Project Management Institute

Retaining top project management talent when you have no authority

Tim Wasserman

While project management leaders may not always have the authority to hire, fire, or award a pay raise, they do have significant power that can noticeably impact project management talent acquisition, growth, and retention. The goal is to build great teams that deliver value to the enterprise, because when you have great teams and people are engaged, work goes well and everyone—the organization, the team, and the employee—benefits.

Whether you are talking about attracting, growing, or retaining strong project management talent, engagement is crucial. What engages employees? Common sense tells us that top project management talent gravitates toward organizations that successfully align their talent management and organizational strategies. The Project Management Institute (PMI®) has identified several specific areas project management leaders should address to strengthen employee engagement and alignment (PMI, 2014). Increasing effectiveness in these areas can have a significant impact on a project management leader's ability to attract and retain top talent by positioning the organization or team as the targeted talent's top choice:

  • Meaningful work
  • An ability to make an impact
  • Visibility for successes
  • A transparent culture
  • Authentic leadership
  • A well-defined career path
  • Alignment to the project, team, and organizational strategy

It's no secret that Facebook purposefully works to create an engaged workforce. One way they achieve this is by having all new hires participate in a multi-week boot-camp that is one-part employee orientation, one-part software training program, and one-part freshman orientation week.

When new engineering recruits are hired at Facebook, they typically do not know what job they will ultimately do, rather they explore and discover their roles through the boot-camp experience. Activities include various tours-of-duty that involve working in several areas and teams. Importantly, the work they are doing is actually on the live product, giving new arrivals the opportunity to immediately contribute to Facebook's success. At the culmination of boot-camp, the employee gets to choose his/her job assignment and product team.

The program exemplifies Facebook's adherence to Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's “Hacker Way,” an organizational culture based on being egalitarian, risk-taking, self-starting, irreverent, collaborative, and creative (O‘Dell, 2013). Whether at Facebook or elsewhere – this process puts the onus on project management leaders to make the projects and teams enticing enough to be a magnet that draws the best talent.

Even though you may not have the influence of Mark Zuckerberg, there are tools and approaches you can use to increase your talent management powers and influence. By applying proven management approaches—specifically with an eye toward improving your talent pool—project mnagement leaders can make a significant difference in how their teams are perceived by recruits, team members, and the organization. Using these methods to effectively execute a stronger talent management approach will ultimately ensure a positive impact on individual, team, project, and organizational performance.

The Strategic Execution Framework through the Talent Management Lens

The Strategic Execution Framework (SEF) (Exhibit 1), which was developed to help companies align their strategy to their execution, is a powerful tool that project management leaders can use to guide their project management talent efforts. It consists of six domains that have been proven to help companies, divisions, and departments effectively determine, articulate, and execute their strategy.

Applying the SEF to talent management efforts will help identify areas of alignment and misalignment in the business, team, and project management leaders’ strategy to attract, grow, and retain talent. Once aligned, the SEF will help guide the successful execution of the effort.

IdeationKnow who you are, why you exist, and where you are going.

Project management leaders need to be able to clearly articulate their group or department's purpose, identity, and long-range direction in order to determine how well these attributes align – with team members, project sponsors, and the organization's strategy.

Having a strong ideation at the project and program level – as well as the organization level – provides a clear definition of the work that will be done, allowing employees to find meaning and understand the impact of their individual and group efforts.

NatureAlign your strategy with the larger company's culture and structure.

The nature domain includes the sub-domains of structure and culture. Defining your culture and ensuring it is not in conflict with your structure is critical – both for business success and talent retention. Project Management Offices (PMOs) are often structured like an orchestra or football team – everyone is the expert for their role with specific responsibilities and the structure offers little flexibility. Could it be additionally effective to adopt more of an agile, jazz band or basketball team mindset where everyone brings multiple skills and capabilities to the team and the structure flexes based on the project's requirements?

Discovering and articulating the culture and structure improves alignment between the organization, the work, and team members. It ensures the culture and structure are transparent, enabling team members to produce at their highest levels.

VisionThe translation of long-term intention into short- and medium-term goals, metrics, and strategies.

A strong vision helps the project management leadership define and measure its organizational contributions. It also helps create a platform to communicate those contributions to top talent. This is done by ensuring that the metrics captured and evaluated align with the overall ideation. Clearly articulating this allows team members to see what matters most, enabling them to align their work focus to these outcomes and deepening their understanding of how their role contributes to the organization's success. This creates the opportunity for employees to acquire visibility within the company, strengthening their commitment to their projects and the organization's success.

EngagementKnow the right project-based work required to execute the organization's strategy.

Aligning project (or program or portfolio) selection to the organization's strategy is important for the overall business's success. It is also essential for talent engagement and retention. For the project management leader, this domain speaks to knowing what skills and abilities you need on your team. For the individual, it helps them align their perspective to the organizational goals, while also providing them direction about the types of skills and abilities they should be looking to grow as they move along their career path.

Truly authentic leaders leverage the alignment process by balancing the needs of the project, with offering team members opportunities to grow their skills and capabilities. When done well, team members are able to grow through challenging and meaningful work – work they perceive as having a real impact on the organization's success.

SynthesisExecuting projects and programs in alignment with the portfolio.

Organizationally, synthesis is about how project-based work gets accomplished through methodologies, governance, and other processes. For project management leaders pursuing talent, synthesis speaks to the need to ensure that the necessary tools and resources are in place to attract and retain talent. This could include: spending time understanding individuals’ career goals and helping provide guidance on their career path; or ensuring that recognition programs are consistent, comprehensive, and fair while allowing the flexibility to uniquely address each individual's needs.

