Not All Executive Sponsors Are Created Equal

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

Sound familiar? If not, check out my previous blog, “3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Ignore Executive Sponsorship.” This thoughtful and timely article – if I do say so myself – focuses on just that, not ignoring the criticality of executive sponsorship and understanding its vital role.

For the second year in a row, Project Management Institute (PMI) research shows that having actively engaged executive sponsors is the top driver of project success. Yet this research also shows that less than two-thirds of projects and programs have assigned executive sponsors, suggesting that organizations are not fully recognizing the importance of the role.

Let’s get serious about selecting an executive sponsor! Effective executive sponsors are anything but normal. They possess special qualities that demand attention, engage others, communicate ideas, overcome obstacles, and ultimately, and most importantly, get the job done. Below I’ve identified five traits that I believe carry the most weight in determining the right person for the executive sponsor role.

While researching and considering the innumerable important executive sponsor traits, it dawned on me to leverage the Clifton StrengthsFinder themes. StrengthsFinder is based on Gallup’s 40-year study of human strengths, from which they created a language of the 34 most common talents and developed the StrengthsFinder assessment to help people discover and describe their talents.

To date, over 13 million people have completed the assessment. There are significant benefits (yes, research backed) in understanding your own strengths, and your team’s strengths, but I digress – future blog topic forming! I’m a huge fan, to say the least, so check out their website and take the assessment if you haven’t already at

For each of the five traits, I’ve provided commentary connecting the trait to the executive sponsorship role, and for your convenience, I included an abbreviated version of Gallup’s description of the strength from the book, “StrengthsFinder 2.0,” by Tom Rath, because rightly so, their description is far superior to any others that I’ve read.

People with this trait are not frightened by a challenge, nor are they afraid of change and the conflict that may result. They feel compelled to step in when the stakes are high and, if chaos arises, inspire others to act and calm fears. These individuals are driven to achieve success and feel responsible for driving the change. They lead by obtaining the facts and moving the team as a cohesive unit toward the goal despite barriers.

StrengthsFinder description: Command leads you to take charge. Unlike some people, you feel no discomfort with imposing your views on others. On the contrary, once your opinion is formed, you need to share it with others. Once your goal is set, you feel restless until you have aligned others with you. You are not frightened by confrontation; rather, you know that confrontation is the first step toward resolution… People are drawn toward those who take a stance and ask them to move in a certain direction. Therefore, people will be drawn to you. You have presence. You have Command.

Executives with focus possess very clear direction and purpose. They continually manage their goals and priorities, ensuring the team stays the course. They are not easily distracted and unwavering in their quest. This is an especially important trait for busy leaders being pulled in many directions with limited time and resources.

StrengthsFinder description: “Where am I headed?” you ask yourself. You ask this question every day. Guided by this theme of Focus, you need a clear destination. Lacking one, your life and your work can quickly become frustrating. And so each year, each month, and even each week you set goals. These goals then serve as your compass, helping you determine priorities and make the necessary corrections to get back on course… Your Focus reminds everyone that if something is not helping you move toward your destination, then it is not important. And if it is not important, then it is not worth your time. You keep everyone on point.

Strategic thinkers are motivated to make decisions when they are faced with multiple options. They assess the environment, analyze information, and consider various scenarios in order to make the best and most efficient decision. They are persistent and do not give up in their journey to making a decision. This is especially important as leaders are plagued by distractions and roadblocks.

StrengthsFinder description: The Strategic theme enables you to sort through the clutter and find the best route. It is not a skill that can be taught. It is a distinct way of thinking, a special perspective on the world at large. This perspective allows you to see patterns where others simply see complexity. Mindful of these patterns, you play out alternative scenarios, always asking, “What if this happened? Okay, well what if this happened?” This recurring question helps you see around the next corner… Armed with your strategy, you strike forward. This is your Strategic theme at work: “What if?” Select. Strike.

Activators make things happen; they turn ideas into action. They have a great deal of motivation and energy to get things started. Others are influenced through their energy and accomplishment of starting something new. This trait is especially important when “leading by example.”

StrengthsFinder description: “When can we start?” This is a recurring question in your life. You are impatient for action. You may concede that analysis has its uses or that debate and discussion can occasionally yield some valuable insights, but deep down you know that only action is real. Only action can make things happen. Only action leads to performance. Once a decision is made, you cannot not act… The bottom line is this: You know you will be judged not by what you say, not by what you think, but by what you get done. This does not frighten you. It pleases you.

Those who rank high in the trait of positivity offer a bright spot when the day seems bleak or the atmosphere stale. They indirectly encourage others via their consistent optimism and contagious enthusiasm. They naturally look for and routinely recognize the good. Executive sponsors possessing the strength of positivity create an environment everyone wants to be a part of. Simply said, people want to be around positive people.

StrengthsFinder description: You are generous with praise, quick to smile, and always on the lookout for the positive in the situation. Some call you lighthearted. Others just wish that their glasses were as full as yours seems to be. But either way, people want to be around you. Their world looks better around you because your enthusiasm is contagious… Somehow you can’t quite escape your conviction that it is good to be alive, that work can be fun, and that no matter what the setbacks, one must never lose one’s sense of humor.

While I whole heartedly believe in the above-described strengths, let’s be real, the probability of finding an individual with the exact same top 5 strengths is low, especially considering there are 33,390,720 combinations. Look beyond the top 5. Do these strengths exist in their top 10, or maybe 20? Research hasn’t found the magic number, but I do know that history is a pretty good indicator of the future, so along with the above strengths, focus on how individuals use their strengths to rally others to follow them.

In the end, if no one will follow the executive sponsor, how can they lead the project?

Pulse of the Profession,” 2014, Project Management Institute

“Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow,” by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie

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