The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2019

The megaproject sponsor as leader: What does he/she look like and how does one choose the right person?

By Willem Louw, Jan Wium, Herman Steyn and Wim Gevers

  • June 2019
  • Tags Features, Leadership
20 minutes to read

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The key role of the project sponsor in megaprojects

The importance of the sponsor role, including its contribution to the success or failure of a project, is widely recognised in project management literature. References to the sponsor’s leadership are equally prevalent in the literature reviewed. Executive sponsors are primarily allocated to strategic projects that are complex/complicated, high-risk and very visible. A megaproject is thus entitled to a sponsor from the most senior ranks within an organisation.

This paper explains how leadership theories can be used to identify instruments that can help to assess the leadership style and attributes/traits of such a sponsor. A framework is then proposed to identify assessment instruments to evaluate the leadership style and attributes/traits of project sponsors.

But first, what is a megaproject?

A megaproject is seen as a large-scale, complex venture that typically costs US$1 billion or more, takes many years to build, involves multiple public and private stakeholders, is transformational, and influences millions of people.

A megaproject is seen as a large-scale, complex venture that typically costs US$1 billion or more, takes many years to build, involves multiple public and private stakeholders, is transformational, and influences millions of people.

The element of the complexity of projects deserves some attention in the context of executive sponsors and their leadership. This calls for extraordinary leadership capabilities and management skills. Hence, various researchers have shown that there is a positive correlation between project success and the capacity of the executive sponsor to recognise complexity as soon as possible.

Sponsorship and leadership

The authors started off by defining the terminology sponsor/sponsorship in the project context. Six key themes emerged from this review:

  • The sponsor role is at a senior level in the owner (or client) organisation.
  • The sponsor role contains substantial dimensions of leadership (as opposed to being just a management role).
  • The sponsor is responsible for creating an effective governance framework for the project.
  • The sponsor is the owner of the business case for the project.
  • The sponsor is positioned structurally on the interface between the owner and project organisations, such that decision-making and support to the project manager are enabled, particularly for issues beyond the control of the project manager.

The sponsor is positioned in a specific organisational context — i.e. between the business (permanent organisation) and the project (temporary organisation). It is primarily the upward relationship between the sponsor and the board/senior executive, and the downward relationship between the sponsor and the project manager(s) that forms the basis for the identification of the sponsor’s leadership requirements.

The authors also looked at the myriad of definitions of leadership, and at the difference between management and leadership. They concluded that there is a need and a place for both governance and decision-making in the role of the sponsor, and that it is unwise and incorrect to separate leadership and management in the role too forcefully.

A megaproject … calls for extraordinary leadership capabilities and management skills. Hence, various researchers have shown that there is a positive correlation between project success and the capacity of the executive sponsor to recognise complexity as soon as possible.

The critical relationship between the sponsor and the project manager

The relationship between the sponsor and the project manager is critical. Well-informed and insightful sponsors will realise that they are the senior partner in a relationship based on collaboration. Accordingly, the sponsor will not trespass on the typical responsibilities of the project manager in executing the project.

Some researchers have pointed out that the best project performance is achieved where there is close collaboration between the sponsor and the project manager. Appropriate communication between them is as important.

The authors found that the role of the sponsor as leader in a collaborative relationship with the project manager is addressed to a limited extent in the literature. Similarly, it seems as if very little has been written about decision-makers applying their minds before the appointment of the sponsor to the project.

The leadership effectiveness of the sponsor

Leadership effectiveness can manifest itself in multiple ways. It ultimately depends on how well the leader chooses on a daily basis between a diverse set of behaviours. These behaviours can vary from setting direction that inspires and providing emotional support, to ensuring that the required governance is in place and is adequately monitored. Integral to effective leadership are the concepts of leadership styles, interpersonal skills (specifically emotional intelligence), and attributes and traits. It is accepted that there is no best way to be a leader, and that there is no single set of attributes that will guarantee project success because the personalities of leaders and their followers and the contexts of projects vary.

The relationship between the sponsor and the project manager is critical … insightful sponsors will realise that they are the senior partner in a relationship based on collaboration.

Leadership styles selected for evaluation

The leadership styles identified below have been included based on the availability of a style assessment instrument, on project management relevance and on being current:

  • Transformational leadership: A component of the Multi-factor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) assessment instrument
  • Transactional leadership: A component of the MLQ leadership assessment instrument
  • Situational leadership: Referenced in the project management context
  • Authentic leadership: Measured with the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ)
  • Servant leadership: More contemporary literature discussion, and possible to measure
  • Charismatic leadership: A distinct component of the Leadership Behaviour Inventory (LBI) leadership assessment instrument in the South African context
  • Visionary leadership: A distinct interface with emotional intelligence
  • Complexity leadership: Potentially answering the questions of complex vs complicated, and the possibility for use in the context of a megaproject
  • Shared leadership: Addressing the phenomenon that organisations are migrating to a knowledge-driven era in which multi-cultures and multi-geographies are prevalent.

