Project Management Institute

Your Go-Getters

How To Keep Them

Top-performing project teams deserve more than just another huge assignment. Here's how to keep them happy and productive.




You get your project, do a good job, and what's the reward? Another project. Sound familiar? You often don't appreciate what you have until it's too late—and nowhere is that more true than when developing and keeping project management achievers. John C. Rahiya, PMP, senior vice president at Novations Project Management, says that when it comes to incenting top performers, project team leaders quite often are overlooked. “People might start looking at other jobs if they think that all the reward they will get is their company throwing more impossible projects their way,” he says.

Leaders value project managers who clearly surpass their peers in skills and performance—just as they do employees in any functional area. Because project management is a younger discipline than professions such as sales or finance, the best human resources practices to keep high-performing project teams happy and productive are not as thoroughly understood. But there are some clear steps that project managers can take to help keep their retention numbers at a healthy level.


Choose the right candidates. If you want to have top performers to reward, front-load the process by choosing the right candidates for entry-level positions—the ones who are more likely to pursue a project management career. “Historically, companies tend to select their best technologists for project management positions, and they don't necessarily make the best project managers,” says J. Kent Crawford, PMP, PMI Fellow, president and CEO at PM Solutions, a project management consultancy based in Havertown, Pa., USA.

Mr. Crawford's company worked with researchers from Caliper International to define the important competencies of a successful project manager and develop a competency assessment tool to measure traits of project managers. The profile only measures the “softer” traits that are critical to project management success.


Competency assessment assists in identifying strengths and weaknesses. Where weaknesses exist, such as the inability to communicate well, poor negotiating skills or the inability to operate in a political environment, the Caliper model helps identify areas for development and improvement. “Many individuals naturally exhibit these traits,” he says. “If not, they must be developed or enhanced for project management success.”



Impartial distributions of goods and assignments always will be a fact of business life, but there are some things that managers can do to help the have-nots accept their lot. “Somebody is always going to get promoted over somebody else, and you want to inspire people, not anger them,” says Martha Heller, managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at Z Resource Group.

Set clear expectations of what the company values and rewards. A framework that outlines prized qualities and accomplishments will help employees understand why certain people are achieving. Work with human resources professionals to detail policies and procedures that spell out expectations—then live by it.

Ensure that continuing education of some sort is available to everybody. With equal opportunities, no one can claim favoritism. James H. Foreman, PMP, the vice president of client solutions at ESI International, also recommends mentoring, in which top performers coach up-and-comers. “It's a plum for the person being mentored to help them perform better,” he says.

Use team-based incentives in conjunction with the individual bonuses that top performers receive. “Some part of the bonus process should be associated with team success rather than individual performance,” Mr. Foreman says.

Many claim that leaders do not have to be born, they can be made. “By recognizing the skills and behaviors of good leaders, we can improve leadership abilities through coaching, training and mentoring,” says Alan Garvey, Managing Director at the London office of ESI International, an international project management training and consulting company.

Give team members a clear career path. One of the important ways that companies can keep their high-performing project teams happy is by ensuring that team members have a solid sense of career progression—something that is lacking at many companies. “The reality is that most companies lack a clear career path for project managers,” Mr. Crawford says.

The growth in the number and quality of project management offices is a good sign that companies are beginning to recognize the value of developing the project workforce. Mr. Crawford, co-author of Optimizing Human Capital with a Strategic Project Office, [Taylor and Francis, 2005] says that companies also would do well to add other titles and levels to the project management oeuvre. For example, project controllers, project planners, program managers and project estimators are all functions that belong within the project management career trajectory, he says.

Evaluate team members correctly, including both pluses and minuses, workload and ability to innovate. Mr. Garvey recommends using a competency model tailored to project management skills to help fine-tune the skills of high-performance employees—and start them on their way toward the training necessary to get them to the next level. “The model consists of a set of key competencies that, when identified in a particular individual, produce a high likelihood of a strong performer,” he says. “It can be applied by organizations to help them identify potential top performers early on to fast-track them into the right positions."


