How to develop great project managers in any business.

Every business wants great project managers – let’s look at how best to develop them:

Here’s an interesting question.  How do you find  and develop  great project managers in business?

Firstly, what do we mean by find?  Let’s be very honest. Not everyone makes a good, let alone a great project manager.  It requires an unusual combination of skills that you simply don’t find in very many people.


So, let’s start perhaps with: “how not to”:

Too many people still find their way into project management more by accident than design.  By this we mean they are not   appointed to the role after a formal appraisal of their competencies, followed by careful coaching or mentoring etc.

They may even find themselves in the role purely due to circumstances, rather than anything else, often all of a sudden with little if any preparation. They may not even have expressed a particular interest in this challenging role, although ambitious people rarely turn down such opportunities (especially when it’s the boss who is asking, as it usually is).

The next best thing on the not to do list is don’t jump in at the deep end. For example, if we have never worked on projects, let alone managed one, becoming the project manager of anything significant is going to be extremely challenging. Like anything in life, the first time we do something, we learn lots of things we never knew before, and on projects that will include many things we did not expect to.  That’s a perfect way to describe what working on or especially  managing projects is like – but hopefully not on the first project you manage.

So let’s look at what would work:

Here’s one great way to learn (if the opportunity is open to you). Work closely alongside an experienced and successful project manager, preferably on the project itself.  Watch really closely everything they do – watch what they don’t do as well. Ask them questions. Lots of questions.  If they are a good project manager, they usually won’t mind at all.

It’s also a way to try and assess for yourself (and perhaps for others to assess too) if you have the right combination of skills that great project managers need.  It’s an unusual skill set and not one that is found in many people, so there is no shame if someone does not prove to be a good fit for this often challenging role.

Moving on then, as a business, how do we improve:

  1. the identification of candidates who might be good at this, and
  2. the development of people who have demonstrated real potential at least?

The short answer is we must develop formal selection and assessment processes that are effective at finding people who have the unusual combination of skills required, and who really want to take on this role.  One without the other is often useless.

This is not achieved by a simple interview or discussion.  It has to be far more comprehensive and rigorous.   In other words, a proper assessment process that reflects the true needs of project managers in your business. Being realistic, you should expect a fairly low success rate as well.  For every 100 people who go through such an assessment, a low number will be genuine candidates at the other end.

Mentoring and sharing of knowledge:

For those who are successful, having a multitude of ways to develop people would be perfect.  For example, offering mentoring, for those who wish to take advantage of this, would be a great idea.  Forcing everyone to do this would not.

You could offer forums, even professional (online) networks for people to develop relationships and knowledge, recognising that this is informal and works for some, but not so well for others.

You could also offer periodic development and knowledge-sharing activities, e.g. quarterly or even monthly etc, where people hopefully do something structured and productive on a face-to-face basis preferably, or at least in an interactive way.

Traditional development still has its place:

Finally, you could also offer formal training and development – this can be very valuable, but we must also recognise one thing.  Most project management training courses last 1, 2 or 5 days.  If you pick a great course it can be a very good use of your time, and you can learn a number of (hopefully very) useful things in a few days and you can accelerate your learning.  However, it takes years to develop or become a great  project manager.

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