team Recognition

It’s easy to forget this step or to do a cursory job of it, but it is so critical. This is where Jody can learn to be a gracious leader and share credit, while also cementing the loyalty of all those new network connections she so carefully nurtured throughout the process.

Often, during these celebratory moments, the next great opportunity emerges. It’s upon reflection of what someone successfully orchestrated that we find ourselves contemplating, “I wonder what else they could accomplish?” Jody shouldn’t be surprised if leaders approach her with sponsoring another big initiative.

I think it’s easy to see that, with the right support, a young leader can learn a TON about leadership while recruiting new mentors and advocates through the project-sponsorship process. As a human resource professional, you will enjoy an accelerated and strengthened corporate-succession plan and, of course, your young leaders will thank you–after the project is complete.

Gregory Moran
Greg Moran is chief operating officer at Aware. Send questions or comments about this story to