Can You Tell if Your Next Star Project Manager is Right Under Your Nose?
By Mike Cooper
I’ve been involved in project management for a couple of decades (actually, longer than that, but who’s counting), and worked for over 20 years for IT service companies. Our ability to manage projects well was not only what we were measured on, but if we were just 20% over budget on most of our projects the financial consequences to the company were unthinkable. Therefore having not just good, but great, project managers was essential to our success.
It’s really difficult to hire a good project manager; there are so many variables and unknowns, unless you have personal experience or recommendations from trusted sources. We always believed that grooming people within our company was the best approach. Don’t get me wrong, you can hire a great project manager (and that’s what I do now, help companies hire project managers), but if you have the time and the ability to groom from within, then that’s going to be a better approach – but you have to understand what you want from a project manager, and how to start spotting that talent in your people.
Almost anyone who has been in the technology sector for several years has seen how the transition to taking on a project management role from within can fail – too often companies take an excellent technical leader and give them a project to manage without considering properly if they are suited to this new role. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Being a capable project manager is a combination of project management specific skills (such as how to plan, knowing what is good about a methodology that you can use on a specific project, knowing how to report progress accurately), interpersonal capabilities (how to motivate the team, how to get buy-in from the project owners, dealing with dissent) and leadership. I’d like to explore some of the ways to spot leadership potential in a person – some perhaps obvious, and some less so.
Let’s start with a celebration. Our project has reached a key milestone, and it’s time to recognize the hard work, and let our hair down a little. We have the budget to go out to a nice restaurant for dinner. If you think someone has leadership potential considering getting them to organize the dinner! Why? I often worked in large metropolitan areas, where team members did not live near each other. If someone could get the majority of the team to agree on both a date and a location, then they had leadership potential! Not all passed – but we always ended up with a dinner, since being the fallback person, I made sure it happened, because I wanted that celebratory meal.
Want an example more closely related to work? Have someone on your team lead a meeting; my favorites are brainstorming sessions where corralling the participants are typically challenging. Have you ever been in a meeting that was not run well? All too often, you say? Sorry to hear that! Well run meetings are very much like mini-projects. They need to have a well-defined purpose – why are we having the meeting? They need resources – people need to be invited, understand what their purpose at the meeting is, any pre-meeting materials distributed and they need to get to the meeting. Then comes the crucial management of the meeting. This is where things so often go wrong; discussions go off on a tangent, people who have important things to say do not contribute for one reason or another, and there are no conclusions reached other than to suggest having a follow up meeting! Unless something genuinely unexpected has come up, the meeting must be kept on track to its purpose, with all relevant participants given an opportunity to contribute, decisions made as appropriate (which may not be by reaching an overall consensus) and reach a well-defined end point with any next steps identified . Yes, it requires real leadership and a variety of project management skills to organize and deliver a well-run meeting.
Some other opportunities for exploring leadership potential in your people:
- Give someone a loosely defined objective and ask them to flush it out. Listen to the questions they ask up front to help them frame what it is you’ve asked them to do and what you expect of them, see who they solicit ideas from and observe their attention to detail.
- Thinking and reacting calmly under high stress situations is one of the hallmarks of a good leader. When you next have a crisis, consider letting someone else on your team handle it (with close supervision of course) and see how they perform – you may be pleasantly surprised and learn new things about people’s capabilities. Can they take charge in a responsible way?
- People moving into leadership need to be able to “let go” of some of their work to others – you can’t and shouldn’t do it all. This is one of the hardest lessons for a technical person moving into project management to learn. They need to allow others to get on with work, even if the PM believes they can do a better job themselves. So look for opportunities to give potential leaders responsibility over others in a team leading role – this is perhaps one of the most obvious ways to start to groom a project manager, but knowing what some of the pitfalls are that the person may fall into means you can help them identify these challenges and therefore overcome them.
- Even in these days of instant and abbreviated communication via text and tweets, communicating by writing a capable report remains an essential skill of a project manager. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they write. Ask someone to write a two-page brief on how they would roll out something that could add value to your project or your organization and carefully review the flow of the document and how they see the work being organized and delivered.
- Take a process in your company that you think could be better and have someone suggest how to re-engineer the process to be more efficient or cheaper. Create pressure by giving them an unreasonable timeframe to complete the task and see how they do.
These are just a few examples of how to spot and encourage leadership – perhaps you can think of other novel approaches you’ve tried that led to success stories.
Michael Cooper, 2012