TransitionMoving the results of projects into the main stream of the operation.

Transition is the ultimate measure of your talent management efforts. This is where you can see if the strategies you have executed are building great teams or falling short. It is where the changes become part of the routine. By reviewing the metrics defined for success at the individual, team, and organizational level—or perhaps just your own metrics of success—project management leaders should have a clear perspective of how well they are addressing the areas that can have the greatest impact on talent management goals and objectives. The simplest test for a project management leader over time is determining if existing employees are looking for opportunities to join and/or support your team, project, or initiative?

While the SEF serves as an excellent guide to identifying a talent management strategy and guiding its execution, it doesn't speak to the specifics of “what” to do. For that, we'll use the TALENT model™.

Finding and Keeping the Right Talent – The TALENT Model

Integral Talent System's (ITS) research-based TALENT model maps the needs of the organization and team members, helping leaders to focus on the areas they can influence and that deliver the greatest impact. This is particularly important in work environments where project management leaders do not have direct influence over traditional employee incentives, such as pay and promotions. At the heart of ITS’ research-based model is a focus on what is truly important to the individual.

The TALENT Model identifies the following areas as providing the maximum ROI for talent retention efforts:

  • Targeted Recruiting and Hiring – Hiring the right talent and getting the right “fit” is essential. Ensuring the organization's ideation and nature aligns with the individual's ideation and nature avoids culture clashes, frustration, and builds mutual buy-in and commitment between the individual and the organization. It's important to note that the principals here also apply if you are “attracting” rather than “hiring” someone onto your team.
  • Achievement – Individuals perform better when they work on something for which they are passionate, and get the support and tools they need to do their work effectively. A key role of a project manager is to assess team member capabilities, assign roles accordingly, and provide the information and coaching needed to help the team member deliver the results for which they are accountable. Individuals who are succeeding frequently have little desire to leave their current situation.
  • Learning and Professional Growth – ITS’ research shows that affording the individual the opportunity to build their résumé with experiences strengthens the desire to stay with an employer. The way an organization treats and respects their employees improves the employee's ability to see “what's in it for me” through activities that help them grow their skills and experiences, and receive industry-recognized endorsements and achievements.
  • Ensuring Recognition – Not everyone is motivated the same way and it is important to customize the recognition or reward. ITS found that compensation is “the price of admission” for organizations that want to attract strong talent, but it's not what helps retain the talent. Instead of a one size fits all approach to recognition, leaders should take a “one size fits one” approach, where recognition is individualized.
  • Nurturing Career Development – Robust career paths are a powerful tool, but in many flat organizations, difficult to establish. Coaching and mentoring programs build and strengthen networks and enhance the sense of belonging. Tours-of-duty, discussed by Reid Hoffman, co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn in his book The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, are relatively short in duration and have a specific mission and timeframe – similar to a project (Hoffman et al., 2014). Hoffman postulates that highly talented employees join organizations that help move them along their desired career path and once the tour-of-duty is complete, they will move on to pursue the next step along their career path.
    Project management leaders can use the tour-of-duty approach to provide a match between an individual's goals and team or organizational goals. And creating a series of attractive “tours” will keep top performers interested and engaged with the team and/or organization over the long-term—a winning strategy for all.
  • Team Collaboration – Being a member of a team is better than being part of a group. An open, inclusive environment and culture enables individuals to collaborate, innovate, and build relationships. Strong peer relationships have a significant positive correlation to increased levels of engagement and commitment. Effective collaboration enables desired team outcomes as varied as the effective graphic resolution of conflicts as well as the meaningful celebration of wins and successes – all of which increases cohesion.

The retention of top talent remains paramount to the success of any organization. If project management leaders are to succeed in their own careers and for their organizations, then they must give the same attention, rigor, and discipline to their talent management efforts that they give to employing methodologies and processes. As a project management leader, you can have tremendous impact on attracting, growing, and retaining talent – even if you aren't Mark Zuckerberg. Aligning your organization's strategy to your talent management needs—and the needs of your top talent—will deliver what you, your organization, and your team members need to keep renewing their commitment for a successful and long-term relationship.


Exhibit 1: Strategic execution framework.

The Strategic Execution Framework (SEF) was developed by the Stanford Advanced Project Management program, a partnership between IPS Learning and the Stanford Center for Professional Development. The SEF is described in detail in the book Executing Your Strategy: How to Break It Down and Get It Done (Morgan et al., 2008).

The TALENT Model was developed by Integral Talent Systems (ITS), a global technology-enabled talent management consulting firm. ITS conducts ongoing independent research so that its clients stay abreast of the most current workforce trends and best practices. (


Hoffman, R., Casnocha, B., & Yeh, C. (2014). The alliance: Managing talent in the networked age. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Morgan, M., Levitt, R., & Malek, W. (2008). Executing your strategy: Breaking it down and getting it done. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

O‘Dell, J. (2013, March 2). Boot camp! How Facebook indoctrinates every new engineer it hires. Venture Beat. Retrieved from

Project Management Institute. (2013). Building high-performance project talent. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2013). Pulse of the profession: In-depth report: The competitive advantage of effective talent management. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2014). Pulse of the profession: The high cost of low performance. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

© 2015 IPS Learning. All rights reserved.

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© 2015, IPS Learning, LLC. All rights reserved.
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK



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