Project Management Institute

Hiring hints

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ASK PM NETWORK

BY BUD BAKER, Ph.D., CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

QUESTION: Selecting project managers seems hit or miss at my firm. As a result, we end up hiring a lot of people who just don't work out. Is there an algorithm for finding the right project manager?

When it comes to selecting project managers, things evidently haven't changed much since my own entry into the field a quarter century ago. Back then, the personnel prevaricators would only tell me that it was a “good job in a secret program.”

I asked for some details.

“Sorry, we can't tell you,” was their reply.

“Well, who would I be working for?”

“Sorry.”

“Perhaps you could tell me where the job is?”

“Nope, sorry.”

So of course I accepted, and leapt blindly into a world for which I was grossly unprepared. It turned out to be a great job, but the gap between my skill set and what the job required was so huge that within a week or so I actually walked into my boss's office and asked if maybe he had somehow confused me with someone else, someone perhaps who actually knew something about project management. (Note: I do not recommend this as a career-advancement technique.)

It all ended well. The enormous but unfounded faith my boss displayed caused me to work harder than I ever had, just to live up to his expectations. But I also came away from the whole process thinking there had to be a better way.

Fortunately, there is. Frederick Taylor pioneered the concept of scientific selection of employees a century ago. Mr. Taylor discovered there were characteristics of ideal coal shovelers (squat, strong and “dumb as a brick”), and his ideas have since been carried into myriad other fields.

One of those is project management. Chad Downey, vice president for sales at Surrex Project Solutions, an El Segundo, California, USA-based staffing company, recently talked with me about his firm's approach to selecting project managers.

How do most organizations select project managers?

Organizations often rely on thrusting high performers into project management roles once they show ability to lead small teams, or they rely on candidates supplied via standard search processes.

What benefits can a more scientific approach offer?

We start with an interview to understand if a candidate has the right background and then conduct an online skills survey for those who may be a match. The survey gives an objective measure of a candidate's mastery of project management concepts, from risk mitigation to earned value analysis.

No single test can paint a complete enough picture to predict the success of a project manager. We therefore add a series of interviews by senior project managers to round out the analysis of each candidate. Here we judge the education level of a candidate and delve deeply into his or her real-world experience. We dig into specific situations the candidates have been in, their decision-making processes, their outcomes and what the project managers learned from these experiences.

How do you assess personality?

We use the Myers-Briggs personality inventory and also inject questions to gauge the human side of the candidate. Time and time again we've seen highly qualified project managers fail because their people skills were not a fit to a given situation. For instance, sometimes it takes a “bull in the china shop” mentality to marshal a successful effort for a client, while that approach would fail in a more consensus-driven environment.

Is there such a thing as a generic project manager, or is project management success situation-specific?

There are generic project management skills, and ways of thinking and handling difficult situations that increase the chance of project management success under a variety of situations. While a “project manager for all seasons” is a misnomer, we find that solid project managers can migrate across organizations and project types. PM

ANSWER: There's no single solution for selecting strong project managers, but organizations can benefit from a more scientific approach.

Bud Baker, Ph.D., is a professor of management at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Please send questions for Ask PM Network to pmnetwork@imaginepub.com.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK SEPTEMBER 2008 WWW.PMI.ORG

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