When it comes to executive sponsors, timing is everything.

In this post, I’ll cover what an executive sponsor is and why the best new products can wait until the last possible moment to engage with leadership.

Before I begin, it should be noted that for years I’ve steered many ships across organizational oceans while gathering feedback, analyzing, designing, implementing and socializing new products. That experience is the primary influence of the following post.

Executive sponsors are vital to any new product discovery. When successful, they will aid in the following:

  • They will contribute to the outcome of your discovery with tactical and leadership intelligence
  • They will provide support for when you are asked why you are dedicating time to this new effort
  • They will socialize your product to other necessary teams or leaders you may not be privy to
  • They will give you resources needed to successfully launch the minimum <insert adjective here> (viable, lovable, marketable, etc.) version of your product

Some expect sponsorship to be a requirement prior to the kick-off of any new product work. I believe this is an avoidable mistake. Let’s dig deeper on when, in your discovery journey, an executive sponsor is best suited to help in the success of your product.

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Too early

Let’s assume I have a great product idea grounded in user data and the first thing I do is go to an executive for support. She / he will probably say “keep going”. Does that really do me any good in the early stages of product discovery? Not really.

Too late

On the flip side, imagine I go all-in on an idea, build a full fledge product, tested with real users and begin rolling out to large markets without engaging leadership. Regardless of your product’s success, you’ll probably quickly get a knock on your door from leadership asking why they weren't aware of this level of effort. Does that do you and your team any good? Also no.

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Just right

The short answer? Right before it’s too late :). Jokes aside, your product should: (a) be grounded in data that proves a pain point exists, (b) solve that problem with a research-validated solution, (c) align with organizational objectives / goals and bonus points if it (d) creates a new way of thinking amongst colleagues or an entirely new way to conduct business.

Now, because your product effectively solves a pain point for users, you should be able to engage with partners and colleagues because they too will be aware of this pain point. If they’re not, a quick dose of empathy in regards to their interests and your user will have them offering their own resources to help your work. And that engagement doesn’t require an executive to initiate.

Moreover, because your product aligns to goals of your organization and (presumably) positive metrics, it makes it easy to request the help and insight from others. If a colleague’s response focuses on them doing it later (i.e.,”This is my responsibility, not yours.”), quickly offer to partner. Suggest that you should continue with your effort knowing that, when they or their roadmap is ready, you’ll be halfway across the ocean. Not only does this engagement NOT require a leader to coordinate, the planning and collaboration is what leaders want.

Now what?

About the time you start asking yourself this question is the time you may need to ping your local executive sponsor. At this point, you should have tapped in to all necessary partners and built a minimum product that can be tested (possibly at scale). Simply put, the ocean tides left to maneuver are too difficult for you can handle. You need more resources, more money or simply a leader who will navigate from the crow’s nest and provide the cover you need.

Before concluding, I’ll reemphasize a crucial point. As you engage with colleagues and partners across your organization, it’s very important to lead the conversation with empathy and vulnerability. Express that you don’t have everything figured out (because you don’t and shouldn’t) and that to achieve something great, their insight and (potential) partnership is important.

In conclusion

You should be able to do a LOT before engaging with a sponsor. Test, design, iterate, partner and repeat. Only when you can’t go any farther (and your solution still proves to be viable) should you seek an executive sponsor.


From the author

I’ve never walked away from a discussion or planning session feeling good about myself if all I did was talk about what I believed to be true. Similarly, I didn’t write this post, my first on Medium, believing I know everything about the subject matter above. Instead, I want all involved to learn, including myself. So please comment and share feedback on this post, write me on Twitter or send me an email, billyspringer@gmail.com.

Interested in reading about products I’ve ideated (that don’t yet need an executive sponsor ;)? Check out my blog at billyspringer.com.