Pick your project manager wisely

The Directing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 guide is really, really clear about one thing: ‘One of the most important decisions a newly appointed [sponsor] will make is who to appoint to manage the project.

The choice of the PM will be based on aspects of the project, such as its importance to the business, its urgency, size, duration, technical complexity, political complexity, type (construction, IT, product development etc.) and, perhaps, the clarity of the requirements.

These must be matched against the capabilities, experience and availability of candidates.’

One of the most important decisions. That’s a statement of just how important it is for your project that you get exactly the right person to lead it. Not just any person. Not the person ‘given’ to you by IT. Not a member of the accounts team because no-one else wants to do it. But the right person.

A person who knows what it means to lead, build a team, create a strong plan, manage upwards and who can find ways to get things done in order to meet the expectations of you and your steering committee.

What you don’t want to do is pick someone who isn’t any of that or who will simply tell you what you want to hear. Seth Godin, calls these people Sheepwalkers. Staff who’ve been ‘raised’ to be obedient. That’s the last thing you need on a project.

Simon Sinek in his book Start with Why says that ‘The goal is to hire people who believe what you believe.’

While Richard Sheridan in his book Joy Inc. says that you should ‘Hire humans, not polished resumes.’

And resumes is how we’ve hired project managers for the last 10 years. We’ve focused our attention on the badges that they’ve attained (PRINCE2, PMP, Agile etc.) rather than their resilience, attention to detail, ability to plan or, crucially, how they treat the people that work with them.

According to a P2 Consulting project management survey in 2015, ‘there is no correlation between the organisations that report high levels of certification and those organisations that achieve positive results’. However, this isn’t just about certificates, because as I’ve said many times, it’s important that people have these technical skills.

It’s easier to filter people out by the fact that they haven’t got a certificate than it is through more (so-called) subjective measures such as the leadership they provide, the teams they create or the stakeholders who have been delighted with the experience they’ve had.

To find the best fit – ask better questions

Some of the best project managers I’ve ever hired haven’t had a certificate or much experience. Indeed the best project manager I ever hired had previously been an executive assistant. To find these people I ensured that the information they provided as part of the recruitment process gave us the opportunity to assess their leadership potential. By this I mean they included statements about the skills they’ve applied to be the best version of themselves, the environments they have created, and how they have consistently used feedback from stakeholders to improve their performance.

As with project methods, there’s no best practice when it comes to hiring project managers, as each organisation is different. However, here are five good practices that you can adopt. These good practices may add time and cost to your recruitment process (even for internal hires), however, the goal has to be quality as only this will give you the delivery results that you’re looking for.

1. Ask for written recommendations from stakeholders – How many reference checks have actually told you something that you hadn’t already heard in the interview? It will likely be none or one. Instead, why not ask for written recommendations from project sponsors or stakeholders that you can follow up on to be reassured of their credentials before wasting more time and energy in interviews?

2. Ask them about their values – The very best project managers have a set of values that they exhibit on every piece of work they undertake. This is what drives their performance. You want to know that the values they hold match up with your expectations before they start, so get them to list them in their application.

3. Ask them about the best team they created and how they did it – Get the candidates to describe in 200 words or less the best project team and culture they ever created, how they did it and what was so good about it. Also ask them how they’d go about recreating something similar in your organisation. Forget all those ‘describe a time when…’ prescribed answers in interviews. Find out how simply they can provide information about one of the most important parts of project management before you set them loose on your project.

4. Ask them what the biggest thing they learned about themselves on their last project was – Great leaders (and the best project managers are great leaders) will constantly strive to better themselves and that means learning from mistakes every now and then. Find out how self-aware they are by asking them to share what they’ve learned about themselves on their last project. You might also want to ask them how they bounced back quickly from failure. One project manager once told me that in six years as a project manager he’d never failed. The interview ended at that point.

5. Ask them about a time when they received great feedback and how it made them feel – We all like praise and project managers are no different. The most tangible evidence of how well a project has been managed and governed is through the feedback provided by stakeholders. Asking them about feedback demonstrates that they’re able to see the good in the cultures that they create, which in turn creates teams that are a positive force for good.

Finding great project managers isn’t easy as the talent pool has been watered down by people who’ve only got a certificate and nothing else. Indeed Ernst & Young recently removed the requirement for new graduates to hold a degree and have moved to human-centred questions instead. This is a clear demonstration that relationship building and communication skills are critically important. Especially for those in customer facing roles.

There are plenty of great project managers out there and when you find one you have to sell them your vision as a sponsor. You have to be clear about the value the project can bring to the organisation and how they have a critical role in a leading a team to achieve just that.

As Ed Catmull said in his book Creativity Inc. ‘The obvious pay offs of [hiring] exceptional people are that they innovate, excel, and generally make your company – and by extension you – look good’ – and who doesn’t want that?!

* This article is an extract from my new book The Project Rots From The Head: How Senior Managers Can Stop Projects From Failing Forever. Click here to purchase a copy.


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