New England Project Services



Saving Time When Hiring a Project Manager
By Mike Cooper, first published in the ProjectTimes newsletter, July 25th, 2012


Hiring a project manager is a real challenge. A good project manager has to be capable of combining interpersonal skills with the technical aspects of project management. Unless you either know the person yourself, or a have a personal recommendation from someone you trust who both knows exactly what you are looking for and what the candidate has to offer, you will not know if you have the right person until some considerable time after they have started work - although you might quickly know you have the wrong person if things start to turn sour quickly.

Hiring starts with knowing what you need and why you need it. Then the search for potential candidates begins. As someone who has seen job descriptions for many project management positions, who has been a project manager, has trained project managers, and has hired (and fired) project managers, I see many times a lack of clarity in what people’s expectations are about project managers, which then results in an ineffectively written job description. You can save yourself time as a hiring team, and the time of candidates and recruiters, and improve your odds of getting appropriate candidates, by making sure that you are clear on what your needs are, and by then articulating that into a well-constructed job description.

I said “hiring starts with knowing what you need”. So what is a Project Manager? Are there different types of project manager’s for different projects? How does that affect the job description and the type of candidates that you should be looking for? Let’s explores some aspects of these questions, and see how this can help improve your hiring focus.

As someone who has personally managed many projects, there are several things that I would want to know to help determine my suitability for a position with the title of “Project Manager”. Here is a selection of them:

  • What is the expectation about my role in terms of the split between business, technical, and project leadership?
  • What is the scale of the project?
  • What is the environment like?
  • When does the project end?
  • What is regarded as “success”?
  • Are there already constraints on the project?

Answering these questions before seeking to hire a project manager (PM) can help to define the role and the desired experiences of the person to fill the role. So let’s take a look at each one in turn.


Expectations in Terms of Split Between Business, Technical, and Project Leadership

In my experience being involved with IT projects for 30 years there are often three key roles that are essential on a project:

  • business leader – the person who knows the organizational purpose for the project - what benefits it will deliver to the business
  • technical leader – the person who knows what technologies are needed to implement the project objectives and can provide the technical guidance to the team
  • project leader – the person who is responsible for leading the project team to deliver the objectives – they have the knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently

These three key roles may be performed by fewer than three people, and in some cases may all be the responsibility of one person, with a variety of potential job titles – team leader, development manager, project manager, technical leader, etc. I have seen organizations go through different levels of maturity, from disorganized collections of people getting work done, through having just a technical leader, to understanding the difference between technical leadership, business leadership, and project leadership and splitting this up across different people for larger projects.

So one of the first questions to consider about your need for a project manager (PM) is “what is the relationship between the PM and other key leaders on the team?”. A related question would be to consider the interaction between the PM and other key leaders outside the project team. What do you understand to be the main responsibilities of the PM as it relates to the project, the business, and the technology? I worked in one organization where the PM and the technical leader were deemed at best peers, and at worst the technical leader viewed the PM as an administrative person responsible for scheduling work – which did not stack up to the PM’s view of his / her role! So there was a lack of understanding and agreement about the role of the PM, which resulted in less than effective working relationships between key leaders of the project team and the rest of the organization. Writing an effective job description would not be possible in this situation until the disconnect is resolved.

Often, in small technology teams, the PM is expected to contribute technically. Is this so for your position? I have seen job descriptions for a PM that really seem more like that of a technical leader, where the technology needs appear to be paramount. Make sure this split is adequately stated in your job description. When you have understood this, you can add relevant expectations to the desired experiences of the person you are looking for.

People often underestimate the leadership and management effort required on projects. A general rule of thumb I found that was borne out from years of experience was that for every 10 people there was a need for a full time equivalent leader / manager. This may be embodied in one person or split between then PM (who would then do other activities) and one or more team leaders. This may or may not match up to experiences in your organization. Are you expecting your project manager to work full time on project management activities, or are you also expecting them to contribute to other activities? Thinking this through should help your definition of and search for a PM.

So consider these different aspects to project leadership carefully and be as clear as you can about the role of the PM you want, making sure this is reflected appropriately in the job description.

