Project Management Institute

People first

talent management strategies for attracting and retaining the best project and program managers

Senior Vice President, ESI International


For many years now, the North American economy has relied heavily on the Baby Boomers. These roughly 76 million achievers born from 1946 to 1964 have built something special, a true worldwide powerhouse that has revolutionized the way the world does business. However, each of us is, at this very moment, in the midst of a sea change. After decades of success and unprecedented achievement, the Baby Boomers are set to retire and leave the corporate world behind. To be exact, by 2010, many companies will find half of their managers and key personnel eligible to exit. And, by 2015, those numbers will be closer to 70% (Weiss, 2007).

This phenomenon is also felt around the globe. In many regions of the world, a company’s ability to just hire top talent is greatly reduced due to the shortage of experienced talent—especially when it comes to project and program managers.

The idea of seeing veteran leadership and their most experienced people walking out the door has many management teams understandably anxious. Compounding that anxiety, though, is the sheer reality of who will be taking their place—Millennials. Millennials, often referred to as “Generation Y,” are the children of the Baby Boomers born around the time Ronald Reagan took office, on through the mid-1990s. Believe it or not, these people are no longer children; in fact, they’ve got degrees and are currently in line to run the world!

Human Resources and Talent Management departments, who are just recently getting to know the new Millennials, are finding out some interesting things. First and foremost, the incentives that motivated the Baby Boomers are often of little interest to this new breed of business professional. Neither, it would seem, is a hands-off style of management.

The current realities around change are forcing organizations and their managers to behave differently. The focus is not just on project and program management, but getting the job done in the most advantageous way. To do that, one needs innovative, business savvy program and project managers who have critical thinking skills, financial acumen and the communication skills of Bill Clinton—like him or not.

Right now, organizations of all shapes and sizes, and in virtually every industry, need to begin recognizing their changing workforce and, more importantly, adapting. In order to attract and retain the professionals who will successfully lead their organizations into the future, hiring managers must be willing to leave their old strategies behind and blaze a new trail in talent management. Below, I’ve laid out a seven-part, people-first strategy for attracting and retaining the best project and program managers in the world. This strategy, if applied correctly, will put your departments on the path to success and help your organization maximize the return on the time and money you invest in your employees every year.

The People-First Talent Management Strategy—In Seven Parts

1. Clearly Establishment Roles and Business Alignment

The Baby Boomers, in a lot of ways, were self-starters and required little direction and specification in their day-to-day work. For Millennials, though, clarity is key—clarity regarding their specific role within their teams and the organization as a whole. Our workforce has been specialized for many years now, but it’s becoming even more so as the demographics shift younger. Today’s young professionals don’t just have business and management degrees; they have business and management degrees that have been highly specialized, with concentrations designed to fit their unique talents and goals. They expect the same level of clarity and specification in their jobs. Therefore, every position within your organization, particularly those that will ultimately be filled by an incoming Millennial, should be clearly defined.

Furthermore, it is equally as vital that these clearly defined roles align and coordinate with your organization’s overall business objectives. The reason for this is simple: the best project and program managers in the world are those who, regardless of the situation, are able to tie their work directly to the business. We all get mired down in the minutia of day-to-day tasks; however, everyone on your staff must be able to link their work to the organization’s wellbeing. This isn’t just good for your young employees; it’s good for your bottom line, too. If your employees are constantly able to identify the strategic, operational, and interpersonal angles of what they’re doing, it ensures that they’re not wasting their time—or yours.

A key element to being able to ensure alignment is feedback—and a lot of it. Millennials are at their best when they are receiving consistent feedback on their performance and are reminded often of how they are ultimately helping the organization. Many managers err on the side of offering too little feedback, perhaps in fear of appearing overbearing. With the Millennials among your team, though, a little hand-holding can go a long way.

2. Articulate Your Talent Management Strategy

Creating, documenting, and communicating an organization’s talent management strategy is crucial. Exhibit 1 shows a generic example that would guide such an initiative.

Documenting an Organization’s Talent Management Strategy

Exhibit 1 – Documenting an Organization’s Talent Management Strategy

3. Customize Your Communication Plan

Based on an assessment of stakeholders, it is important to customize the message to the individual (Exhibit 2). Some folks prefer a direct and short approach, and some would rather have the details and then the conclusion. Having a framework to guide one’s approach is critical. Many communication models are available; the one I will present is shown in Exhibit 3.

Stakeholder Management

Exhibit 2 – Stakeholder Management

Communication Model

Exhibit 3 – Communication Model

4. Develop a Career—Not Just a Job

In the first step in our strategy, I discussed establishing roles and business alignment. In a similar vein, as important as it is to establish clear job descriptions, it’s perhaps even more important to establish clear career paths for your employees.

