Executive Sponsor

The executive sponsor is the crucial member of the team since, without an executive sponsor, no project has even a remote chance of being successful. This is especially true of complex projects that are more likely to run into technical and political issues both because of their scope and because they will take longer. CRM projects need a champion at the executive level to succeed. This is not to say that one cannot inspire a successful CRM project from a position other than the executive level. It simply means that one cannot carry out a successful CRM project without the active assistance of an appropriately placed executive. If you are not in an executive position but you think that the issues within your organizations could be solved by implementing a new CRM system, do your homework (including finishing this tutorial), create a recommendation, and pitch it to your favorite executive.


The executive sponsor defines the vision for the project, either by creating it from scratch or by getting inspired by the vision of others in the organization, or through some combination of both. The important thing is not so much how the vision comes into being, but rather that the executive sponsor has completely embraced the vision and is committed to realize it no matter what. The vision should not be only a technical vision, but rather a comprehensive view of how business will be run once the tool is in place. The vision for the CRM project should be completely integrated with the other business goals of the organization. The executive sponsor must have both a clear vision for the project and a grasp of the tangible (high-level) deliverables. Besides creating and sustaining the vision, the second big responsibility of the executive sponsor is to communicate the vision and to sell the project throughout the company. This includes convincing the organization as a whole to invest in the project, and that can be a large investment indeed, as discussed in the previous chapter. The executive sponsor must motivate the owners of the business function(s) targeted by the project to participate in it and to support it even as it requires hard work and sacrifices such as diverting precious staff members to work on it, as well as reducing the financial resources available to achieve other goals. The executive sponsor may have to convince other executives, whose departments will probably be impacted in some way by the project without reaping direct benefits from it, of the long-term value of the project to the company as a whole. Selling the project is not a one-time event. There's selling the idea that the organization should embark on a CRM project in the first place. Then, there's selling the decision to use a particular tool and selling the accompanying investment in the tool itself and in the implementation, both in terms of budget and people. Repeated selling is required throughout the implementation period so everyone "keeps the faith", especially at rollout time when there's almost always some struggling with the new system. Selling continues to be required beyond the immediate rollout, when it becomes clear that the new system will not solve all the problems of the organization, and perhaps not even all the problems it was intended to handle. Finally, the executive sponsor is the champion of the project throughout its existence. Although the project manager looks after the day-to-day issues, the executive sponsor must make time to check on the project on a regular basis, probably daily even if it's only for a few minutes. The executive sponsor doesn't merely read or listen to the project status reports, but also asks the difficult questions that can expose hidden issues. In other words, looking for trouble is a good strategy for the sponsor. The sponsor also helps the project manager anticipate political issues that can arise during the project, which the project manager can be blind to since he or she doesn't function at the executive level on a daily basis. Finally, the sponsor helps the project manager resolve practical and political issues, either by coaching the project manager on what to do or by directly handling the issues that require executive attention or influence. The executive sponsor must be available to the project manager for quick questions and for brainstorming ideas. The effectiveness of the teamwork between the two individuals is much lessened if the executive sponsor cannot be available on very short notice, as many issues can worsen quickly if not caught and handled promptly.


So what kind of person are we looking for here? The main requirement is that the executive sponsor must the highest-level executive for the business function(s) being automated. For example, if the project targets an SFA solution it must be the VP of Sales. For deployments that affect multiple functions, it has to be a general manager type. Why aim so high?

  • Because the top executive can terminate the project at any time. To avoid the potential of a veto from the top, you need unequivocal support from that individual from day one of the project. The executive sponsor can delegate much of the actual work, as we will see, so we are only talking about sponsorship there, not hours and hours of hands-on work.
  • Because lots of business decisions will need to be made that only the top executive can make. If the executive sponsor cannot make the decisions directly, it takes too much time. You need a direct line to the top executive.
  • Because selling the project within the targeted organization is much, much easier if the executive sponsor happens to also be the top executive for the functions involved in the project.
  • Because the top executive for a particular function has the ideal scope and credibility to sell the project outside that particular group.

The executive sponsor needs to be politically savvy to sell the project throughout the entire organization as well as to anticipate and deflect political attacks against it. The executive sponsor also needs to be credible within the entire organization. If the top functional executive happens to be perceived as weak, even if only because of too short a tenure, try tapping the executive at the next higher level instead. If that fails, it's probably not a good idea to pursue a CRM project, at least until the political support solidifies. An important success factor for the executive sponsor is the ability to create and communicate a solid, rich vision of how the project will bring tangible business benefits. A charismatic style is a great help for the communication part of the role, but an executive with a well-established record should do just fine without it. Top executives are busy, so one of the hardest requirements is making enough time available for the project. Many duties can be delegated but the essence of executive sponsorship cannot be, or you lose the concept of the executive sponsor. By making time to meet with the project manager on a regular basis and by being available on short notice when needed, the executive sponsor nurtures a positive relationship with the project manager. Under such circumstances significant issues with the project are likely to be brought up promptly, before they get ugly, while no time is wasted on items of low importance. What can be delegated? Except for very small projects in small organizations where the executive sponsor may also serve as a project manager, the day-to-day supervision of the project can and should be delegated, either to the project manager or to a staff manager who can filter appropriately. Be careful about too much filtering, as it can obscure potentially relevant issues. Another potential area for delegation is communication. Although the executive sponsor must deliver key communications about the project throughout the organization, the creation of the presentations, memos, and other communication vehicles can be done by others (with the condition that they are reviewed and vetted by the executive sponsor, as with any other key piece of communication). Finally, and especially in larger organizations, other individuals can analyze project-related issues and come up with solutions before they are presented to the executive sponsor for a decision. By definition, executive sponsorship is a part-time role, since the very idea of making it a full-time job would run counter to the idea of executive sponsorship. The good news is that, unless the executive sponsor also plays other roles in the project, as is often the case in smaller companies, executive sponsorship should not blossom into a significant proportion of the executive's time, even for large projects. A few hours a week should be enough, except for specific events such as creating the initial requirements, approving the top vendor candidates, creating the implementation requirements, and approving major milestones. The savvy project manager schedules such key activities to fit the schedule of the executive sponsor. Because the executive sponsor is so important to the success of the project, there is a great risk to the project if the sponsor moves on, even if the project is doing well. The risk is heightened if the move is caused by perceived weaknesses in the sponsor, even if the weaknesses have nothing to do with the project. It's easy to blame problems on the departed, and the project's opponents may try to push their advantage if the sponsor leaves, regardless of the state and health of the project. To protect a CRM project through a transition, organize a very meticulous handoff from the old sponsor to the new one, covering both vision and ongoing management. The chances of survival are much better if the new sponsor can indeed take the vision as his or her own. It's not unusual to find a certain amount of refocusing and repurposing in the project as the result of the change in sponsorship.