Why Is Executive Involvement in Projects so Important?

In my career, I have been fortunate to work with several Fortune 50 companies. My role is to facilitate strategic project management, along with decision-making, for high-ranking executives and board members. To be successful, I always encourage executives to be part of project teams.

However, projects with an essential need for an executive sponsor are those classified as Strategic or Turn-Around projects, involving multiple departments or locations. What is critical for the executive sponsor is understanding the role they perform in these special projects.

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The Executive Sponsor’s Role

For the project team, the importance of executive sponsorship is clear — these stakeholders ensure the success of a project at a high level, removing institutional blockers and aiding with resource allocation. An executive sponsor also plays a vital role for the executive team and board of directors; the executive sponsor helps develop a sense of urgency for the project, and provides strategic decisions when warranted.

As such, executive involvement and responsibilities are simple:

  • Be present from the kick-off meeting until the project becomes self-sufficient.
  • Be available to the project manager and team for guidance and encouragement throughout the effort.
  • Report to the executive team and board on the project’s status, answering any of their questions.
  • Remove any roadblocks, and help direct the project team with strategic decisions.

To be genuinely effective, the executive sponsor must be seen and heard by the project team, especially during the initial phases of the project. However, this role becomes especially important when the effort is a Strategic or Turn-Around project.

Strategic Projects vs Turn-Around Projects

What’s the difference between a Strategic project and a Turn-Around project? A Strategic project is a significant, company-wide effort that helps realign or strengthen a corporation’s goals and vision. A Turn-Around project could be classified as a Strategic project that has failed to align with the company’s goals and vision. Turn-Around projects are usually ongoing efforts that have failed to complete the work, lack clear decision-making, and become an ongoing operational effort.

For Turn-Around projects, the executive sponsor needs to be fully engaged. Turn-Arounds are painful. These are the most challenging initiatives for the executive sponsor, project manager, and team. The hard truth of any Turn-Around effort is recognizing that a failure has occurred within the organization. As such, the executive sponsor is more crucial in a Turn-Around project than a Strategic initiative.

How Executive Sponsors Lead Turn-Around Projects

The first step an executive sponsor should do is pause the ongoing effort to analyze why the project needs to become a Turn-Around effort. In assembling the project team, business and technical sponsors, and all relevant stakeholders, the executive sponsor becomes a detective who needs to understand what is happening. The best way to pursue this is to have an exploratory session. The goal of an exploratory meeting is not to point fingers, but to have an open dialogue on what is truly happening. Once the sponsor has a clear idea of the need for the Turn-Around effort, they need to follow these steps:

  • Meet with the executive team and board to discuss a path forward for the project.
  • Decide whether the project will continue or end. This is the hardest decision for every Turn-Around project, but sometimes the best course of action is to classify the effort as a sunk cost and move on.
  • If the decision is made to move forward, the sponsor should create a communication plan with daily updates from the project team, and weekly updates to the executive team. Communication is vital to the effort’s success, because there must be no misunderstanding by any person in the organization.
  • In the beginning, the sponsor should be engaged with the team and ask questions or make decisions where needed.
  • As the project starts to Turn Around, the executive sponsor should still be available, but consider changing the daily sessions to weekly for the team and monthly for the executives.

Eventually, the Turn-Around project will be re-classified as a successful effort, and put back into the normal project cycle. Be prepared, though. Turn-Around projects take a lot of patience, and they can be painful and time-consuming at the start. The executive sponsor is the Key Success Factor (KSF) in getting any Turn-Around effort back on track, and these efforts become a great accomplishment for the executive sponsor, project team, and organization.

Executive involvement is vital to the success of any project, but it is especially critical for Strategic or Turn-Around projects. This is because Strategic initiatives or Turn-Around projects need the physical presence of the executive sponsor to hold teams accountable for the progress of the effort.

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Kent Barnett

Kent Barnett is a technologist, entrepreneur, author, and storyteller. He founded a strategic project management company later acquired by a multinational corporation. Barnett's accomplishments have made him a sought-after partner for companies ranging from start-ups to the Fortune 50.