The Magic Touch

By Tom Barker

Becoming a More Effective Sponsor

In the previous article we explored sponsorship and what a sponsor does. This time we address the more difficult questions which are – how do they achieve these results, what do they do as individuals that enable such results to occur?

The formal component is well documented in management literature. As an active member of a senior management, the sponsor takes key actions to:

  • Link projects to strategy and allocate resources
  • Evaluate projects and authorize changes
  • Manage conflicts and changes arising from the project.

But what do they do the rest of the time? The answer is that they create alignment. But how?

Deceptively simple once its explained

Like stage magicians, sponsors results are only too easy to understand once each part of the “trick” has been revealed to us. And as with stage magicians, after we find out how it is done, our reaction is “Aw, of course…” So what are the sponsors’ sleights of hand?

A classic article by John Kotter gives a clear insight into this. In his research Kotter interviewed and accompanied 15 executives who were rated highly effective by their peers. He found that these effective executives spend the bulk of their time interacting with people in their network and using a wide range of influencing tactics to get them to respond to their agenda. Most surprisingly,

  • networks are much wider than just bosses or subordinates; sponsors regularly interact with people who may appear to have nothing to do with the sponsor’s own organization
  • range of topics discussed is extremely wide, in fact involving virtually anything and everything even remotely associated with their organization and its projects.
  • methods used for influencing are similarly broad: joking , discussing items un-related to work like family, hobbies etc, asking a lot of questions and making suggestions, but rarely giving directions (orders) in the traditional sense
  • interactions are numerous but often short duration, are disjointed conversations and are highly opportunistic in the sense that the sponsor responds to whatever issue the individual raises rather than focusing solely on their own issues

Kotter characterized this informal way of working as “personal chats with people outside their formal chain of command.” His conclusion was that this style of working, that on the surface may seem unproductive, is in fact highly productive. “A chance hallway conversation with a member of their network that lasts two minutes can accomplish as much, if not more, than a formal meeting lasting 30 minutes.” How can this be? Because they are not attempting to get decisions made, but instead they are attempting to influence thinking and be influenced by first hand information and trusted viewpoints. But there is a catch.

Not all impromptu conversations are productive. Some are just random interactions. Kotter concludes that “impromptu conversations are productive only when the agenda is clearly in mind and the network relationships are firmly in place”.


So just what is it that sponsors are trying to align views on throughout the organization? The three key areas are needs, expectations and changes.

Why these three? Because these are the three cornerstones of any project. We can quickly confirm this by considering for a moment the classic pitfalls that most large projects fall into. The “Economist” recently published such a list of these pitfalls for big I.T. projects. In essence, they were as follows

  • Unrealistic executive expectations. Hoping for I.T. miracles that will never come true leads to a lack of realism and accountability throughout the project
  • Lack of focus on what information is really needed to support decision making and action in the organization, leads to an inability for the system to ever provide it.
  • Unwillingness to accept the need for behaviour change leading to
    • The creation of expensive, complex, customized systems that reflect current ways of working and are almost impossible to maintain and operate reliably.
    • Opting out by critical areas of the company, thus creating “islands of automation” with bottlenecks and imbalances that undermine the benefits of an integrated company-wide system

Skills and experience required

In order to be in a position to conduct these influence campaigns effectively and create alignment, Kotter argues that sponsors must be

  • Selected from among those who know the business, the organization and its people well
  • Encouraged to focus on long-range strategic thinking and network relationship building

From his interviews and observations there emerged a set of requirements for the development of sponsors. The best ones, he found had the following skills and abilities

  • Ability to relate to people as individuals
  • Aggressively seeks information (including bad news) and assimilates it
  • Skillfully ask questions and listens attentively to the answers
  • Seeks out ideas, proposals, programs and projects that can help accomplish multiple objectives and supports them

Our research has identified that these characteristics are examples of a wider set of competencies described by nine principles of sponsorship.

Sponsorship Model

The outcome of sponsor’s impromptu interactions is two-fold. On one hand they gain a renewed relationship and on the other they have the opportunity to make suggestions and persuade. They may, if the situation is favourable, just come right out and ask someone to act in a way that supports the agenda. This could, for example, involve that person approaching another individual in their network (but outside the sponsor’s network) with a similar end in mind. The sponsor may also offer their assistance to the individual by offering a trade that may enable a solution or by hosting a meeting where a group level exchange of intentions and information can take place. In this way the sponsor’s influence in key areas is leveraged to include a large number of people very rapidly.

Effective sponsors know that this cannot be done effectively by broadcasting, at the motherhood or general population level, but can best be done by working on specific issues with specific people, one at a time.

Thus our sponsorship model takes shape to cover both formal and informal modes of work. We come full circle to relate this new perspective to our original example of the movie producer as sponsor. We can see that “scripts” are documented sets of needs around which the producer spends a great deal of time interacting with studios. We can see that “contracts” are documented expectations of the various parties, around which the producer spends time interacting with actors, directors and agents. The “edits” are the tangible changes made to a movie prior to release, and producers will typically invest time in interacting with director and studios about such changes. The recent trend to include extra footage on movie CDs has revealed the extent of extra footage that is shot over and above the version that makes it to the big screen.

Sponsorship Model

sponsorshipmodel1 The Magic Touch

And so, in summary, we have discovered that what makes a sponsor appear to work magic is in fact, much like their stage counterpart, due largely to a lot of painstaking behind the scenes work. Watch this space for an upcoming article on the nine sponsorship principles!

Any aspiring sponsor who wishes to improve their effectiveness should pay closer attention to their interactions and try to consciously balance their efforts between influence, information and intentions.

“First published in Project Times Spring 2001” (Project Times link

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