Project Sponsors are from Venus

The following is an extract from my new book ‘How to get Fired at the C-Level: Why mismanaging change is the biggest risk of all’ in association with my friends at Tailwind Project Solutions – the extracts follow a series of 5 Challenges that I think every organisation should consider, and consider very carefully:

Challenge 2 – invest in non-accidental project sponsors

‘We are unique individuals with unique experiences’ John Gray, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is a book written by relationship counsellor John Gray. It has sold more than 50 million copies (a handful more than my own best-selling book The Lazy Project Manager) and spent 121 weeks on the US bestseller list.

The book and its central metaphor have become a part of popular culture and so I found myself, as I thought about my ongoing (since 2011) Campaign for Real Project Sponsors, that maybe we could think of project managers and project sponsors in similar terms.

The book states that most common relationship problems between men and women result from fundamental psychological differences between the sexes. The author exemplifies this through the book’s eponymous metaphor: that men and women are from distinct planets – Mars and Venus respectively – and that each sex is in tune with its own planet’s society and customs, but those of the other are alien to it.

Now it is possible that this comes into play if, say the project manager is a man and the project sponsor is a woman. (I explored this in the book Strategies for Project Sponsorship (Management Concepts Press) with my co-authors Vicki James and Ron Rosenhead, where – at Vicki’s suggestion – we agreed to separate the roles by gender.) But for now, let’s simplify the situation by assuming that gender plays no part in this.

For project success many sources of authority boldly declare good project sponsorship is critical but sadly the reality of the situation is less than perfect sponsoring. Often – very often – project sponsors will have received no training or support for their critical role. In Strategies for Project Sponsorship we confirmed that, with 85% of organisations surveyed declaring that they had ‘sponsorship in place’ but 83% confirming the worrying truth that they did nothing to support, train or guide these project sponsors.

Many speak of the ‘accidental project manager’ but the reality is that the current generation of project sponsors can also be considered the ‘accidental project sponsors’. Although they may not have any background in project management or project-based activity, having reached a senior level within their organisation based on other achievements, they have assumed or have been given that role. Remember that there is not currently any official body of knowledge for project sponsors to help them understand best project sponsorship practices.

And yet project sponsors don’t just need to support projects; good project sponsors also support the project manager and project team. It is said that a project is one small step for a project sponsor and a giant leap for the project manager. Wouldn’t we all feel so much better if we knew that the project sponsor’s one small step would ensure that the complementary giant leap would lead to a safe and secure final landing?

The project sponsor/project manager partnership is one that needs to be built on a relationship of trust and mutual objectives.

As John Gray says, ‘If I seek to fulfil my own needs at the expense of my partner, we are sure to experience unhappiness, resentment, and conflict. The secret of forming a successful relationship is for both partners to win.’

Project sponsorship is not about an either/or situation but a win/ win, with both the project sponsor and the project manager benefiting.

It is, after all, about the project and therefore about the business benefit.

In Strategies for Project Sponsorship we found that the best of project sponsors operated in a very balanced way, being involved in the project, being objective about the project, being supportive of the project and project manager, and being reactive to project needs.

The project manager clearly needs to be equally balanced.

We also found that the best project managers understood what a good project sponsor should do and how they, as project managers, needed to behave within the reality of the partnership, and with the project sponsor that they were ‘given’. As the saying goes, ‘you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives,’ and it must be appreciated that the same is true of project sponsors.

Each project sponsor (and each project manager) will be different, will be imperfect, and will have strengths and weaknesses but if the two individuals understand each other’s responsibilities and capabilities then a balanced, effective and positive relationship can be achieved (and subsequent project success). To once again quote John Gray, ‘Relationships thrive when communication reflects a ready acceptance and respect of people’s innate differences.’

This needs to be taken seriously and if the relationship is not working changes need to happen, fast.

There is some fantastic work going on with and for project managers.

We have landed on Mars and we are setting up home and making it look damn good (in most cases) but the weight of effort is all on that side of the scale. Venus, on the other hand is comparatively undeveloped and in need of a real make-over.

In ‘Project Management Institute, Inc. Pulse of the Profession™ March 2013’ it was assessed that the value impact on poor project sponsorship from the executive level had real significance. The report suggested that with regard to meeting project goals there was a +29% variance with good sponsorship in place but when there wasn’t good project sponsorship in place there was a -13% variance of project failure, that is there was a 13% greater chance of the project not delivering what was expected.

Investment in project sponsorship is evidence that the executives are taking strategy investment seriously, whereas not doing so can be seen as an example of the C-suite failing its own business and if we think about this in terms of the portfolio we valued in the previous article (we started with £20m and ended up with £105.6m remember?) doing nothing to develop good project sponsorship would mean that 13% of the value of the portfolio (£13.7m) could practically be written off from day one. Even if you only take the portfolio starting value – £20m – you are losing £2.6m.

How would your CFO feel if you asked him to take £2.6m in banknotes and stuff it in the shredder right now? If anything, not investing proper C-level support in strategy is worse than this, since besides the huge financial loss you should consider time and effort: all those people wondering what they have been working on all this time only to see negative returns.

I hope that the point is now well made – investment in professional project sponsors who see this as an integral part of their role is critical to your organisation protecting and benefiting from your portfolio of investment.


Tailwind Project Solutions was formed in 2014 to provide a bespoke approach to project leadership development. Owned by Director & CEO Alex Marson, the organisation works with large FTSE 250 clients including some of the biggest companies in the world in the Asset Management, Professional Services, Software, Automotive, Finance and Pharmaceutical industry.  The company has a team of world-class experts who provide a bespoke approach to the challenges that our clients have, and the company was formed because of a gap in the market for expertise which truly gets to the heart of the issues clients are facing – providing a robust, expert solution to change the way that companies run their projects.

At the time, the market was becoming flooded with training companies, providing a ‘sheep dip’ approach to project management, and the consensus was that This didn’t solve the real challenges that businesses and individuals are experiencing in this ever-increasing complex world of project management. The vision was to hand-pick and work with the very best consultants, trainers and coaches worldwide so that Tailwind could make a difference to their clients, to sit down with them, understand their pain points, what makes them tick, and what is driving their need for support.

These challenges being raised time and time again are in the project leadership space, from communication issues, not understanding stakeholder requirements or having the confidence to “push back”, lack of sponsorship support, working across different cultures, languages, levels of capability and complexity. We expect more from our project managers – we expect them to inspire, lead teams and be more confident.

Tailwind’s experience is vast, from providing interim resources in the project and programme management space, supporting the recruitment process, experiential workshops, coaching – from project managers through to executives, providing keynote speakers, implementing PPM Academies, PM Healthchecks and Leadership development. The approach is created often uniquely – to solve the real challenges of each of their individual clients. 


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One Response to “Project Sponsors are from Venus”

  1. The Best 54 Project Management Blogs You Should Be Reading Says:

    […] Project Sponsors are from Venus […]

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