Evaluation of selected leadership styles

Vision is regarded by many researchers as the first key skill that the sponsor requires. In addition, the development of vision for the project needs to be both compelling and powerful in order to align those involved with the project.

The transformational, charismatic and visionary leadership styles are part of what is termed “new-genre” leadership theories. They incorporate concepts such as symbolic leader behaviour; being visionary; communicating inspirational messages; surfacing emotional feelings; propagating ideological and moral values; and being intellectually stimulating. Visionary leadership is pertinently influenced by the act of vision creation. However, it is not a leadership style that is accompanied by an operationalised and validated measurement instrument.

Vision is regarded by many researchers as the first key skill that the sponsor requires.

From the literature analysis on leadership, it is possible to contextualise the role of the executive sponsor in an “identification of leadership” construct in the following way:

  • Leadership within the sponsor profile is a given.
  • Assistance to the decision-makers responsible for the selection of the sponsor is available. The leadership style of the incumbent can be determined via an operationalised and validated assessment instrument.
  • There is no leadership style that on its own contains all the elements required for effective leadership.
  • Outstanding leadership relies significantly on the action of putting into words and feelings a viable and inspiring vision.
  • Identifying whether the sponsor has the ability to be visionary can be performed via the MLQ and LBI assessment instruments. This can ensure that the project remains linked to the strategy of the parent organisation.

By using the construct above as a filter for screening the nine leadership styles selected, four styles remain for further consideration: transformational, charismatic, servant and authentic leadership.

There is no leadership style that on its own contains all the elements required for effective leadership.

Authentic and servant leadership are different from transformational (and charismatic) leadership. Some researchers say that creating an inspirational vision to motivate followers is not necessarily the forte of an authentic or servant leader. The intent of reducing the number of theories is not to reduce them to an absolute minimum. Rather, it is to identify leadership styles that enable the decision-makers to assess practically the leadership style of the designated sponsor on a megaproject prior to appointment.

The authors conclude that transformational and charismatic leadership styles are the preferred styles to be tested when identifying an executive sponsor for a megaproject. Both leadership styles have measurement instruments: for transformational leadership it is the Multi-factor Leadership Questionnaire, and for charismatic leadership it is the Leadership Behaviour Inventory.

At this juncture it is important to note that there is a relationship between the emotional competencies of the leader (including, emotional expressivity) and a range of leadership theories.

Conclusion on leadership styles

No leadership style on its own contains all the elements required for effective leadership, and no single theory covers all aspects of leadership behaviour. The authors believe the same argument can be offered for executive sponsorship.

Emotional intelligence within the leadership context

A number of leadership styles acknowledge that outstanding leadership relies significantly on the action of putting into words and feelings a viable and inspiring vision. Part of “putting into words and feelings” includes the concept of emotional expressivity – a communication style that contains distinct elements of variation in voice, facial expressions, eye contact, and coherent gestures of the hands. Emotional expressivity, combined with emotional competencies such as self-awareness, emotional expressivity, self-monitoring and empathy, are important dimensions in the broader context of emotional intelligence (EI).

Three conceptual models dominate the field of emotional intelligence: the Salovey-Mayer model, the Goleman model, and the Bar-On model. The Bar-On model in particular is based on the wider construct of emotional intelligence and social intelligence (ESI), and there is a significant predictive and evidence-based relationship between EI and transformational leadership.

To determine the EI of leaders at executive management level, the skills- and trait-based EQ-i assessment instrument can be used. The results indicate that it is very important for individuals to know specifically what traits and attributes are required on different occasions to perform the executive role successfully.

What leadership attributes and traits are required of executive sponsors?

First, the authors looked at the term traits, traditionally referred to as “personality attributes”. These typically include personality attributes as well as motives, values, cognitive abilities, social and problem-solving skills and expertise.

A comprehensive list of leader attributes can be compiled from the literature and thematically grouped into the following: strategic attributes, leadership and management attributes, the ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity, motivation, communication, openness to learning, networking and decision-making.

Attributes that can be obtained from experiential learning include:

  • An understanding of business case development, and seeking input and consensus on the contents of the business case among executives in the organisation
  • An understanding of basic project management concepts, and understanding and commenting constructively at a high level on scope, risk, schedule and cost management
  • The ability to understand and respond to the results of independent reviews of the project, and to hold the team accountable for such results
  • The ability to manage self within the time commitment agreed (both short- and long-term), with time management being a significant part of self-management
  • Sufficient knowledge of the business, its operations, market and industry so as to make informed decisions.

Positional attributes include appropriate seniority, credibility and (personal and positional) power within the organisation, and the active participation of the sponsor on the project throughout the life cycle of the project.

Researchers agree that these attributes “rarely exist in one person”.

Models for leadership attributes and traits identification

Next, the authors looked at the psychometric measurement tools that can be used to identify a sponsor for a megaproject. These instruments include the Belbin Team Role Profile, the Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness Personality Inventory, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The instruments were identified after engagement with two South African companies in psychometric assessments, JvR Psychometrics and BIOSS Southern Africa.

