PATHFINDER >> BY MALCOLM WHEATLEY
Project managers aren't born—they're made. So maybe it's time to stop relying on the same old pool of candidates.
With the battle for standout project management talent showing no signs of abating, companies are starting to extend their search beyond the usual suspects. Instead of focusing strictly on candidates with tried-and-tested backgrounds and job titles from industries traditionally associated with producing project managers, sometimes it pays to opt for more unconventional choices.
“Increasingly, organizations are looking for competencies, not job histories,” says Jose Carlos Machicao, PMP, a consultant at JCMV Consultores, Lima, Peru. “The focus is more on what verifiable skills people might have in order to be able to produce results in the future, rather than what they have done in the past or what profession they had. Organizations are acknowledging that competency evaluations are a more accurate measure for potential problem-solving and, ultimately, for future organizational success.”
Foster Web Marketing learned that lesson first-hand. The growing Washington, D.C., USA-based Web design and Internet marketing company needed project managers to guide its developers and designers. But it discovered some of its best hires weren't always the ones with conventional project management experience.
“What we've learned is that prior experience and training is less important than certain personal characteristics—and we've had great success with stay-at-home moms, who are organized, patient and good at multitasking,” says George Murphy, Internet marketing manager at Foster.
Broadening the search not only helps organizations fulfill their needs, but also enriches the pool of project management talent within the profession.
It's not always the easiest way to go, however.
Looking outside the typical project management candidates simply isn't a true option for some industries, such as retail or pharmaceuticals, where there is a distinct culture or way of doing things, says Judith Germain, managing director of Dynamic Transitions, a consulting firm in London, England. “There is a preference for only working with people who have been ‘schooled’ in the same environment as themselves,” she says.
In such cases, companies may want to keep the search in-house.
“Rather than take the risks of looking outside the industry, it can make sense to look at people already within the organization who aren't project managers, but who understand the business and the imperatives of the industry [the company] operates within,” Ms. Germain says.
Companies can simply opt to “grow their own”—that is, train existing employees to hone their project management skills.
“In situations where it's important to be listened to and respected, there's no substitute for having real industry dirt under your fingernails,” says Barbara A. Fuller, PMP, president and founder of Process and Project Solutions, a Somerset, New Jersey, USA-based training consulting firm.
“In terms of their knowledge of Gantt charts and work breakdown structures, they would not be ready to take a Project Management Professional (PMP)SM exam, but they'll know enough to get the job done,” she says.
No Experience Required
Jason Shindler used the non-traditional approach to hire a project manager at his web development firm Curvine Web Solutions in Bellevue, Washington, USA. He'd previously advertised the position and received a lot of résumés, but none of the applicants met his expectations.
“They were very experienced, but not in our industry—and also very costly, which was another issue,” he explains. “I was looking for someone with good people skills and good organizational skills, who was able to communicate effectively and able to deal with up to 25 different projects at once.”
That's when he decided to go another route.
“I chose to hire someone with no project management experience, and I took the time to train her on the job,”
Tell Me What You Want
Wooing candidates from outside the world of project management is all well and good. But before any of that happens, companies should figure out what they want from the candidate.
And that process starts with the job description.
Instead of focusing on the prerequisites of a hypothetical, ideal candidate, companies should keep the emphasis on the deliverables of the role, says Johanna Rothman, president of the Arlington, Massachusetts, USA-based Rothman Consulting Group. She is also author of Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People [Dorset House, 2004].
“What are the essential elements of the job? What makes it easy, difficult or rewarding? What is the person supposed to achieve? How is success measured? Use questions like these, that define the role, not the person performing it,” she urges. “I find that the people who are having the most trouble finding good candidates are those who are writing their job descriptions too tightly, and not specifying the skills and abilities that they really need.”
Mr. Shindler says. “It took a while, and there were some hiccups along the way. But she has been with my firm for two years now and has turned into one of the best employees I‘ve ever had.”
Sometimes a fresh perspective is just what a project needs.
People outside project management also may come in armed with superior people skills—which can actually outrank technical skills on complex projects with a wide variety of stakeholders and end-users.
“In a surprising number of instances, competencies such as influencing and negotiating skills—which don't necessarily sit well with technical disciplines—are actually more critical to the job,” says Stephen Simister, Ph.D., director of project management at Henley Business School, Henley, England. “People well-skilled in such areas can make a very valuable contribution.”
Edgardo Fitzpatrick, PMP, agrees. “People skills and emotional intelligence are more important than people think,” says Mr. Fitzpatrick, vice president of the PMI Santiago, Chile Chapter and senior project manager at Santiago-based banking technology firm Altec-Santander. “Technical skills can be learned and practiced— but good people skills are much more difficult to find, particularly when combined with good technical skills within the same individual.”
It's important to look at the size of the budgets that [candidates] have managed, the number of people they have been responsible for managing, the culture and environment they are used to operating within, and how they have approached challenges that they have met along the way.
—Alan Rommel, Parity Resources, Wimbledon, England
More Than Meets the Eye
Companies may simply need to take a broader view.
“There's much more to a successful project manager than technical proficiency and their industry experience,” says Lisa DiTullio, principal of Lisa DiTullio & Associates, a project management training and consulting firm in Cohasset, Massachusetts, USA.
Organizations should also look at the kind of management background potential recruits possess, says Alan Rommel, managing director of Wimbledon, England-based recruitment consultants Parity Resources. Around 30 percent of the company's recruitment and consulting activity is in the field of project management, he says, and the firm's advisers make a point to go beyond the basics of background and qualifications.
“It's important to look at the size of the budgets that they have managed, the number of people they have been responsible for managing, the culture and environment they are used to operating within, and how they have approached challenges that they have met along the way,” Mr. Rommel explains. “With the right coaching and training, both internal and external recruits from outside the project management function can make good—and qualified—project managers.”
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