Upon further review
If organizations want results, they must give project managers more valuable performance reviews.
BY MATT SCHUR
ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MURPHY
a bad rap:
They're seen as pointless and ineffective paperwork. In truth, they're frequently skipped, and when they do happen, both sides often find it difficult to be honest.
The review process needs to be overhauled, according to more than half the organizations polled by the Society for Human Resource Management in a 2013 report. One-fourth of employees say they've never even had a performance review, according to a 2013 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Skipping reviews altogether may seem tempting at first, but experts say doing so is a huge misstep that can result in career stagnation and even the loss of top talent.
Whether you're a project management office leader with a dozen project managers to review or a program manager with only one direct report, here's how to squeeze every last bit of value out of this annual opportunity.
“Good talent is hard to find and harder to keep, so talent retention should be the top priority of any company.”
—David Shaw, PMP, Saudi Aramco, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
Default Review: High praise without a call to action
Make-It-Better Move: Discuss a clear career path forward
She consistently excels at scope, schedule and budget. She juggles multiple projects with ease. She's a strong communicator and a skilled manager of her team.
Your first instinct might be to pat this project manager on the back and move on to the next review. But without raising the bar on her performance, you'd be doing her—and the organization—a disservice.
“Good talent is hard to find and harder to keep, so talent retention should be the top priority of any company,” says David Shaw, PMP, management development adviser for Saudi Aramco, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. “I have seen many top performers leave because they weren't challenged enough or felt that they were being overlooked for senior company spots because they were seen as ‘just project managers.’ Strong performers serve as role models and enhance the company's reputation, as well as bring in revenue.”
To be sure, moving a rock-star performer into a position of higher authority with more management responsibility can sometimes lead to a period of instability. But in the end, it's a worthwhile move.
“Project managers by design can be controlling,” says Marta Padilla Montoliu, PMP, people, performance and portfolio manager for integrated supply and trading at BP, a PMI Global Executive Council member, London, England. “But to be exceptional and move to a larger environment, you have to be able to take risks. You can't be afraid of failure.”
One of the best project managers Ms. Padilla Montoliu ever oversaw was not just exceptional by traditional measures, but also showed an aptitude for understanding how projects fit into the larger scheme of the organization. When she was ready for a larger role, Ms. Padilla Montoliu was up-front about the potentially rocky transition.
But Ms. Padilla Montoliu also set the project manager up with necessary support: soft skills training to improve communication with co-workers, a senior mentorship program and workflow training intended to target her particular focus area.
“I said to her, ‘Don't be afraid, we will support you,’” Ms. Padilla Montoliu says. ‘“We'll give you as much training as you need and adjust expectations accordingly.”'
It worked; the manager gained greater perspective from those resources and has since taken on even more project responsibility.
“I strongly believe that developing people so they move on to bigger and better things is one of the most important things to do as a manager of people,” says Guy Behanna, PMP, project manager of strategic initiatives at Dick's Sporting Goods, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
If moving strong performers into jobs with more responsibility isn't an option, keep them engaged in their current posts by playing to their interests, says Mr. Shaw. “If you get people on projects they're passionate about, they will go that extra mile,” he says. “People will have epiphanies at 2 a.m. and email you about them.”
“Developing people so they move on to bigger and better things is one of the most important things to do as a manager of people.”
—Guy Behanna, PMP, Dick's Sporting Goods, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
REVIEWING SO-SO TALENT
Default Review: Nitpick all the little shortcomings
Make-It-Better Move: Hone the underlying skills gap
For every solid project delivered on time and within budget, there's a near-miss lurking in this project manager's past—the schedule that almost fell behind, the budget that nearly got blown. He seems to have the chops to get the job done most of the time, but you want to elevate his performance from so-so to exceptional.
For most mediocre performers, “the hybrid approach of mentoring, coaching and classes is most effective.”
—Stephanie Wolters, PMI-ACP, PMP, TMX Finance, Irving, Texas, USA
A blanket plan to rehabilitate mediocre project managers will be an exercise in futility, Mr. Behanna says. That's because each individual's performance gap is as unique as his fingerprints.
