Take the Reins

Leaders Must Develop Career Paths and Education Programs for Their Employees—Or Risk Not Having the Right People to Fill the Ranks


by Susan Ladika


As the world's population ages and employees retire en masse, organizations are left to grapple with the challenges of filling the holes left behind. The numbers are staggering.

According to the United Nation's Population Division, already 21.1 percent of the European population is age 60 or above. In North America, it's 17.3 percent. And populations in some Asian and Latin American countries are rapidly aging because of fertility declines.

But it's not only the sheer number of employees in the world's workforce that is cause for concern, it's also the unparalleled knowledge and experience they'll take with them as they step aside. Young project managers “have enthusiasm, but not experience. [Older employees] add value to a project,” says Angela Brown, general manager of C4P Ltd., a project management consultancy in Wellington, New Zealand.

Organizations need to prepare now by placing greater emphasis on developing career paths, offering continuing education and training, and providing opportunities for advancement. Those who don't, do so at their own peril. “You've got to understand where [younger workers are] coming from, or you're going to lose them,” Ms. Brown says.

Leaders must develop career paths and education programs for their employees—or risk not having the right people to fill the ranks.

CORPORATE ACQUISITIONS and demographic changes left AMEC plc in a quandary. The companies obtained by the London, England-based project management and services corporation all had project management cultures and approaches that were as varied as the companies themselves. At the same time, new project managers were coming onboard who lacked the insights and experience of their older counterparts.

It's a situation in which many organizations often find themselves. Today's leaders must develop career paths for their project managers to provide them with the knowledge needed to do their jobs well, as well as room to grow and advance in the company.

Two years ago, AMEC stepped up its project management training efforts for employees because of concerns that “things had gone a little bit adrift,” says Prabhat Garga, AMEC's program management director. “We had unlearned some of the basic things we used to do quite well.”

To get everyone on the same page, Mr. Garga proposed a new training and career development initiative, the Project Management Academy. The three-tier course teaches project management best practices to those new to the field, offers courses on special topics to advanced practitioners and provides specially designed courses for those at the most senior levels.

But while companies like AMEC have established ambitious programs to develop career paths for project managers, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. According to PMI research, only 30 percent of corporations have established project management career paths.

This is a major issue not only for the projects of today, but also for the future, as the aging workforce in many nations begins to retire. “Losing so many people will be a hit to any organization since you are losing such a wealth of knowledge,” says Brian Abeyta, PMP, vice president of the IT project management office of Aflac Inc., a Columbus, Georgia, USA-based insurance company.

Leaders must get to know the needs of employees and provide appropriate learning opportunities and avenues for career advancement in order to keep up.

Getting to Know You

To recruit and retain the best employees, leaders must take the initiative to understand how younger generations think, live and work. Today's up-and-coming project managers typically yearn for an opportunity to develop their careers—perhaps more so than any previous generation.

It's no longer enough to simply offer a job and a competitive salary. “Salary is the price of admission, not the differentiator,” says Joanne McCool, vice president and general manager of Primavera Systems, a resource and project portfolio management software company based in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, USA. And if they don't get what they want, “they'll go elsewhere.” Younger workers also “believe it's their right to say no to an assignment that doesn't advance their personal marketability,” Ms. McCool says.

Employers can use a host of methods to gauge what employees want. The interview process is a good way to get to know a potential employee, but employers must follow up on these initial conversations after the hire, Ms. McCool says. Employers can observe employees' reactions to situations at work, such as their response to a personal note recognizing a job well done. Employee surveys are useful, as well.


Change is exciting when you feel prepared for it, and terrifying when you feel like you have no control.

—Robin Willner, IBM, Armonk, New York, USA

[Younger workers] believe it's their right to say no to an assignment that doesn't advance their personal marketability.

—Joanne McCool, Primavera Systems, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, USA

Ms. McCool also advocates simply asking employees what motivates them. “Be prepared for a thoughtful conversation, and set aside ample time for it,” she says. These conversations can take place during a performance review or at the completion of a project.

Show and Tell

Implementing training and education programs for project managers is an effective way to ensure a company can compete for the best people—and turn them into good leaders in the future. AMEC's investment in educational development produces motivated project managers who are dedicated to the company, says Chad Barnes, a project manager and environmental engineer with AMEC in Tempe, Arizona, USA, who attended the company's Earth and Environmental Training Program.

The program—created for those in the company's earth and environmental section—“provided an opportunity I never had in the other companies I worked for,” Mr. Barnes says. It allowed him to interact with those at all project levels, from upper management to contract administrators, and gave him a diverse network of new contacts. “For me, it's a definite reason to stay with AMEC as they continue to pass on this knowledge.”

