Project Management Institute

Closer than you think




My company tends to go outside to hire managers for big projects, and it has me wondering: Why do companies do this? Why should I have to leave to get ahead? Otherwise, I really like this company.


In my previous column (“The Human Touch,” March), I addressed the travails of a project team suffering at the hands of a solely task-oriented leader. He had taken steps that minimized team member interaction, leaving his people feeling isolated and vulnerable. It seemed an unfortunate but hardly unique case, and I never intended to return to it.

Until about a month ago, that is.

That's when the whole project exploded amid spectacular fireworks and acrimony, leaving the team leaderless and the leader jobless.

The reasons for this catastrophe are many and varied, but the root cause was put in place two years ago, when the project manager was hired from outside the organization. At the time, recruiting him seemed like a coup. Yet everyone realizes now that despite a stellar résumé and great interviewing skills, he was the wrong man for the job, and the company never really knew him all that well.

Something Shiny and New

Organizations often have an abiding belief in the benefits of hiring from outside. I've heard all sorts of catchy phrases to describe the advantages of external candidates: greater diversity, fresh perspective, world-class experience. And it's true that we can point to plenty of outside-hire success stories.


Yet I remain unconvinced that this is the way to go.


One of the great books on management was written 40 years ago by Robert Townsend, former CEO of Avis Renta-Car. In Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits [Robert Townsend, 1970], he lays out 97 blurbs of wisdom that still hold up pretty well today.

Let me refer you to number 71. You might argue with his 50 percent number—even I would—and there's a glibness to his words, but his underlying theme is clear: “I use the rule of 50 percent,” he writes. “Try to find somebody inside the company with a record of success … and with an appetite for the job. If he [or she—remember, Mr. Townsend was writing four decades ago] looks like 50 percent of what you need, give him the job. In six months, he'll have grown the other 50 percent and everybody will be satisfied.”

imgWe persuade ourselves that our internal candidates are actually feckless balls of idiosyncratic weaknesses and that a shiny outside hire suffers from none of those maladies.

Companies have all sorts of reasons for seeking outside talent: inadequate succession planning, a lack of executive development or just being fortunate enough to win an unexpected contract. But often it's due to the most pernicious reason of all: We persuade ourselves that our internal candidates are actually feckless balls of idiosyncratic weaknesses and that a shiny outside hire suffers from none of those maladies.

This is, of course, patent nonsense. An external candidate is not miraculously free of foibles: Companies just don't know what they are yet. All too often, recruiters allow themselves to transform this ignorance into the candidate's strength.

Here are five reasons companies should hire their project managers from the inside:

  1. 1. They won't need to go through a lengthy period of learning your organization's ways, policies and procedures—even your terminology and acronyms.
  2. 2. You know them, and not the spiffed-up, just-say-anything-to-wow-you-at-the-interview version. You've seen your internal candidates day in and day out, possibly for years. You've seen them handle success and failure, on their very best days and their absolute worst. You know their strengths and you know their weaknesses. You will not be surprised.
  3. 3. They know you. Contrary to what you may be thinking, you're not always perfect, and good boss-subordinate chemistry runs both ways. The internal candidate knows you and your organization for what it really is and thus won't be wracked with disappointment and remorse when the honeymoon period ends.
  4. 4. An internal promotion will serve as an incentive for all your junior people. Promote the right inside candidate, and your message is clear: You can succeed here. You don't have to leave to get ahead.
  5. 5. You strengthen your organizational culture and build loyalty. There's a reason that great firms like Procter & Gamble hire almost totally from within. Terrific organizations have strong cultures, and it takes time—years, even decades—to inculcate your organizational values.

In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't [HarperCollins, 2001], Jim Collins persuasively shows that great companies rely overwhelmingly on inside hires for their top leadership positions. There's no reason that project management should be any different. PM

Bud Baker, PhD, is a professor of management at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Please send questions for Ask PM Network to

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