Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Interview With Carole Ackermann (CEO, Diamond Scull) on Project Sponsorship

Interview With Carole Ackermann (CEO, Diamond Scull) on Project Sponsorship
For the last decade I have dedicated myself to helping C-level executives recovering troubled projects. If there's one thing I've learned in the process, it's that executive project support is priceless.

Engaged executive sponsors help organizations to bridge the communication gap between influencers and implementers, thereby increasing collaboration and support, boosting project success rates, and reducing collective risk.

Carole Ackermann is an example of such an engaged project sponsor. I met Carole for the first time at an event held by Business Angels Switzerland; at the time, Carole was the club's president. She is heavily involved in the startup scene of Switzerland, is an experienced corporate board member, and CEO and co-owner of Diamond Scull.

«Diamond Scull» is the leading rowing event of the «Henley Royal Regatta» on the river Thames. It’s where the best scullers meet to race. ― the spirit of going for the best especially under harsh conditions is what guides Carole.
I asked Carole for her insights on project sponsorship because of this highly interesting mix of experiences.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Passion for innovation — that's what drives me. I hold a PhD in business administration and have more than 20 years of leadership experience in SMEs and large organizations. I invest in startup companies, and I support various companies such as Allianz, BKW, BVZ Holding and Plaston as a non-executive board member.

Participating in a management buy-out and building up businesses led me to my current engagements as a member of the board of be-advanced, as a jury/investment committee member of different startup initiatives, and as a senior lecturer at the University of St. Gallen and other universities.

Can you tell us something about your experience as a project sponsor?

Through all of my career I have been sponsoring different projects. I started as a consultant with Arthur Anderson, where I launched the EMEA Branding initiative together with colleagues from the UK. The core team consisted of eight people involving all regional heads.

During my time at Saurer and Ionbond I often brought up special topics worth digging into; many times, this led to projects with several members. Depending on the project, the budget started from several thousand dollars to millions of dollars, and the duration was from several weeks up to two years.

Today I am also engaged in projects with the aim to increase the number of female entrepreneurs. I support talented women in their careers and partly secure the financing of their startups.

What do you think is the single most effective thing a project sponsor can do to positively influence a project?

There are a number of highly effective things a sponsor can do.

> Be clear about what is to be achieve and what success means
> Involve the right people
> Show passion for the project
> Trust people and give them decision power

But if I had to pick only one, it would be to make sure that the right people are in charge and strengthen their confidence in themselves.

What do you think is the single most effective thing a project sponsor can do to negatively influence a project?

Here I find it also hard to limit myself to one.

> Distributing information selectively
> No skin in the game, i.e., not taking responsibility
> Withdrawing important resources mid-project
> No milestones, organization, and success criteria

But the one thing that guarantees a negative influence on the whole project and each of its members is to sponsor a project without believing in it. People will notice and feel this.

When you don’t care and don't believe in it, why should they?

What was your biggest success as a project sponsor, and why?

Leading without power and budget. During a vacation in China i realized how big this market is and saw new business opportunities for the company I worked for. When I pitched the idea to my boss he said, “Go for it, but you will have a very limited budget." So, I commuted intensively to China, and using just a very small budget of the marketing division, I evolved the idea to a project that resulted in a substantial business with three production sites.

I was by myself far away from home, started without a budget, had very limited China experience, and finally created a strong result. This was a very satisfying and empowering experience.

What was your biggest challenge as a project sponsor?

The post-merger integration of marketing departments from six previously independent business units.

As Head of Corporate Marketing I was responsible for aligning all the marketing people of these business units. But none of them asked for this integration or for alignment. They all wanted to stay independent, and the last thing on their agenda was an integrated marketing program.

What was your biggest failure as a project sponsor, and why?

As a longtime investor and sponsor of a startup in ophthalmology I recognized too late that the first technology was not attractive enough for the market, and the second technology could principally not work.

I took decisions without fully understanding the technology and depended on blind trust in our “specialists” and “academic advisors.” Since that experience I recognized how important it is for a sponsor to have a judgement about the key matters of a project or startup.

How do you determine a project is really necessary and valuable?

As a project sponsor you need to see a purpose in the project; it must have a reasonable chance to be doable; and, if successful, it must have an impact.

This can be something that increases the value of a company or a person or does something good for the society. Today organizations are expected to create more than profits. Moreover, they are expected to focus on creating positive values for clients, employees, and society. Activities that create societal value are more likely to remain profitable in the long run.

The Integrated Profit & Loss (IP&L) approach provides all you need to report and steer your total value creation objectively and transparently. IP&L enables a better understanding of value creation per capital and stakeholder. In the IP&L, value is distributed across different stakeholders. Examples of stakeholders are investors, clients, employees, suppliers, governments, local communities, and society as a whole.

As a board member I address the importance of Corporate Social Responsibility for a sustainable business and I hope more and more organizations start seriously addressing challenges such as decarbonizing the business to name one.

How do you recognize your project is in trouble?

If people involved in the project lose faith and fun, you know you are in trouble. And you will only notice this if you spend time with these people and start listening in order to understand. This way, you will notice (potential) issues before they appear on your status dashboards.

What advice would you give to a first-time project sponsor?

There are two types of project sponsorship: casino sponsoring and project sponsoring. The second is more promising. You should only sponsor a project if you are experienced with projects and if you understand its content. Otherwise it’s just gambling.

There are very few projects you can do alone. One of the most basic success factors is to be able to work in teams or even better to love it. If you do not want to do everything by yourself, you have to win their heads, their hearts, and their hands — also known as the 3 Hs.

I am convinced that the more you know about how to work with people, how to involve people, how to lead people, how to listen to people, and how to support people, the more successful you become as a project sponsor. If you are not born with these qualities, you can cultivate them. Learn how to work with people, gain experience, and reflect on what was good and what could be done better.

What are you looking for when selecting a project manager for your project?

The fundamental task of a project manager is to deliver a project on time and at cost. So he definitely needs a good understanding of project management and must understand or at least have a judgment on the substance of the project.

But this is not enough. Project managers should also have experience and interest in the project and enough emotional intelligence to lead people. Finally, they should be passionate about the project.

What are you looking for when selecting a steering committee member for your project?

Very simple. I'm looking for E, N and K — experience, network and knowledge in a specific field. The same holds for strategic advisors.

What is/are your most important lesson(s) learned as a project sponsor?

Everything is about people. It’s about passion, persistence, knowledge and teamwork.

This is the second in a series of interviews with executive project sponsors. The interviews will be part of my upcoming book “The Art of Project Sponsorship.”

The first interview was with Urs Monstein (COO, VP Bank).

To read more about the book just click on the image.

The Art of Project Sponsorship

Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2019 by Henrico Dolfing