What to Look for When Hiring a Project Manager

Ever since my hair turned white, I’ve been having fun with jokes about how things were in the past. Since I was blond to start with, truth to tell, I’ve been doing those jokes since I was young. But one thing hasn’t changed much in the many years I’ve been a project manager.

I’m referring of course, to the quality of hiring for my specialty. Or perhaps I should say the lack of quality. Frankly, most job advertisements for this position are designed to attract the wrong person. Even worse than most job adverts, they are totally focused on the wrong things.

I’m convinced that this is the result of a lack of knowledge of what is really involved in the role.

I’m also convinced that the source of failure (and the high percentage of failure) is directly related to this lack of knowledge.

So what should project manager job ads actually be focused on?

One hint is that technical skill is not on the list! In fact, if we review the causes of project failure you’ll find that lack of technical skill is at the very bottom of the list. And it typically occurs only in projects which are high risk. This implies that they are bleeding edge projects attempting to exploit technologies which are not yet part of the mainstream.

Multiple studies have found that the top four reasons for project failure are:

1. Poor communications

2. Poor management of expectations

3. Poor management of requirements

4. Poor project planning & project management skills

Both the top issue and the second issue are communications issues. Even the third issue has a major communications element. Only the fourth issue in the list is a technical skill — and it’s not even one of the technical criteria we were referring to previously!

Part of the problem lies in the historical origins of the position. Traditionally, project manager was considered to be another word for technical lead. In other words, the most skilled technician on the project. The individual most able to supervise and mentor other technicians. However, most industries (such as construction) where project managers have a long history have broken with this progress. In these industries, a project manager may have a history in a technical job. However, the position and progression stream is unrelated to the technical work. Rather it is a managerial stream related to other project management tasks such as project estimation.

In fact, most project managers are actually functioning at a directorial level. A project team is normally made up of managers who are responsible for the work being done. While banks may refer to a manager of managers as a senior manager, most organizations refer to this level as a director. This undervaluing of the position continues throughout the management progression. A PMO director for example is typically equivalent in responsibility to a vice-president.

So what are the criteria that should be used for hiring a project manager?

A project manager should be hired on their knowledge of project management tools and techniques. After all, they are the specialist in applying these skills. Second, they need to be hired based on their management skills. This includes the ability to make trade-offs and to identify strategic priorities. Third is their communications skills. After all, this is what will cause them to succeed or fail.

Finally, when hiring someone for this role, you should look for experience dealing with similar teams. This includes both the number of people on the team, the number of levels involved and the relationships between the people. This is the true technical skill that is needed.