Project Management Institute

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Finding the best project managers for your company means digging for details and looking beyond the usual suspects.

by Kevin Gault

aren't only nerve-wracking for the person looking for a position. They can be just as stressful for those doing the hiring. In the hunt for the perfect project manager, it's not always easy to spot the qualities and capabilities that separate the cream of the crop from the run of the mill.

When searching for a superstar project manager, many companies zero in on a candidate's certifications or lofty academic titles, but these things may not be the best indicator of future success.

“Having a certification or advanced degree doesn't guarantee that an individual is going to perform better on the job,” says Mike Hayes, joint managing director at AAAI Group, a recruitment consultancy in Sydney, Australia. “Those credentials tell you something about a person's ambition and desire to keep improving their knowledge, but work experience will tell you more about how the person will perform for your organization.”

Combine the two elements, though, and you have the best of both worlds. “Many project managers go out and get the certification but don't have the work experience to back it up,” says Tracy Cashman, partner in IT recruiting at Winter, Wyman & Co., a recruiting firm in Waltham, Mass., USA. “Certification is most useful when someone can support it with years of experience—it gives them a more well-rounded approach to their work.”

Some credentials require the applicant have project management work experience. For example, Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification holders must obtain 7,500 hours in a position of responsibility leading and directing specific tasks and 60 months of project management experience.

Just what type of experience should companies be looking for? Ironically, the best candidates might not have the title of project manager. “There are a lot of people out there who are doing project management work very well who aren't called project managers,” says Nick Lake, PMP, project director at BlueLake Management Services Ltd., Lindfield, U.K. “You can find people with the ability to be project managers in many different types of jobs. If someone has the right type of mind, the interpersonal skills and the general knowledge they need, they may be able to do the job of project manager well.”

Indeed, the best option may be to go for someone who has come up through the ranks of a specific discipline, such as computer programming. “Project managers tend to be more effective when they understand the work that's being done at all levels of an organization,” Ms. Cashman says.

Now it's time for the big event. During the interview, companies should try to get at the candidates’ methods for delivering projects by asking questions such as:

img How do you prioritize?

img How do you communicate your goals to your team?

img What do you do if you realize the project is going off track?

“Great project managers are totally focused on making sure outcomes are being addressed and achieved on a daily and weekly basis,” Mr. Hayes says.

Interviewers should also try to learn about a candidate's ability to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise during the course of a project. For example, find out what processes they used to deal with a difficult project in their past. Project managers should have diplomacy skills, he says, “but they also must be capable of making hard decisions and standing for what they believe in order to get the project done.”

Companies should also be looking for an ability to gain commitment from and build relationships with others. The project manager doesn't have to be everyone's friend, but he or she must be able to realize when someone is struggling with their tasks and offer support.

“You need someone who can get people to commit and get buy-in from them to do their part,” Mr. Hayes says. “The best project managers motivate and lead people through a project, so they've got to be good at relationship-building with a wide, diverse group. This skill also helps when it comes time to mediate disputes between people within your company and users outside the company who don't agree with them.”

It's not all about talking, though. Companies want someone who can listen as well. Project managers who lend a patient ear to team members and make an effort to truly understand their situation can solve minor problems before they blossom into bigger ones and, in the process, earn the respect of their colleagues as a fair leader. Observe how candidates listen to questions and instructions for an indication of how they'll perform on the job.

The Right Fit

Many of these qualities and capabilities can be summed up in one general recommendation: Look for a leader. “Natural leadership qualities are very important,” Mr. Hayes says. “People who have led before, managed teams, and been able to communicate with their peers and other team members to deliver an outcome have an essential quality for great project management.”

But it's equally important to find a leader who will be consistent with your organization's methods of operation.



“Some companies are rigid and bureaucratic. Some are more informal and have an open-door policy,” says Gayle Mitchell, PMP, senior project support manager at ACS Inc., an IT outsourcing firm in Dallas, Texas, USA. “The corporate culture affects behavior and communication styles, and it can determine whether or not someone will be successful in a particular role and organization. The culture of the organization dictates the kind of leaders—and leadership styles—they should pursue.”

Not every project manager—even ones with a seemingly perfect résumé—will necessarily be the right choice for the company. “It's very important to give candidates details about the culture of an organization so they'll know if the company will be a good fit for them,” she says. “Telling the candidate about the main elements of corporate culture—the mission statement, company leadership, products or services being offered and the audience or industry—can paint a picture for a candidate of what it's like to work at a company. Also, an identifiable culture will help a company attract good candidates.”

The Wooing Process

Even the recruitment process itself can help companies woo the right people—if they know how to appeal to a project manager's way of thinking.

“Job advertisements that show a company has a defined recruitment process with someone in charge of the process will appeal to good project managers,” Mr. Lake says. “And the recruiter who handles the job should know about the project management role so they can give helpful, well-informed answers to applicants’ questions.”

One final tip on finding the best project managers: You'll know one when you see one. “When I’m interviewing a great project manager, there's an air of confidence about them,” Mr. Hayes says. “They feel comfortable expressing themselves because they know how to get the job done. The technical knowledge required to do the job well is important, but the personality behind the knowledge is just as important.”

Maybe that X factor isn't that hard to spot, after all.

“In an interview, you can tell if someone has really done the work they say they've done by how they sound,” Ms. Cashman concurs. “They'll be able to speak about project management with authority and in detail.” PM


Kevin Gault is a Landenberg, Pa., USA-based freelance writer who covers human resources, technology, healthcare, travel and chemicals.

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.




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