Demand for Project Talent Is Fueling Fierce Competition; Here's How to Ensure Top Talent Doesn't Get Plucked Away





One-fourth of businesses are experiencing a marked increase in talent poaching.

Source: Mark Hawk survey, 2016

The fear of losing top project talent to poachers is enough to keep human resource managers up all night. And now the threat is greater than ever.

Over the next decade, organizations will need nearly 88 million people working in project management roles, including 22 million new project management jobs around the world, according to PMI's Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap Report 2017-2027.

As the project talent gap widens, there will be no shortage of hungry hiring managers furiously sifting through social professional networks and circling just outside a company's ramparts to pry top project professionals away. One-fourth of businesses are experiencing a marked increase in talent poaching, according to a 2016 survey by global leadership firm Mark Hawk. Yet, more than half of respondents said their organization had no plan to ward off poachers. And at companies that did have an anti-poaching plan in place, only 39 percent of respondents were satisfied with it.


“We're now seeing increased competition from adjacent industries in need of similar skill sets.”

—Chris Gould, Black & Veatch, Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Organizations can keep the poachers at bay by fostering an environment that will increase employee engagement, satisfaction and retention, says Chris Gould, associate vice president and director of human resources, Black & Veatch, Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Doing so involves a range of tactics—everything from developing more robust mentoring and professional development programs to creating flexible work schedules or emphasizing greater transparency around career progression.

“We're now seeing increased competition from adjacent industries in need of similar skill sets,” Mr. Gould says. “But rather than view this as a threat, we're turning it into an opportunity: How can we learn more about our professionals? How can we adapt our culture? How can we create a better career experience?”

Good questions. Read on for some answers.

Letting top project talent get bored is an invitation for them to leave for something different. “Often, the professional [who leaves for another job] is simply looking for variety or a new challenge,” Mr. Gould says. To flatter them before other organizations get a chance, Mr. Gould encourages supervisors to initiate open-ended conversations with project and program managers at the first sign of lagging engagement—to talk through everything from stretch goals to the types of projects that might kick-start their excitement.

“We've seen the best success when project professionals feel comfortable talking openly and we can help them find a meaningful internal move rather than exiting the company,” he says.

Likewise, idle hands can be the poacher's playthings. That's why it's important to make sure project and program managers aren't disengaged between projects or tasks, says Oyvind Huus, PMP, head of project management, Sogn og Fjordane Energi, Sandane, Norway. During work pauses, he shuffles talent to new areas, if appropriate, and double-checks that all top talent have a hand in strategic initiatives.

“If the flow of new projects is paused too long, the best project managers will surely talk to the head-hunters who approach them,” Mr. Huus says. “Project managers really crave exciting and challenging projects. And high-visibility projects also bring added attention and access to upper management.”


Organizations also must build an internal path for career development and advancement to keep top project talent from heading for the exit. This is particularly true for younger workers: 87 percent of millennials rate career growth and development as important factors in job satisfaction—far more than the 69 percent of older respondents, a 2016 Gallup survey found. And millennials are the only demographic to rank “opportunities to learn and grow” as one of the three most important reasons they'll stay at a job.

Yet most organizations are failing to deliver training programs that matter. Only 39 percent of respondents felt they'd learned something new in the past 30 days, and less than half had opportunities to learn in the past year.

The project management office (PMO) at Ericsson in Argentina learned that lesson the hard way when senior project managers were getting wooed away by other organizations. So PMO leaders launched a program to grow seniority and retain talent. The initiative helped build their skill sets and helped them develop a more strategic understanding of the company business.

“Our strategy is to give them a clear career path, an explicit training plan and opportunities for special rewards and recognition—so that we don't lose them to competitors,” says Claudio Kiwowicz, PMP, project management subject matter expert, PMI Global Executive Council member Ericsson, Buenos Aires, Argentina.


“Our strategy is to give them a clear career path … so that we don't lose them to competitors.”

—Claudio Kiwowicz, PMP, Ericsson, Buenos Aires, Argentina



“If the flow of new projects is paused too long, the best project managers will surely talk to the headhunters who approach them.”

