Sticking power


Renato Machado
de Oliveira, PMP,
Deutsche Bank,
São Paulo, Brazil


Money may attract a star project manager, but it will rarely keep one around.



Think for a moment about an organization's truly stellar project managers. They're the ones who consistently exceed expectations, who make the executive team look good and who seem poised to rise within the ranks—if organizations can keep them around.

In the quest to keep top talent, the gut reaction is often to increase compensation. But using salary bumps as the go-to retention tool may actually hurt an organization's chances of retaining star project managers.

“The major mistakes I see basically boil down to one thing: managers assuming the best way to retain talented people and keep them engaged in the work is money,” says Teresa Amabile, PhD, co-author of The Progress Principle and a professor at Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Even in tough economic times, not everyone can be won over with cold, hard cash, she says.

“Managers make that mistake because, in a way, money is easy,” Dr. Amabile says. “Of course, it's costly, but it's quantifiable.” Much harder is mastering the skill of targeting qualitative, personalized incentives and rewards to top project practitioners.

Yet retaining top talent is even more essential given today's sizable talent gap: 83 percent of organizations report they've had difficulty finding qualified project management candidates to fill open positions in the past year, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession™ In-Depth Report: Talent Management.

With those kinds of numbers, organizations can never cross employee retention off the to-do list, says Renato Machado de Oliveira, PMP, assistant vice president and Latin American program manager at Deutsche Bank, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“It's a bit like cleaning a skyscraper,” he says. “When you finish one side of the building, you need to start cleaning the other side again. Your work is never done.”

“The lack of power demotivates the project and program managers.”

—Renato Machado de Oliveira, PMP, Deutsche Bank, São Paulo, Brazil


If organizations get past the fact that money isn't everything, the answer may lie in offering autonomy, coupled with clear goals and work that employees find meaningful. “People need to have a sense that there's a mountain to climb, and it's up to them to figure out how to climb that mountain,” Dr. Amabile says.

Creating a career path can motivate project practitioners to invest in advancing at one organization, rather than trying to leapfrog ahead by changing jobs. The Pulse talent management report shows that four out of five organizations find career paths that move senior project managers to senior management positions are effective.

The best managers also give top performers the opportunity to spend more time doing the type of work they prefer, Dr. Amabile says.

Too often, project managers have the power to communicate decisions, but not to make decisions themselves. “The lack of power demotivates the project and program managers,” says Mr. Machado de Oliveira.

Sometimes star employees just need some space. “One of the key things with top performers is that you don't micromanage them. You don't tell them how to do things. You tell them what has to get done,” says Brian Grafsgaard, PMP, PgMP, director of professional services at IT consulting firm Quality Business Solutions, Minnetonka, Minnesota, USA. “I wouldn't give them the answers. I would give them the problem.”

Then, over time, top-performing project managers can take sole ownership of larger and higher-profile projects, he says.


“People need to have a sense that there's a mountain to climb, and it's up to them to figure out how to climb that mountain.”

—Teresa Amabile, PhD, Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


“One of the key things with top performers is that you don't micromanage them. You don't tell them how to do things. You tell them what has to get done.”

—Brian Grafsgaard, PMP, PgMP, Quality Business Solutions, Minnetonka, Minnesota, USA


The brightest employees often share a dedication to self-improvement, making training and seminars effective motivational tools, says John Girton, PMP, senior IT project manager for financial advisers Pioneer Investments, Dublin, Ireland. And unlike increasing a salary, investing in project management training benefits more than the employee. “That will be good for them and good for the company,” Mr. Girton says.

Mr. Girton and Mr. Machado de Oliveira have both found that business travel and work on global projects are great tools for rewarding, retaining and engaging their top talent. “Brazilian project managers always ask for the opportunity to talk to other people in the field and around the world,” Mr. Machado de Oliveira says.

In Mr. Girton's experience, the best project managers are the ones most likely to see the real value of perks that go beyond pure cash. “They will appreciate the training and the seminars. They will look at travel opportunities and the flexibility to take a day off,” he says. “Those are the kinds of things that a new company won't necessarily show in an employment package, so it's one place the current company does actually have an advantage.”

To craft the right approach to motivating and retaining star performers, executives need to know them well enough to understand their motivations.

“Sometimes we treat all project managers in just one way. This is not a good thing. We must differentiate them,” Mr. Machado de Oliveira says. No single combination of compensation, training and autonomy will work for all project managers. If the assets they bring to the company are unique, the methods of motivating them should be equally so.


Organizations must provide top talent with opportunities for advancement and growth, and also ensure those opportunities align with the person's passions and career aspirations. “Knowing project managers more personally, you can tailor your approach and better apply these different techniques and tools,” Mr. Grafsgaard says.

Even managers who think beyond compensation can get tripped up here. They identify a new area of responsibility or a prestigious opening in the company they use to reward a star employee, only to later realize it wasn't the type of opportunity that person found fulfilling.

Mr. Girton recalls the time he lost a top project manager even after putting him on a high-profile project as a reward for his excellent work. While Mr. Girton was focused on the prestige and intellectual challenge it would afford the star performer, he failed to take the time to understand whether that was what mattered most to the employee.

“I talked too much about the business side and didn't really pay enough attention to the personal side,” Mr. Girton says. It turned out that the highly stressful project, with commensurately long hours, was precisely what the star didn't want right then. Because of his family situation, he was more interested in and motivated by rewards in the form of work-life balance.

Safeguarding against dangerous assumptions means checking in with project managers far more often than the annual formal feedback session—but that's rarely done. To stay informed, organizational leaders must set aside time for one-on-one career meetings that focus on personal goals rather than project goals, says Mr. Grafsgaard. He has found that bimonthly talks work well.

That level of communication can help reveal whether one all-star craves recognition and would respond most to a title change while another has always wanted to visit China and would most value the opportunity to work on a project there. “I always get to know them—what their interests and passions are,” he says.

Building relationships also builds ties to the organization. “Loyalty is even more critical with top performers because, ultimately, they have a lot more opportunities to leave,” Mr. Grafsgaard says. “Managers should treat these top performers as the key assets they are. If they need to be replaced, it could take years before you regain that level of proficiency.” PM





Related Content

  • PMI Case Study

    Fujitsu UK member content open

    This case study outlines the learning framework Fujitsu put in place to prepare project managers fully at the start of their careers.

  • Project Management Journal

    The Impact of Executive Coaching on Project Managers' Personal Competencies member content locked

    By Ballesteros-Sánchez, Luis | Ortiz-Marcos, Isabel | Rodríguez-Rivero, Rocío Personal competencies have been shown to be increasingly reliable predictors of successful project managers. This research studies whether executive coaching is effective in strengthening personal…

  • PM Network

    2018 Jobs Report member content open

    By Rockwood, Kate The outlook is better than it's been in years. The global economy is surging, boosting job markets across sectors and continents. The global GDP growth projection of 3.7 percent for this year…

  • PM Network

    Stop the turnover member content open

    By Kroll, Karen M. Employers take heed: as demand overtakes supply, project practitioners who aren't happy in their current positions will find plenty of opportunities to move on. This article discusses how…

  • PM Network

    No pain, no gain member content open

    By Scott, Lindsay Studying project failures provides us with the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. However, what kind of effect do project failures have when interviewing for a new position? This…