“Clarity with regard to expectations is a powerful device,” says James H. Foreman, PMP, the vice president of client solutions at ESI International. He evaluates his project management team based on areas of expertise, including team leadership, communications skills, personal effectiveness and customer focus. “Using the competency view lets them understand the broad spectrum of characteristics an organization looks for in a project manager, and identifies areas in which they can polish their skills,” he says.

Use a competency evaluation model to pinpoint areas where training would be helpful, and make sure that your top performers get the best opportunities to improve themselves through advanced training courses. “Choose training that's a little more selective for your high performers,” Mr. Rahiya says. “For example, many companies have a group of individuals that are being groomed as future leaders, and those people will tend to go to some type of executive leadership training.” Doing so provides your go-getters with the recognition that you think they have great potential, and are making an investment in them beyond the normal realm of training.

Provide the right incentives, from money to recognition and training opportunities to plum assignments. People who do a good job need to be compensated fairly. Doing otherwise will result in nothing but resentment and a steady stream of your best employees heading for the exit. “You can never get past the fact that people do work for money,” says Mr. Rahiya, “and you have to make sure that they are being paid what they are worth.”

But realize people's motivation to do a good job doesn't end with their paycheck. Give your go-getters the opportunity to meet one-on-one with senior management, advises Martha Heller, managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at Z Resource Group, an executive recruitment firm in Westborough, Mass., USA. “If leadership is the skill you're trying to cultivate and reward, using leadership opportunities as an incentive could be the way to go,” she says. For example, give up-and-coming leaders the opportunity to represent the department at a companywide event or a chance to serve on a task force. If you present a quarterly update to the executive committee and a project team member has done a stellar job, allow them to participate. “They get a feel for the business and what it's like to be a senior person, and you get to show your best people to your own bosses,” Ms. Heller says.

Ensure that the best assignments, in terms of visibility, ROI and business value, go to your top performers. “The best way to motivate people is to give them great assignments,” Mr. Foreman says. “The people who are performing will wind up with the choice assignments, and that's something that's visible to all players.”

You can do this by providing a strong sense of continuity about what assignments are in the pipeline, says Jeffrey Sears, chief information officer at the Doherty Employment Group in Edina, Minn., USA. Many technology project managers cut their teeth on enormous projects such as Y2K or enterprise resource planning implementations, and they are looking for the next big thing. “You have to make sure there's some kind of next step,” he says. “You need strong senior management that will invest in all phases of a project, so that you know what you will be doing down the road.” He also suggests that emphasizing the business value of a project goes a long way toward establishing its importance to the project team. “Show them how the next initiative—whether it's an integration project or a rollout of new functionality—fits into the larger context of the company itself. They have to see how the puzzle pieces fit together,” he says.


Conversely, it's also important to give your top performers a chance to blow off steam after a particularly tough project, Mr. Rahiya says. “It's often wise to give them an alternative assignment after completion of a key, strategic, complex and or plain tough project,” he says. “If high performers are rewarded with one tough project after another, with no relief or respite, they are going to simply burn out. Or, even worse, they might become a low performer.”

Get high-level backing for project management by working efficiently with sponsors. Because executive sponsors have the ear of those at the top, you should broadcast successes—and the top-performers that made them possible—to your sponsors as much as possible. By feeding sponsors information that makes them look good, you in turn make yourself and your team look good.

Do your best to get project management companywide recognition as a vital success factor, starting with recognition from the executive suite. “Senior management has to respect the project management credo,” Mr. Sears says. “Until you have that level of understanding that this is important, you're going to lose people and underdeliver on projects, under-resource them and do things on the cheap.”

Mr. Crawford agrees, citing Marriott International's practice of bringing in a very senior level executive to keynote the company's project management training classes. “When you hear a very senior vice president say things like, ‘Project management is one of the most important and effective initiatives in the company,’ it makes that group of 50 to 70 people feel very successful,” he says. “Even if you do the right candidate selection, do professional development well and provide incentives, it's important to have periodic touchpoints to make sure people know that the company feels project management is important.”

If you prove your worth and that of your team to management, you'll find that instead of just another assignment, you could be rewarded with a whole new position. PM

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