The right crew wanted



How to staff a PMO—whether it has three positions or three thousand. BY SARAH FISTER GALE


Organizations in a rush to fill an open seat in the PMO would be wise to pause and reflect. “Too often organizations decide they need a PMO, then they look around, see who’s available and put them in the role,” says Chris McLean, EMEA director of start-up and enablement for the Global Transformation Services group of HP, a PMI Global Executive Council member, in London, England.

That happenstance reshuffling can hamstring a PMO that might be a powerhouse if it were staffed with the right people in the right positions. Only 41 percent of PMOs reported that high-priority strategic initiatives at their organizations receive sufficiently skilled personnel. High-performing PMOs—those that complete 80 percent or more of projects on time, on budget and within scope—are more than twice as likely to have the right skills base, according to PMI’s Pulse of the ProfessionTM In-Depth Report: The Impact of PMOs on Strategy Implementation. While 56 percent of high-performing respondents said their staff had the right skills base, only 26 percent of low-performers agreed.

Here are the skills to look for to help staff the PMO—and power projects across the portfolio.


“Too often organizations decide they need a PMO, then they look around, see who’s available and put them in the role.”

—Chris McLean, HP, London, England



“ I didn’t set out to work in a PMO. As a young computer-engineering graduate, I started my career at a Microsoft call center. I was promoted to the technical account. Soon after, I joined one of the primary service providers in the country. I was asked to join my manager—and current mentor—to embark on a major national program that established one of the first pay-per-task deployment systems for engineers across Australia.

I realized on that project that I was comfortable being a team orchestrator, creating processes and procedures and motivating the team to tackle issues.

I became a project lead and eventually helped create a PMO at Fujitsu. It wasn’t until after that launch that I pursued the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential. I studied hard but failed the first exam. This took me by surprise: Here I was advocating project management value, creating a PMO office, yet I failed my PMP exam. I reassessed my surroundings and recognized a knowledge gap between what we perceive as project management in the day-to-day and the opportunity to excel and align our operation within wider business goals.

I started to look at project management from a completely different perspective, and I passed my PMP exam. Most importantly, my goal was to advocate for a new breed of project managers and PMOs. It’s not only about acquiring project management skills, but also recognizing that part of project management are strategic planning, business acumen and team leadership.”


Ali Kaabi, PMP, is the general manager of global practice at MSC Mobility Solutions in Sydney, Australia.


The clue is right there in the title: When selecting the PMO leader, leadership skills should reign supreme, says Alex Julian, PMP, project and program management executive consultant at IT Consulting Services for Dell, a PMI Global Executive Council member, in São Paulo, Brazil. “The PMO should be managed by someone who feels responsible not only for templates and guidelines but also for the career development of the project managers in the organization.”

A strong PMO leader doesn’t follow a one-size-fits-all model. “Every organization requires a specific type of PMO that applies a different depth and breadth of techniques, processes, tools and knowledge. Hence the PMO leader should be someone who can formulate the right concoction of PMO tool sets for that organization,” says Gabriel Joseph, PMP, PMO program manager at Roche Singapore Technical Operations, Singapore.

For example, a small company in an innovation-driven industry may want a tech-savvy project manager to run the PMO. That person would fit the corporate culture, understand the technological and structural challenges that projects face, speak the language of the IT team and have access to directors and stakeholders, Mr. McLean says.

If, however, the PMO is in a large organization in a mature and highly regulated industry, the PMO may be better served by a well-established senior professional who has both program management experience and a commercial or business and finance background.

The best leader will also be determined by where the PMO sits within the organization, says Keric Shanahan, director of global PMO for Experis, a Man-Power Group company in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. “Whether the PMO is at a more strategic or a tactical level will dictate what skill set you need,” he says.

Lower-level PMOs require leaders who are tactical and can deal with the minutiae of daily project delivery, while strategic PMOs need leaders with greater authority and accountability. “PMO leaders without the clout or authority will see their efforts get stalled,” he says. “This is particularly essential at the strategic level where projects may not have the immediate impact that tactical ones do.”