Mr. Garga says AMEC employees expect to receive project management training. “When done well to meet their personal development and project performance goals, [project management training] is cited in surveys as being what [employees] like about AMEC,” he says. “And it certainly plays well with our clients, who see AMEC as being progressive.”

For José Esterkin, PMP, CEO of Instituto Argentino de Administración de Proyectos (IAAP), a project management training and consulting firm in Buenos Aries, Argentina, there's been an upsurge in demand for training courses. Five years ago, his clients were multinational corporations that wanted their employees to take a particular course. Today, even smaller organizations turn to project management training, and it's not unusual for companies to request year-long courses.

“[Before, in Latin American cultures,] there was no collective conscience of the ‘do it once, do it right’ concept. Trial and error methods were accepted,” Mr. Esterkin says. Rather than improvising as their predecessors might have done, he says, young project managers want to do a project once, and do it right.

It's a similar situation in Pakistan, says Khalid Ahmad Khan, PMP, director general, directorate general monitoring and evaluation, government of Punjab, Pakistan. In the past, government organizations spent money, but finished projects never emerged because employees weren't doing their jobs correctly and lacked project management skills, he says. As a result, a project management unit is now established for each project, with its own director and staff. Not only do those in the unit receive training, so do the client and contractor. This way, everyone speaks the same project management “language.”

And while salaries for young project managers are below market, he says, the fact that they receive training and participate in high-profile projects draws them to government offices. Their experience makes them prime targets for organizations in the Middle East in search of skilled project managers. The office has become a place to “shop for people who know project management,” Mr. Khan says.

While training may be a means to simply build up a project management base in regions such as these, in other places, it's a key way to attract and retain employees. At Aflac, project managers are required to complete at least 24 hours of formal training per year, which Mr. Abeyta says is essential to retain workers and help them grow. One of his goals is to hire people early in their careers and immediately give them challenging projects in areas that can range from finance to marketing to human resources.


The company offers a project management development program, open to all employees. When they complete all 12 courses, they go through a graduation ceremony. For those who already hold PMI's Project Management Professional (PMP®) credential, the company brings in advanced courses focused on skills such as communication, team building and managing.

And young project managers are often paired with those with more experience—either working together on projects or in a more formal mentoring relationship—so newcomers can tap into older project managers' experiences. “It's not helpful to have someone new who is alone or working with someone else young,” Mr. Abeyta says.

On the Right Path

Making sure employees know they can move up the career ladder is also essential. Microsoft Corp., for example, follows a strict career development path. Christian Jensen, PMP—previously the director of execution excellence based in Redmond, Washington, USA, who is now working on a graduate degree at Boston University—introduced the system in 1999 to establish a baseline for the organization. While individuals were called project managers, Mr. Jensen says he wasn't sure who had what expertise and how far along they were on the career path.

[Without a career path] it is very difficult to attract, develop, retain and transition employees in the organization.

—Christian Jensen, PMP, former director of execution excellence, Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Washington, USA

So he helped Microsoft establish a five-level model, which looks at everyone involved in project management, gauging their skills and involvement. It ranges from level one “developers,” who do things like write code and devote about five percent of their efforts to project management, to level five project managers, involved with organizational planning.

“Our interpretation is that project management is a shared competency with all members providing a unique project management contribution margin,” Mr. Jensen says. “If you only are looking at project managers, you do a disservice. … It's an orchestration.”

For those strictly on the project management track, Microsoft also has four project manager levels—each based on tenure and practical experience. Without a career path “it is very difficult to attract, develop, retain and transition employees in the organization,” Mr. Jensen says. It gives project managers a precise understanding of what is required for each career stage, what they need to do to advance and what career development tools are available.

Armonk, New York, USA-headquartered IT giant IBM helps its employees move up the career ladder, even if that means moving into a new desirable field. Its enhanced transition services program aids employees looking to develop second careers by offering orientation and placement services in new areas.

The company also has a program in place under which employees set aside up to $1,000 a year for education, with IBM matching half that amount. The employee can then use that money for skills he or she would like to acquire, such as a U.S.-based project manager who wants to learn Chinese or a project manager who works on financial projects and wants to explore a new project area.

These programs are designed to help IBM employees worldwide prepare for changes in the global workforce, says Robin Willner, vice president for global community initiatives. “Change is exciting when you feel prepared for it, and terrifying when you feel like you have no control.” IBM also hopes the initiative will help recruit and retain employees.

A Well-Rounded Workforce

Whatever the method—whether through training, mentoring, a defined career track or a combination of all—the bottom line is simple: If leaders don't make career development for employees a top priority, they will not be able to compete and sustain in the global marketplace.

“[As generations retire,] it's going to be slim out there,” says Chad Melvin, manager of employee learning for Aflac. “We want to build from within as much as possible. If we take care of our people, they'll take care of our business.” img

Leadership 2008 / www.pmi.org
Leadership 2008



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