Strategic Initiatives | Executive Sponsor Roles, Power, & Politics

My purpose in this article is to explain how executive sponsorship of a strategic initiative is nuanced and different from sponsorship of the typical run-the-business project or program.

Your take-aways are:

  • The traditional responsibilities for an executive sponsor apply (see the graphic). However,
  • The program manager and the executive sponsor share responsibilities for four unique principles.  They partner and collaborate.
  • It is essential to acquire and exercise power.

An Example of a Successful Partnership Between an Executive Sponsor and a Program Manager

Several years ago, I had a program manager role leading a strategic initiative. It was hugely successful; it changed the business model and added record revenues.  I could master the internal relationships and tasks, but I lacked a network of contacts in the industry (this network was essential to putting together a venture than had all of the needed elements of the delivery system).  Here the program’s executive sponsor was critical: he had a network of personal relationships with potential partners.  Too, the title Vice President conveyed gravitas. Thus, he was in a better position to manage those stakeholders than me.

The Program Manager (me) and the Executive Sponsor developed an effective partnership.

Four Shared Responsibilities

In reflecting upon my experience, I found four important functions that take place by either/both the program manager and the sponsor (they are drawn from the research of Harvard’s Wheelwright and Clark). I list them in the left column of the following table and provide examples in the center and right columns.

My experience with strategic initiatives shows that the functions are not unique to the executive sponsor.  Instead, they are shared in a way specific to the personalities of the people and the situation.  Thus, the point is

This table provides a framework for discussing specifics: How can the Executive Sponsor and Program Manager best partner to increase the probability of success?

Picture the Executive Sponsor and the Program Manager in a conversation: How will each person activate one of the four functions? How can each role help the other acquire power?

Responsibilities Executive Sponsor Program Manager
Energize and guide organizational decision making Participate in portfolio management discussions to determine the  appropriate prioritization for this strategic initiative versus other programs, projects, and operational imperatives. Apply the philosophy of fast and effective decisions lead to fast development.
Clarify direction to help people understand Remind/reinforce key messages to executive steering team members.  Capture feedback and manage dialogue to   tweak direction or cancel initiative if necessary. Use program and project management tools to enhance alignment and  commitment. Work on making vision concrete. Turn into verifiable project   requirements. Socialize the vision.
Provide a sense of balance,   confidence and maturity to the   organization Particular attention to steering team and other executives. Advocate for launching the initiative. Support the learning process. Particular attention to functional executives, project managers, and   technical resources.  Support the learning process.
Facilitate Network Building Boundary spanning with partners and external stakeholders.  Tap into industry experience and knowledge. Support external boundary spanning, but somewhat more emphasis on internal stakeholders and project managers.

Of course, this framework rests upon the assumption that the organization has identified an executive sponsor, steering team, and program manager for the strategic initiative.  Regrettably, that is not always the case and the lack of roles is a leading indicator of upcoming problems with the strategic initiative.

Power and Politics

Power is the ability to influence or control scarce resources.  The obvious resources are money and other capital resources (remember the “Follow the Money” story) as well as expertise.

Less obvious – but equally important – is knowledge about the strategic context and strategic intent of the organization. In my above-described example, I lacked the VP’s power, but I recognized that my effectiveness depended upon the ability to capture and exploit organizational power for the good of the strategic initiative.  I helped him get power, and he helped me as well.

For many project managers, politics is a dirty word.  But it’s not: politics is the willingness and ability to gain power for the benefit of the organization. I will share more about politics and power in future articles.

Complexity is the Reason Why Strategic Intiative Leadership is Different

Strategic initiatives are different from “strategic” projects and programs. For one, strategic initiatives often involve complexity (unpredictable, emergent conditions), whereas programs and projects are “complicated” (with suitable expertise, a predictable result is achieved). I believe that if you understand the challenges and competencies that are unique to strategic initiatives, you enhance your tool kit for conventional projects and programs.

What else would you like to learn about the role of the strategic initiative’s executive sponsor?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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