“You have to be invested enough in the project manager to find the root cause,” he says. Surveying poor project outcomes won't go deep enough. Instead, take a look at whether the budget overage results from a lack of risk management experience. Could the timing goof be explained in part by lack of training in scheduling tools? Does scope creep on that last project reveal a string of communication missteps?
This level of sleuthing will take more time than a simple face-to-face meeting and will typically involve confidential discussions with other members of the team. That time investment is necessary to elevate a review from rote to effective, says Mr. Behanna. He recommends a series of one-on-one meetings with the project manager to get a better read on experience, ambition and career goals. In addition, speaking with fellow team members, project sponsors and project managers can paint a fuller portrait of the individual's strengths and weaknesses. Sitting in on meetings the project manager runs offers a great opportunity to assess leadership skills.
Using these techniques to identify the skills gaps underlying shoddy work allows you to craft a specific training program to counteract recurring problems. The components might include assigning a mentor to review project details as they unfold, offering formal training on risk management tools, or creating a relaxed lunch-and-learn series centering on presentation skills.
For most mediocre performers, “the hybrid approach of mentoring, coaching and classes is most effective,” says Stephanie Wolters, PMI-ACP, PMP, senior project manager—store systems, TMX Finance, Irving, Texas, USA.
After the training begins, it's important to follow up with progress reports. “You need to do frequent check-ins,” Mr. Behanna says. “‘Hey, you went to that class. What did you learn? What did you like? What didn't you like?’” He suggests devoting at least 30 minutes a month to meeting with each project manager about goals—and the progress made in achieving them.
REVIEWING TROUBLE CASES
Default Review: Piling on criticism
Make-It-Better Move: Get the project manager personally invested
Something's always awry. The team seems bogged down and disengaged, and key deliverables are woefully off track. Rather than seek out assistance, he waits until his project needs serious rescuing. Frustrating as frequent missteps may be, recognize that everyone has competencies as well—the trick is to magnify them.
“You have to approach bad performers with care, not with a hammer,” Mr. Shaw says.
It's still necessary to hold frank and honest conversations with a lagging manager about skill gaps—weekly, if the team member is struggling, he says. But those meetings should emphasize that the project manager is a valued resource and the organization will be pleased with incremental improvement.
“You have to approach bad performers with care, not with a hammer.”
—David Shaw, PMP
Regular meetings may also reveal that the project manager is less experienced or qualified than previously thought, and would benefit from scaling back with a lesser role on the project. Such discoveries are the first steps in righting a troubled ship.
Dharam Singh, PMP, PgMP, has his project managers identify their own key performance indicators.
“I believe if the KPIs, goals and objectives are driven by my project managers, they will be more passionate and committed,” says Mr. Singh, managing director for VCare Project Management in Sydney, Australia.
He assigns them research on specific improvement areas and then helps recognize what level they want to reach. Together they craft a strategy for getting there. Mr. Singh also stresses the importance of understanding the organization's strategy and its relationship with their projects.
“If they fail, what's the real impact?” Mr. Singh says. “If they succeed, what's the real achievement of the organization?”
He then uses a method he calls “The Care Factor,” which prompts the manager to take ownership of his failures—and triumphs—on a particular project.
Alas, despite the multitude of meetings, investment of time and other resources such as specialized training, sometimes people just don't improve.
When a project manager teeters on the brink of termination, Mr. Shaw uses a method inspired by former General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch. He starts by reviewing the person's last two performance evaluations to see if there's a pattern of unsuccessful work. Then he looks at previous projects.
During an open and honest conversation, Mr. Shaw highlights where the project manager's work falls on a performance scale and where it should be. Then he gives the individual an ultimatum: Improve within a year or part ways.
The method is not as draconian as it seems on the surface, he says. Many people appreciate the frank conversation and transparent requirements.
“Coach them by developing SMART goals,” Mr. Shaw says—specific, measurable, action-based, realistic and time-bound objectives. Measure their performance for the next six months and keep them informed on improvement or lack of it.
If improvement still lags after a year and Mr. Shaw has to have a termination conversation, he writes out a scenario of how he thinks the talk might go ahead of time. “It helps me mentally prepare and be able to control the situation so it does not become volatile,” Mr. Shaw says. “The key is to keep calm.” PM
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MARCH 2014 PM NETWORK