Executive Sponsorship

The Importance of Executive Leadership in Successful Projects

By Donald Pagel, CEO Pagel Consulting Group, LLC

Projects live and die by the success of both project management and organizational change management.   The more complex the project is; the more people it touches; the more change it creates in the daily activities of those people, the more critical it is to plan, execute, control and lead.

Executive Sponsors must lead.

My father once taught me that you “manage” things, but you “lead” people. 

I raised three boys and thus spent a great deal of time in Boy Scouts.  At one particular troop meeting, a patrol was on stage performing a silly skit to keep the scouts entertained.  As the skit is progressing, an assistant scoutmaster keeps walking across the stage in front of the skit dragging a rope.  Finally, after the third time, the other assistant scoutmaster helping the boys with their skit, turned and loudly called to the other, “Fred, why on earth do you keep dragging that rope around?”.  Fred responds, “Have you ever tried to push a rope?”  The implication of that simple statement was astounding to me.

Project management is all about managing cost, time and scope….things.  Organizational change management is about leading people through the change caused by the implementation of the project. 

Leadership requires knowledge, trust, influence, faith and vision.  People do not like to be pushed and generally respond like the assistant scoutmaster’s rope. But given the right leader who has vision, people will follow willingly.  Leadership does not require position or title just as position and title do not guarantee followers.

The most important leader in a project is the executive sponsor.  This is the person who both sees the value of the project and has the fiscal responsibility for its charter as well as its success.  That said, every team member has the responsibility to help lead through the change that a project creates and help support the executive sponsor.


Knowledge requires effort and involvement. It is not necessary that the executive sponsor understand the details of the product being implemented but should invest the time and effort into understanding the product well enough to ask appropriate questions to make effective decisions.  Additionally, the proper level of understanding can lead to trust in the product that allows the development of a vision.  Lack of knowledge, or lack of involvement will lead to poorly executed projects.


Leadership requires trust.  Trust in the product and more importantly, trust in the team you have assembled to implement the product.  The team needs to feel that trust as well.  Mistakes will be made and you want your team to stretch and be personally empowered, so they need to feel that “you’ve got their back”.  Trust in both the product and team also enables the executive sponsor to exude faith and vision to external stakeholders.  Lack of trust will cause fear, uncertainty and project stagnation because no one will feel comfortable to make a decision.


Influence requires vision and is born of trust and personal reputation.  In order for a project to be successful, a leader must address fear in the stakeholders.  Often projects may dramatically change the level of control a particular stakeholder has in a process.  Senior stakeholders must feel that the executive sponsor has trust and faith in the product and project.  The level of trust a stakeholder has in the executive sponsor is directly proportional to the influence you have.  Often, this influence is built over years of relationship building but can also be done in a shorter period of time if the leader shows a solid conviction to the vision balanced with thoughtfulness of addressing stakeholders’ objections.  Selecting an executive sponsor that lacks influence among the senior stakeholders will cause lack of trust in the project that will manifest itself with internal power struggles and politics.


Faith is not the same thing as trust or belief.  Faith is an action word that acts on trust and belief.  A leader shows faith when they take risks.  The leader also shows faith when a risky decision resulted in a negative outcome and the leader accepts responsibility for it but still shows trust and vision in both the product and the project by correcting the problem quickly.

In my early 20’s, I was a full-commissioned sales rep for an industrial supply firm.  I had to develop strong relationships with my clients because I saw them every month and needed them to place an order from me each month.  Often when troubles arose with an account, the weaker sales reps would shy away from the problem stupidly thinking that either the problem would magically go away or someone else would solve it for them.  I couldn’t do that.  I felt honor-bound to take care of their problem.  What I later realized was that by addressing the problem head-on, the customer almost always placed an additional order from me!  I always felt that my success in that company was due primarily to that one principle.

Having trust in your team and in the product will allow you to have faith that each bump in the road will be smoothed out and that you can feel confident in keeping the stakeholders apprised and yet comfortable.  Lack of faith produces diversion and misdirection by stakeholders that ultimately leads to a less-efficient project with many delays.


Of all of the principles of leadership, vision is the most critical and yet is built on the backs of knowledge, trust, influence and faith.  Vision is never equated with mediocrity nor is it risk-averse.  Vision is what leads nations to justified and triumphant battles. Vision led man to the moon and back.  Vision was at the beginning of every successful company that started in a garage.  Vision is required for complex and far reaching projects.  Lack of vision is like a ship that sails from port with no plan, no direction and ends up in trouble in open water.

Failed projects are often due to a lack of knowledge, trust, influence and vision.  These are the essence of organizational change management.  There is more to it than this, but these principles are the guiding force that leads a project to a successful conclusion.

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