—Oyvind Huus, PMP, Sogn og Fjordane Energi, Sandane, Norway


“If you can figure out what's important to them and find ways to align that with the work at hand, that's the ultimate sweet spot of retention.”

—Lynn Batara, Franklin Templeton Investments, San Mateo, California, USA

Millions and Millions Needed

Demand for project talent will keep rising—so beware poachers.



The projected number of new positions in top sectors by 2027:


Source: Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap Report 2017-2027, PMI, 2017

For instance, the program allows project talent to enroll in a modified MBA program through a partner university—and the tuition is waived if the project professional agrees to remain with the company for at least another year. “It makes it clear that we're investing in them because we want them to stay,” Mr. Kiwowicz says.

The company uses workshops, role-playing and games so project professionals better understand how the business works, how their project decisions might affect the company and what their end-to-end role is in the business, he says. This year, the company has focused mainly on business training, with plans to branch into other areas of the business in future development courses.

“People say often how much they like the training—it shows them that, despite this being a year when the company is reducing other roles, a project manager is a key role in the organization,” he says. “They feel the company considers them important, so they feel committed to the company.”


While creating a poach-proof culture requires an internal focus, there's no question that organizations must look beyond their boundaries to understand the competitive landscape. Have rising industry salaries made the company no longer competitive? Are competitors’ work-from-home and flex schedules forcing a workplace shift? Do rivals have on-site cafeterias, workout facilities or an in-office culture that's more denim than dark suit?

Executives shouldn't automatically mimic the competition, but knowing what distinguishes their organization from others—and what adjustments are needed to stay current—is even more imperative in these talent-strapped times, Mr. Huus says.

“A company has to compete on salary and benefits—but it also must hit the really important points that project managers care about, like autonomy and interesting work,” he says. “Some of the project managers in our PMO have been approached by other organizations, but all have declined any out-side offers to date because we're constantly evaluating how our organization can set itself apart.”

Counteroffers: A Measured Approach

When an all-star project manager is being poached, it's natural for organizations to rush in with a counteroffer. But such a reaction isn't always in the company's best interest, says Eric Pepin, PMP, PgMP, human resources director, Ubisoft, Shanghai, China. Smart organizations will measure the employee's immediate and long-term value before deciding whether to act—or not.

“There's no one-size-fits-all solution on how to react,” Mr. Pepin says.

For instance, if a project manager on the verge of being poached is between projects or working on low-priority initiatives, replacing him or her might make more sense than shouldering a hefty salary increase. But for a project manager who's enmeshed in several projects with high strategic stakes, ponying up a counteroffer might mean the difference between project success or bringing parts of the portfolio to a screeching halt.

The decision to counteroffer will also depend on whether there's internal talent available to step into a poaching-created hole—and what impact that shuffling might have on other projects.

“Sometimes the impact of a strong project manager being poached isn't only felt by his or her project, but across the whole studio as it impacts other teams,” Mr. Pepin says.



One way to avoid an exit interview is to conduct occasional “stay interviews” in which managers discuss with employees what's making them stick around. “Ask your talent what they love about working for the organization and what could make it even better,” Mr. Gould says.

By documenting such feedback, organizations can get ahead of any issues that might cause a valuable team member to be persuaded by poachers or correct any enterprise-wide faults that hurt retention rates. “Make sure you take action—and communicate about those actions—to the team” so they understand their opinions are taken seriously, Mr. Gould says.

Stay interviews and other types of tailored one-on-one conversations can help project management leaders understand what makes their top talent tick—and what will best motivate them to stay put. By tracking the variables, supervisors can spot patterns and keep motivators in mind for future project assignments, says Lynn Batara, director of enterprise PMO, Franklin Templeton Investments, San Mateo, California, USA.

“If you can figure out what's important to them and find ways to align that with the work at hand, that's the ultimate sweet spot of retention,” Ms. Batara says. “It might be camaraderie with peers or positive working relationships across all levels of the organization or schedule flexibility or feeling valued.” PM



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