Outstanding leadership relies significantly on the action of putting into words and feelings a viable and inspiring vision.

Instruments for the measurement of leadership attributes and traits

In addition to the two leadership style measurement instruments, the measurement instruments listed in Table 1 can help to identify the leader attributes and traits of the sponsor. Collectively, a framework is thus proposed to identify assessment instruments for the leadership style and leader attributes/traits of a project sponsor.

Table 1: Psychometric and other measurement instruments typically used in South Africa to identify leader attributes and traits

Name of instrument Purpose used for / identification of:
Cognitive Process Profile (CPP)

Developed for and distributed by Cognadev UK/SA

Capability (including identifying the way the individual thinks when dealing with new information and solving problems of varying complexity; also assessing the individual’s potential for cognitive development.)
Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i)

Developed by Bar-On and made available by JvR Psychometrics SA

Emotional Intelligence (EI) (including self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal, decision-making, stress management, and well-being)
Critical Reasoning Tests — i.e. the Critical Reasoning Test Battery (CRTB)

15 Factor Questionnaire (15FQ). Developed by Psytech International and delivered by Psytech SA and others.

Reasoning ability (including measuring critical verbal and critical numerical reasoning skills. Designed for testing of executive managers.)
Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ)

Developed by Saville et al. and distributed by JvR Psychometrics SA / Psytech

Personality (including influence, sociability, analysis, creativity, change, structure, emotions, and dynamism)
Giotto

Develop by Rust for the Psychological Corporation in the UK, and distributed in South Africa by GiottoSA

Workplace integrity behaviour (instrument developed to unravel complex nature of personal integrity as it relates to the workplace)
Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI)

Developed by Hogan Assessment Systems, Inc. and made available by JVR Psychometrics SA

Personality (including adjustment, ambition, sociability, interpersonal sensitivity, prudence, inquisitiveness and learning approach)
Belbin Team Roles, developed by Belbin Measures high-level reasoning ability (Critical Thinking Appraisal); personality (16 scales of the Cattell Personality Inventory); and outlook, via a Personal Preference Questionnaire (PPQ).

Nine clusters for team roles (company worker, chairman, shaper, plant, resource investigator, monitor-evaluator, team worker, completer-finisher).

Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness Personality Inventory Revised (NEO-PI-R) model, developed by McCrae and Costa Focus on personality (extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, (low) neuroticism, agreeableness)
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) developed by Briggs and Myers Provides indication of and measures the psychological preferences of individuals when making decisions and how they perceive the world. The MTBI identifies 16 distinctive personality types.

Four pairs of Jungian theory based alternative preferences: Introversion/Extraversion; Sensing/Intuition; Thinking/Feeling; Judging/Perception.

 Although the list of recommended leadership attributes is comprehensive, it is optimistic. It is unrealistic that one individual should possess all of these attributes. Additional effort is therefore needed to identify the essential attributes of a sponsor.

It is clear from Table 1 that there are an adequate number of measurement instruments or tools to determine the leadership attributes/traits of a leader. As an example, the Cognitive Process Profile and Critical Reasoning Test Battery instruments can be used to deal with the attributes that focus on critical thinking skills, ability to handle ambiguity, and dealing with complexity.

Both the transformational and charismatic leadership styles contain the ability to develop a compelling and powerful vision for a project.

In a related perspective, the Project Management Institute (PMI) argues that it is beneficial for executive sponsors to perform a self-evaluation of their skills (to be read in the broader context of leadership styles, attributes and traits). By inference, the authors deduce that this self-evaluation should be performed very early in the “allocation of the sponsor to the project” action. This deduction is based on the statement in PMI that the self-evaluation is even more valuable if the sponsor has a very good appreciation of sponsor requirements. This creates an opportunity for sponsors to focus on those skills in which they are strong. For skills that the sponsor lacks, the assistance of specialists should be obtained.

Conclusion

The paper confirms that the executive sponsor on a megaproject is primarily a leader who requires the ability to put into words and feelings a viable and inspiring vision, and then ensures that the project remains synchronised with the strategy of the business organisation.

Leadership theories can be used to identify instruments that can help to assess the leadership style and leader attributes and traits of a sponsor. The styles of transformational and charismatic leadership seem to be the most appropriate for megaproject sponsors. Both the transformational and charismatic leadership styles contain the ability to develop a compelling and powerful vision for a project. The measurement instruments referred to as the MLQ Form 5X and the LBI can be used to determine the leadership style of a designated sponsor.

  • Find the original journal article here: Louw, W., Wium, J., Steyn, H., & Gevers, W. (2018). The megaproject sponsor as leader. South African Journal of Industrial Engineering, 29(November), 173-187. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7166/29-3-2058
  • Willem Louw is from the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
  • Prof Jan Wium is from the Department of Civil Engineering, Stellenbosch University.
  • Prof Herman Steyn is from the Department of Engineering and Technology Management, University of Pretoria.
  • Prof Wim Gevers lectures at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
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