How To Hire Great Project Managers

At a recent client meeting, the head of project delivery bemoaned the lack of quality candidates in the market, saying to me ‘but Colin, why are there so many project management muppets out there?’. I briefly got distracted thinking about the actual muppets as project managers (I’m not sure that Kermit would cut it, if I’m being honest), but then responded by saying ‘we’ve been hiring in the wrong way for years, that’s why’. 


You hire Muppets, you get Muppets

Before writing this article I went to a popular jobs website to ascertain the key hiring criteria for project managers. The need for a track record in time and cost delivery was mentioned in seven instances, the need for a track record in stakeholder satisfaction was mentioned once. For the first 10 roles I looked at the need for a project management certificate in a method was required or desired in all instances. The need to be a leader was mentioned in three.

According to the P2 project management survey at the end of last year, ‘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.

The biggest problem is that organisations have got lazy when it comes to hiring project managers.

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 cultures they create or the stakeholders who have been delighted with the experience they’ve had.

Some of the best project managers I’ve ever hired haven’t had a certificate or much experience. However, we 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 leadership skills they’ve applied to be successful, 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 will add time and cost to your recruitment process, however, the goal has to be quality as only this will give you the delivery results that you’re looking for.

The CV doesn’t work. In almost every CV I have ever read the project manager had managed a million dollar transformation project… when in reality they were the business analyst or the scheduler. You have to get beyond that and make them work hard to be considered for the role. Great project managers – or as I call them Conscious Project Leaders – will not only be able to answer the following questions easily, they will be encouraged that your organisation is looking for the right kind of person, not just any old project manager.

1. Ask for written recommendations from previous project sponsors up front

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 (not line managers, team members or friends) that you can follow up on to be reassured of their credentials before wasting more time and energy in interviews?

2. Ask for 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 authenticity (i.e. their real self). You want to know that the values they hold match up with those of the organisation before they start, so get them to list them in their application.

3. Ask them about the best culture they created and how they did it

Get the candidates to describe in 200 words or less about the best work 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’ prescribed answers in interviews. Find out how simply they can provide information about one of the most important parts of project management before you get to see the whites of their eyes.

4. Ask them the biggest thing they’ve learned about themselves

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.

5. Ask them about the best feedback they’ve received from a stakeholder 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, which tools like ProjectNPS now capture. 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. However, there are plenty of great ones out there and if you want them to join you, you have to demonstrate how unique you are and that involves taking a different approach to recruitment and paying them in line with how valued they are. Without either of these, expect the same old Muppet Show.

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