High-priority strategic initiatives at only 41 percent of PMOs normally receive sufficiently skilled personnel … … while just 31 percent receive the right number of staff to carry out projects.

Source: PMI’s Pulse of the ProfessionTM In-Depth Report: The Impact of PMOs on Strategy Implementation



“If you have to do everything with a small staff, you want people who have a mash-up of a lot of skills and experiences.”

—Dan Furlong, PMP, the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina, USA


“It’s important to have people in your PMO who are honest about problems and won’t sugarcoat issues.”

—Rebecca Porterfield, Networked Insights, Chicago, Illinois, USA

The project management maturity of the organization as a whole also impacts the service mix of the PMO and the type of leadership required of the PMO head. PMOs at organizations with higher maturity are more likely to focus on talent management, benefits realization tracking, strategic alignment and risk management than PMOs operating within less-mature organizations, according to PMI’s Pulse of the ProfessionTM In-Depth Report: The Impact of PMOs on Strategy Implementation.

Diverse Backgrounds

All PMO team members should have project management training and certification. “Certification shows they are serious about the profession,” says Dan Furlong, PMP, PMO lead at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina, USA. It also ensures they will understand the fundamental project management skills needed to help project owners build schedules, plan tasks, define business cases and create templates to support project management processes.

Beyond training, a PMO staffer needs experience actually running projects—the more diverse, the better. “If you have a team of 20 staff, then you can afford to choose people with specific skills in writing reports, facilitating meetings or running training sessions,” Mr. Furlong says. “If you have to do everything with a small staff, you want people who have a mash-up of a lot of skills and experiences.”

Mr. Shanahan encourages PMO leaders to also look for staff members who have knowledge of multiple industries. “Most likely they can pick up new concepts quickly and learn enough about new industries to be effective,” he says.



Many roads lead to PMO leadership. As you build your career as a project manager, seek out opportunities to diversify your experiences, keeping your long-term goals in mind, says Chris McLean, HP, London, England. “You want to have multiple skills and experiences that align with where your market is going.”

Along with handling different kinds of projects, look for chances to work in different geographies, under different leadership, and at different stages of longer projects and programs.

“Programs change across their life cycle, and different skill sets are required at different phases,” Mr. McLean says. For example, participating at the start of a complex program will offer an opportunity to dive deep into planning and risk management, while later phases may provide experiences in team management, finance, procurement or testing. “Each phase offers unique opportunities to expand your skill set,” he says.

Volunteering to work in a PMO, even as a low-level staffer, can also help broaden your skills and demonstrate your commitment to the profession, says Dan Furlong, PMP, a PMO lead at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina, USA. On his PMO staff, Mr. Furlong has three paid and two unpaid interns who are graduate students interested in gaining project management experience in the health care sector. “It’s a good way for them to pick up experience early in their career, and it will look good on their résumés,” he says.

And don’t avoid troubled projects, even if it means taking on someone else’s problems, says Keric Shanahan, director of global PMO for Experis, a ManPower Group company in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. “Having some ‘mileage under the hood’ on successful as well as unsuccessful projects is extremely beneficial, as one learns quite a bit from each that is easily transferable to new projects,” he says.

Lastly, take advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate your communication skills. “A PMO director is like a bridge builder, with multiple bridges under construction at any given time,” Mr. Shanahan says. “The power of persuasion definitely helps to connect the bridges across the stakeholders—and if the PMO director cannot bring all the pieces together, who can?”

Diverse backgrounds and experience levels make it easier to dole out responsibilities—and keep staff members engaged and invested. While large, complicated projects may overwhelm junior project managers, veteran project management practitioners might crave that type of challenge. “In terms of experience, hiring for roles at different levels is of the utmost importance,” says Samuel Kinde, PMP, a PMO manager at Nokia Solutions and Networks, Antwerp, Belgium. “A junior staffer with focus and data skills serves an entirely different need than a more senior PMO staff member who might be asked to question processes and improve them.”