I have been with my current company, ESI International, for 12 years. My colleague, J. LeRoy Ward, has been with ESI for 18 years. That kind of tenure with one organization makes LeRoy and me statistical anomalies in today’s business world. Younger professionals simply refuse to wait around for their careers to unfold around them. Therefore, the moment their future prospects begin to blur, they have no problem testing the waters. A study from several years ago by Leadership IQ, a Washington, DC-based research and training company, found that 47% of high performers in the IT industry are actively looking for new jobs on any given day, and 44% are passively looking (“Get real: Honest job previews can cut employee turnover,” 2006). Sure, it’s much easier for people to job search now than it was 20 years ago, what with the many online job sites available 24 hours a day, but that’s not an excuse for employers to simply let their best young project and program management professionals walk out the door.

The key to curbing the costly level of employee turnover is to give your employees a clear picture of what their future can look like with your organization. This can be done on paper with formalized career paths for individual positions. But, on a more personal level, many organizations are offering their employees robust training programs in such disciplines as project management, program management, business analysis, and business skills, depending on their specific needs. An even easier initiative to institute is an employee mentorship program in which younger project and program managers are teamed with their more seasoned colleagues. Training and coaching programs, combined with a high level of feedback from supervisors, will make your organization’s Millennials feel more engaged in their jobs, which will help to keep them off and focused more intently on their current jobs—with your company.

5. Plan for a Pragmatic Return on Investment

Individuals like to know what is expected of them and how you are going to assess their success. Contrary to many people’s opinion, even though each project and program is different, it is possible to standardize the responsibilities of project and program managers. Training is often one part of the strategy, and applying what people learn is the most crucial step. Hence, when you are making the business case for investing in your project and program managers’ skill development, consider a more pragmatic ROI. In other words, do not expect a full level-four Kirkpatrick assessment; rather, develop a customized measurement plan that identifies what portion has been applied back on the job, and what the enablers and obstacles are. Set the stage from the start by communicating that the investment is a two-way street—the organization will develop the skills and the employees need to expect that, in return, they will accomplish specific tasks and deliverables.

As a best practice, planning for your ROI should start early and leverage a framework for success. This framework should be comprehensive and should address how the organization will move from the current state to the future state. This change initiative is where you can communicate the why and how of retaining and attracting new talent.

6. Relationship “Surprises”

It is the little things that often matter the most. Based on ESI’s work with Fortune 500 clients and large government agencies, it has identified several innovative “surprises” that solidify the relationship with project and program managers. A birthday dinner, a sanity day, a perk, or just a handwritten note can make a huge difference in assuring project and program managers that they are with the right organization. Imagine the CEO of an organization kicking off a project management event by underscoring project management as a key differentiator and a core competency for the business!

7. Promote With a Plan

Let’s be honest—all too often, promotions are given with little thought to performance or to the future. In today’s business world, your best employees are constantly aware of and looking at what’s available to them elsewhere. And, frankly, run-of-the-mill promotions given to people based simply on the fact that they’ve been around for a certain number of years will do little to motive your employees to do their very best. In fact, it might very well motivate them to hit the road. In a recent Gallup survey, of the top voluntary job-related reasons employees left their companies last year, “Career Advancement/Promotional Opportunity” ranked the highest at 32%. Contrary to what many managers might assume, “Pay/Benefits” finished second, with 22% (Robinson, 2008).

Not every position in your organization is a natural stepping stone en route to CEO—and no one will ever be able to completely combat the restlessness of youth. However, for your most valued young project and program managers, promotions and advancement should be part of a broader overall strategy—a strategy aimed at giving them the support and confidence they need to tackle their next big challenge or climb the corporate ladder at your organization, not one of your many competitors across the street or around the world.

Conclusion: Improved Business Performance

Change is often a difficult thing—something we categorically reject for fear of what it might bring with it. But, at least in business, change is more often than not for the best. The retirement of our friends, mentors, and leaders over the next several years is going to be a difficult change, but it’s also going to be an opportunity. The Millennials, or Generation Y, or whatever you want to call them, are forcing all of us to rethink the way business is conducted—and maybe how it can be conducted a little more efficiently and effectively. By adopting this seven-part strategy, your organization will begin thinking people-first, and will begin putting the processes and practices in place that will guide your future leaders and your organization to success.


Knowledge@wpcarey (2006, July 19) Get real: Honest Job previews can cut employee turnover. Retrieved July 4, 2008 from http://knowledge.wpcarey

Robinson, J. (2008, July 2). Turning around employee turnover. Retrieved July 4, 2008 from

Weiss, T. (2007, August). Living to work, or working to love? Retrieved July 4, 2008 from

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 or any listed author.

© 2008, Raed Haddad
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA



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