Four rules for enduring sponsorship of your work

Ah… sponsorship. Do you have it? Can you get it? You may have a brilliant new idea and need people and money to move it forward. You may want to understand whether you and your team will survive the latest cost-cutting efforts. The results and answers depend on the sponsorship you have for your work from your CEO or other senior executives. We often see business, NGO and public sector projects, and even careers start with great fanfare, then grind slowly to a halt a year or so later. All too often, they disappear silently, without delivering anything. What follows are the observations about projects and work areas I have seen succeed or fail over the last thirty years at HP, Compaq and Digital Equipment Corporation. The observations are presented in the form of rules that must not be broken. I have seen the first three rules right from the start. The fourth observation came as somewhat of a surprise during Léo Apotheker’s brief reign as CEO of HP.

Rule #1 ­ Do senior leaders talk about your project or area of work?

If senior leaders who have to approve new investments do not spontaneously mention what you are working on when they list their top five priorities, it will be challenging to be successful, at the very least. This applies to all investments and indeed all jobs, not just those in customer experience or strategy development. For the purposes of this discussion, “senior leaders” start with your manager’s manager. If your manager leaves, you are totally dependent on their manager for your project or work area to continue. Your manager’s manager controls more resources than your manager does. If your work is not on his or her priority list, you will either not get the resources needed to make it successful, or you will lose the resources over time. I have not seen any exceptions to this rule. If your company has an intranet, look for senior leaders’ websites and study their priorities. See if you can find their typical meeting agendas. Is your area of work ever on the agenda? Of course, if it isn’t, you have a role to play in changing that, assuming you don’t just want to give up.

Rule #2 ­ Does the project name make sense?

This should not matter, but it turns out to be essential in large organizations. The name of your project or work area has to describe the work in a simple way. You should avoid code names and acronyms if at all possible. The following example is real, though I am leaving the description vague enough to avoid embarrassing people. One the businesses I worked in had a major global customer happiness initiative called the Diamond program. It was well-funded and well-resourced, and had recently gotten off to a good start. The company needed to split up the relevant business to prepare for a major acquisition. The belief was that any costs held at the corporate headquarters level could be eliminated…

The cost review took place in a room of finance people, none of whom had detailed content knowledge of the cost areas in question. The following discussion was reported to me by two different people who were in the room. The discussion leader said, “… The next item is the Diamond program. Does anyone know what this is?” Since nobody did, it was immediately and irreversibly de-funded. That would never have happened if it had been called, for example, “The customer happiness program.” The decision-makers would at least have tried to find out what it was.

There are times when things need to be secret temporarily. If your company is planning on acquiring another company, the project will have a code name until the deal is public. Similarly, your project may involve an organization change and use a code name before it has been approved by the leadership team. As soon as the reason for confidentiality goes away, get rid of the code name or acronym and call it what it is.

Rule #3 ­ The pregnancy test

Yes, this rule has a slight lack of political correctness… If you can’t deliver the project in nine months, don’t bother starting. There will be no baby because you are not pregnant. Let me explain. If your first major deliverable worth the investment is more than nine months away, something is certain to change in the environment that will make you fail, or at least lose sponsorship. Your manager may change. Their manager may change. The company may have a bad quarter, or a great quarter. Your company might get acquired. Your government department may have a spending cut, or a spending increase, or the balance of power may change in some way. I take this further in my work: you need to be able to deliver something every three months that is worth the funding and the effort for those three months. Otherwise you will gradually lose sponsorship. If you can shorten the time between major deliverables even further, so much the better.

For years I communicated these three rules, using something like the diagram above. Then something happened that showed a dimension was missing…

Rule #4 ­ Can you communicate it all effectively

I worked with Léo Apotheker’s head of strategy on the definition of our corporate strategic initiatives in a way that would make them easy for us to implement in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I found both Léo and his strategy head, Martin Risau, to be brilliant thought leaders, with all of the practical sense you would naturally expect from senior German executives. Indeed, when first discussing rule #3 with Martin, he said “Three months is too long. We need to deliver something significant on each of these initiatives every two months.” We had the perfect sponsorship situation: senior leaders were talking about the initiatives. They all had names that correctly represented the work. They would each deliver something significant every two months…

Yet we still failed. Why? I believe it was because we, and our CEO in particular, were not able to communicate the work and the results so far in a simple and consistent way. The story line evolved constantly. People became confused. Teams leading the work felt the work definitions were changing, even though they were not. I believe Léo was adjusting the story he told depending on his audience, normally an admirable quality, particularly if each audience can’t easily compare the messaging with another audience. Industry analysts followed Léo’s strategy closely. That meant the messages were compared, people got confused, and the work did not advance as quickly as it should have. Meg Whitman’s experience in politics means that she has been able to avoid this pitfall. Her messaging was incredibly consistent, no matter what the audience, particularly during her first years at HP.


Sponsorship for your work matters. These four rules guarantee it. If all four are not in place, you need to get them in place or change your project, work area or employer. I urge you to consider the list as complete. Feel free to disagree. I would love to learn about rule #5. In the meantime, sign up for our newsletter if you would like to be informed when this blog is updated, normally weekly.