Regardless of the number of years they have under their belts, every PMO staffer should have one particular experience in common: They must have failed at least once, says Rebecca Porterfield, project management director at Networked Insights, a big-data marketing analytics company in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

“Asking someone about a time they failed is a key interview question for staffing the PMO,” she says. “If you can’t tell me how you failed and what you learned from it, you are either terrible at self-reflection or you are lying.”

A staffer’s self-assessment of failure provides a great way to identify potential candidates. “It’s important to have people in your PMO who are honest about problems and won’t sugarcoat issues,” Ms. Porter-field says. “If risks are happening, you want people who will address them so they can figure out what can be done to remove them.”

Problem-Solving Chops

“Risk management experience is key for a successful PMO, yet organizations can never find enough experienced people in this area,” says Mr. McLean.

When considering a candidate’s risk management skills, look for an ability to solve problems, adds Emilio Buzzi, PMP, planning and strategic control IT leader at Arcor SAIC, Buenos Aires, Argentina. “To identify PMO staffers who can bring that problem-solving value to the organization, look at their experience,” he says. “Solving problems timely and effectively means being able to sift the relevant from the irrelevant information and then come up with solutions that will solve the problem at its core, not merely on the surface.”




Trust Within the Ranks

“ The biggest misconception of PMOs is that we’re here to get in the way, turn people in and get them in trouble. I’ve quite often found that my first few weeks on any role are spent convincing the project managers that I’m there to help and am demonstrating my value for them.

Yes, I’m here to make sure the project’s aligning with governance. But at the same time, I can help you. I can teach you something that you may not know. I can show you something or talk about what you need in terms of support. Many times, I’ve done some backroom deals where I’ll go, ‘Look, I’ll do some support work for you, something a PMO wouldn’t normally do. I’ll help you do that just this time, as long as you help me reach what I have to do.’ It’s about becoming a confidante with the project managers. It’s being someone they can talk to, maybe even let them vent a little and keep it under your hat—unless we’re talking major, major issues. PMOs are here to police, but if you need help and there’s an issue that needs to be tackled, I’m here to help you tackle it.”


James Gradisher, PMP, is the PMO manager of the U.K. Ministry of Defense, West Sussex, England.



“You want people who can come up with seven different ways to solve that problem and know the right solution to pick.”

—Dan Furlong, PMP

PMO staffers’ ability to get to the heart of a problem and devise a disaster-recovery plan is invaluable, Mr. Julian says: “It will make the PMO stronger because they know how to facilitate getting things back on track.”

That kind of problem-solving skill usually only comes from experience, Mr. Furlong says. “You may know everything about building Gantt charts or timelines, but until you run a few troubled projects, you won’t know how to adjust a project when problems occur.” In his organization, the PMO only gets called in to manage projects that no one else wants. “They tend to be really complex and nasty, and they always have major problems that need to be fixed,” he says. “You want people who can come up with seven different ways to solve that problem and know the right solution to pick.”

Straight-Talking Skills

PMO staffers have to talk the talk: They must have strong communication skills, and they have to be willing to say the things that need to be said—even if no one wants to hear them. “No one here adores me, but they listen to me,” Mr. Furlong says.

Mr. Furlong attributes that respect to his frankness with executive stakeholders about project problems and his readiness to offer counsel on how to over come those setbacks. “I’m honest with the CIO, and I’m willing to punch holes in project plans if they aren’t strong enough.”

To facilitate that sort of trust-building dialogue, the PMO team has to be fluent in both strategic language for the leadership team and the technical task-specific language of project teams.

