Choosing the right people to be Project Managers

How do you select the right people to be project managers?

Most people who end up being a project manager do so more through circumstances rather than by choice.  Here’s an example:  I was talking to a manager in a large-scale business only weeks ago, who had just been appointed the project manager of a major change the business wants and needs.  We have an established relationship with this firm, which is why the newly appointed ‘PM’ got in touch with us.  My early questions included:

  1. “How many projects roughly have you managed before”, and
  2. “How did you get to become the manager of this project”.

The answer to the first question was “zero” – nil. The answer to the second question was very revealing – they said “I was the last person in the room (of a given grade) at the end of a very long meeting last Thursday”.  The project is an internal Business project. Nevertheless, it is large, complex and of key importance to the business.  The business employs thousands of people in the UK and is part of a Global Enterprise.

Some people may be very surprised to read the above.  Given what we do and the number of firms we interact with every year, we were not.  There are some organisations that have or are developing formalised selection processes for project managers.  However, there are still many where the level of formality around selection drops, and when it comes to internal business projects, it can disappear completely – regardless of their scale, size, importance and complexity.

Mature project-based businesses will usually at least look for track record and experience when appointing project managers.  However, organisations whose core business is not delivering projects will often appoint people with far less care (or we could say ‘science’) in the selection and appointment process.

There is also another key question.  It is fairly well accepted now that being a successful project manager requires a combination of skills, often referred to as hard and soft skills. It is also true, that few people in business (or indeed life) excel at both.

So, if we are choosing project managers, what should we do?

Firstly, you should understand the management skills that are key to delivering your projects. Then, we should devise or find ways of formally assessing candidates around their suitability for the role, by being able to demonstrate these skills.  Being a project manager of anything non-trivial can be very challenging.  This should be explained in crystal clear terms to all candidates, using examples of the types of situations that project managers may face, making the personal responsibilities of project managers completely clear in each case.

More importantly, it can have a very positive impact on the success of your projects.

What if we already have existing project managers?

The same process and principles can still apply.  Even if you already have say 50 project managers, there can be real benefits from running an assessment of their skills and key competencies.  This can be hugely useful when allocating project managers to projects, and can also form the basis of their own development plans.

So how might an assessment work?

Assessments can take many forms.  The best include a combination of evidence (of application of key skills), together with a demonstration of the softer skills that are required.  Carefully crafted exercises and group sessions can be very insightful into an individual’s attitudes and skills in critical areas of project management.

Finally, if we do the above some of the above at least, we should avoid asking people to take responsibility for something they are very poorly prepared to do, or being honest, something they are not suited to.  This can help us avoid every costly mistakes in business, around projects.

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