Project Management: How to Win the Support of Top Executives

Published: Aug 18, 2017
Modified: Apr 12, 2023


It is commonly accepted in the project management community that the support of senior management, particularly the sponsor, is required for success. Not surprisingly, project managers wonder why it's so hard to get executives' attention. Let's take a look at this question to further enhance your project management expertise.

Different perspectives on what is important

First of all, a project manager and his or her sponsor view the project completely differently. For those of us in project management, it is all about cost, schedule, and quality. We must focus on the details.

In my experience, executives do not really care about the details unless something is going wrong. Their perspective is all about control and stability. They want to be assured that the project is under control and causing as little disruption as possible in the stakeholder groups.

Different priorities related to the project

The second difference is priorities. The project manager’s first priority is successfully delivering the project. Our sponsor’s first priority is producing operational performance—he or she must “hit their numbers.” That is all about running the business.

From a sponsor’s perspective, a successful project will deliver better operational performance in the future and allow him to do even better in achieving these goals:

  • Growing profit margins
  • Reducing costs
  • Increasing the speed of delivery
  • Improving customer satisfaction

Executives also live in a highly political environment where a small group of Type A personalities are vying for attention and large monetary rewards. Perception carries a great deal of weight at the executive level.

Many project managers believe they’ve done everything “by the book” in delivering a project, but the business stakeholders still feel the project was not successful. Why does that happen?

It all comes back to the earlier statement: Sponsors think about operational performance and how it will affect their ability to run the business. In many cases, when a project is done just as suggested in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and is considered a failure by the business, it’s because the project did not deliver the operational benefits promised. There can be a number of reasons why a project is perceived as not delivering the benefits, but in the end, these projects are a technical success but a business failure.

Four steps to build support

Here are some of the proactive steps project managers can take to gain executive support:

  • Always keep in mind what your sponsor thinks is important—which is operational performance, a project under control, and a sense of stability within the stakeholder groups. If sponsors sense a project is out of control, they will begin to put distance between themselves and the project.
  • Report to your sponsor on progress in delivering the operational benefits, and focus only on the budget and schedule in that context.
  • Never allow your sponsor to be surprised. This is related to the political environment. There is absolutely nothing worse for a sponsor than being surprised by another executive who says something like, “My people are telling me there’s a problem in your project.” Your sponsor needs to be able to say, confidently, “Yes, I’m aware there are some concerns, but we have a plan to fix that issue. Would you like me to keep you informed as we resolve the problem?”
  • Never play the game that some project managers do, in which they don’t tell the sponsor about any problems and pretend that everything will work out. Always let your sponsor know about any important issues that arise, and come to him or her with your plans to tackle those issues. This approach will build a relationship of trust between you and your sponsor, and give your sponsor confidence in you and your team.

In conclusion, everyone in business knows that people focus on what their boss deems important. That’s why all project managers realize the importance of senior management in a successful project. Using the suggestions presented here will go a long way in helping you achieve the support you need.

About The Author

G. Michael Campbell, PMP, is the author of Succeeding with Senior Management: Getting the Right Support at the Right Time for Your Project (AMACOM, 2017). He is a frequent presenter to sold-out project management audiences and has managed global projects for Fortune 500 executives. Campbell is also the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Project Management and Communication Skills for Project Managers.