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Four rules for enduring sponsorship of your project and career - At least one should be a surprise



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 author’s observations about projects and work areas I have seen succeed or fail over the last thirty years at HP, Compaq and Digital Equipment Corporation. As usual, they reflect my views, and not necessarily those of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. 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 do not spontaneously mention what you are working on when they list their top five priorities, you need to drop your project or change jobs. 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/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.

Rule #2 – Does the 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.

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. You are not pregnant. If your first major deliverable 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 it worth the funding and the effort for those three months. Otherwise you will gradually lose sponsorship.

Rule #4 – Can you communicate it all effectively

For years we communicated these three rules, using the diagram at the top of the article. Then something happened that showed a dimension was missing…

I worked with Léo Apotheker’s head of strategy on the definition of our corporate strategic initiatves 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 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 the strategy leader, 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? We believe it was because we, and our CEO in particular, were not able to communicate the work in a simple and consistent way. The story line kept changing. 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. The extreme external focus on Léo’s strategy meant the messages were compared, people got confused, and the work did not advance. Meg Whitman’ experience in politics means that she has been able to avoid this pitfall. Her messaging has been 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 could get more subtle, like how these rules change slightly, depending on whether you work mainly on cost or on growth, or perhaps the maximum number of priorities that can be communicated effectively. However, the essentials would not change, so I urge you to consider the list as complete. Feel free to disagree. I would love to learn about rule #5.


Maurice FitzGerald - Customer Experience and Strategy consultant
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About the Author


Maurice FitzGerald ecently retired from his position as VP of Customer Experience for HPE Software after a career in hardware, software and services at DEC, Compaq and HP.

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