On her PMO team, Tara McLaren, head of the PMO for markets and international banking at the Royal Bank of Scotland, a PMI Global Executive Council member, London, England, has three business analysts who were all chosen in part for their ability to communicate well in both environments. “They work directly with the project and program managers, but they also attend every steering committee meeting,” she says. “They know how to take the technical jargon project managers give them and strip it down for the executives.” They’re also whizzes at building presentations that quickly and effectively educate executives on project progress.

Finally, PMO staffers should have the ability to influence people, because they will regularly need others to follow their advice—even if they have no authority over those people, says Mr. Furlong.

Whether they’re trying to help a project team in another business unit regain control of a failing project or persuade an executive to adapt a project plan to accomplish new goals, PMO team members need the confidence, charisma and leadership skills to win people over, Mr. Furlong says. “If you can influence people, you can more successfully run a PMO.” PM


“Solving problems timely and effectively means being able to sift the relevant from the irrelevant information and then come up with solutions that will solve the problem at its core, not merely on the surface.”

—Emilio Buzzi, PMP, Arcor SAIC, Buenos Aires, Argentina



An organization can’t correctly staff this office without first determining the PMO’s role. “Before you think about how to staff the PMO, you have to consider the operational context,” says Chris McLean, HP, London, England. For instance, a PMO that primarily provides project management training and guidance will require a different staff than one that oversees project and program delivery.

To identify who can best deliver, Mr. McLean advises organizations to answer a series of questions:

  • What is the PMO going to do?
  • What problems is it trying to solve?
  • What role will it play in helping the organization achieve its strategic goals?
  • What kinds of projects, programs or portfolios will it oversee?
  • Who will its leaders report to?
  • What kinds of professionals will it oversee?

The answers to these questions will indicate the skill sets a PMO team needs.

Once the PMO’s operational context is established, it’s time to think about size. It may be tempting to think that a massive organization requires a massive PMO or that every opening in the PMO needs to be filled. But as any Goliath can tell you, bigger isn’t always better, stronger or more effective.

Case in point: “We are a lean, mean PMO,” says Dan Furlong, PMP, PMO lead at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

In 2003, MUSC started the PMO, which provides oversight for all technology projects, with Mr. Furlong and just one other project manager on his team. Initially, Mr. Furlong planned to expand the office by pulling all of the organization’s technology project managers out of their teams and into the PMO. Ten years later, his PMO comprises only himself, one project manager, two project specialists and five part-time interns.

“We discovered early on that pulling project managers out of their business units was a great way to make enemies and impact customer service,” Mr. Furlong explains. Business unit leaders made it clear they did not want to give up prized team members. And Mr. Furlong realized that, if they did, the project managers would lose the opportunity to engage regularly with their customers. So he left them alone.

That’s not to say PMOs should all be tiny. Some organizations have enterprise-wide PMOs that oversee hundreds of project management teams. But regardless of the reporting structure, PMO leaders need to work with the business units to ensure that project managers will have access to the training, support and guidance they need from the PMO.




Related Content

  • PM Network

    Cognitive Care member content open

    Artificial intelligence (AI) might be just what the doctor ordered. Healthcare organizations are collaborating with scientists and tech companies to launch R&D and pilot projects. The goal is to…

  • PM Network

    Ties that Bind member content open

    By Fister Gale, Sarah Health and safety is a goal for all communities. And this year's PMI® Award for Project Excellence winners helped deliver new life in unique ways. One improved training for emergency room doctors.…

  • PM Network

    Making The Cut member content open

    By Mustafa, Abid Sometimes there's no way around it: The executive project management office (EPMO) has to recommend to the C-suite a certain number of projects to kill. These recommendations might be based on…

  • PM Network

    What went wrong? member content open

    By Richardson, Derrick A. Organizations that develop complex technologies face unique challenges that project management can help solve. Smaller tech companies, including startups, are beginning to make use of project…

  • PM Network

    No simple matter member content open

    By Burba, Donovan Organizational complexity builds an intricate web of dependencies that can snare even the most experienced project leader. It introduces uncertainty and adds layers of risk that slow progress and…