What is the scale of the project?

I often see jobs advertised for a project manager without giving any indication of the scale of the project(s) to be managed. There are several factors which affect the seniority and capabilities of the person you want to hire, such as:

  • How many staff will the PM have on his team? Managing a 5 person project is different in many respects to a 20 person project.
  • Are staff from other parts of the organization involved? These staff may be only available at specific times and for specific amounts of time, so this needs to be carefully managed - use of several staff from other functions often requires good persuasion and negotiation skills.
  • Are vendors involved? Managing large vendors, or large numbers of small vendors, is not for the inexperienced – you don’t want the vendors to take advantage of your company.

Generally, with small project teams the PM is expected to take on some of the non-PM project activities; this gets back to the previous discussion about the split between PM / technical / business activities. The larger the project the more important the interpersonal skills of the PM come into play. Consider these various issues when deciding what skills you want in a prospective PM.

What is the environment like?

Some PMs have not had training in project methodologies, whether via formal or on the job training, and may struggle when moving from an informal into a more structured environment. Good PMs with plenty of experience of different methodologies know that the methodology is just a tool to help get the project done, and can typically adapt to whatever the given approach of an organization is. A PM without this experience may not recognize this, and follow a methodology like a book instead of using it in an appropriate manner to a given situation.

PMs that come from a highly structured top-down organized company may find it difficult to work in a heavily matrixed organization. In particular, the need to manage by influence in a matrixed team rather than by direct command can be a difficult challenge for them.

Therefore you need to consider what the environmental aspects of managing the project(s) in your organization are that will affect the skills you need in a PM, and then consider how to document them in the job description.

When does the project end?

It helps to know if you are expecting the PM to take a development system into production and maintenance. Some developers who have become PM’s are not skilled in the aspects of production launch and ongoing maintenance. Furthermore, they may view these as less interesting parts of their work and want to get onto the next development project, whereas for the organization, moving into production and maintenance are exciting times when the value of the investment in the project is finally being given back to the organization. Know and articulate what you are looking for in terms of the “end” of the project.

What is regarded as “success”?

As an organization, do you know what the key measurements of a successful project are? Do you focus more on the project internal measurements (such as getting something done on time and on budget) or on external measurements (such as gaining more customers)? Is it a combination? Is it the ability of the PM to constantly adjust to changing requirements while keeping the team morale high and the work getting done effectively? Knowing what is important can help drive both how you write the job description and how you assess candidates.

Are there already constraints on the project?

As a PM I really want to know what I have been “setup” with. Is there already a budget, are timescales set in stone, are the resources already identified? Clearly if a PM comes into the middle of a project there will be expectations about all these things, but organizations typically have some high level budget in mind before any project starts. What are you expecting from the PM in terms of helping the organization estimate work? I have rarely seen job descriptions make reference to how much experience a PM has about organizing work estimates and project risks, yet these are critical to the success of projects. Even if you are using Agile techniques and have much flexibility within each release there are going to be some overall expectations. Understanding what you are expecting from PM’s is going to make for a more targeted job description, especially in terms of being able to define the expected skills you are looking for in a candidate.


I hope you have realized that there are many aspects to project management that your organization should review before launching into the hiring process. I have just presented a selection of some of the more important questions to consider – each organization will have its own unique requirements. Whether you are hiring a contractor for a single project or for a full time position can also influence the job description.

If you find it challenging to consider some of the above questions there are several resources that you can use to help. For instance, there are many interesting topics on various discussion forums about project management – I have found a recent one about whether a Project Manager should be a Scrum Master on LinkedIn to be fascinating, with several views I had not previously considered, such as organizations deciding that the PM takes on the role of Product Owner rather than Scrum Master.

Once you believe you have a good understanding of the role, you can start to develop the job description, reviewing it to make sure you feel it reflects what you want the person to do, and the skills you want them to have. Of course, it will never be perfect, but with careful thought it will be part of an approach that results in more appropriately targeted candidates for your organization to consider.

Good luck with the hiring!

Copyright © Michael Cooper, 2012



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