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How To Spot A Great Project Manager

24th September 2018

I met up with the Managing Director of a consultancy firm in the summer. He was enjoying a busy time, lots of new work, new clients and they had just made a small acquisition, happy days!

However, I asked if he was enjoying himself, he didn’t appear to be. He was worried about delivery, they were utilising project support from Formation (which is lovely) but he said he did not want to become reliant on short-term support. He said;

“I worry that one day I will turn around and our office will be full of project teams, none of which are actually employed by us.”

He made some analogy relating to rabbits. I got what he meant as I always have the same worry about IT projects growing arms and legs!

He told me what the core issue was for him in hiring project staff and I think this is a common challenge;

“David, when I get a CV, it looks good, right company, progressive career, they interview well and when they join, that’s when the issues arise. They aren’t open to ideas, it’s my way or the highway… they aren’t motivated, they have bad habits.”

I asked whether technically they were right and he said they are, they just don’t fit in. Hmmm……

Technical skills over experience

I think firms often spend too much time on determining technical skills at interview, exploring experience. Tell me about that large project, the showcase client, the big reference sites. This is just a fancy wrapper, it’s not the substance of the individual. Companies when hiring spend too much time asking ‘how’ questions.. “How would you approach this… or How do you ….”  This is all future gazing, generic questions, you aren’t really learning much about the individual and how they are as a Project Manager. It really is guesswork at best.

Where this MD came up short and I have changed a few details to protect his identity is spending the time analysing and assessing who the person is. If I had a pound for every time someone says “he looked good on paper…” or “but his CV looked excellent…” or… “it’s strange, he interviewed so well…” I would have my yacht by now.

Evaluate the person, not the job?

So, that brings us round to how you evaluate the person not the job they’ve done.

I did a mock interview last week over Skype for a friend who is going for a senior job in the public sector. As you would expect the documentation for the interview was immense. She emailed over loads of attachments for me to read through to get up to speed. I decided that technically I wouldn’t be able to do much beyond the “tell me a time…” or “give me an example of…” so left it there. However, what I could do was spend time on the person specification and here is where (I hope) I have really helped her.

We focused on the soft skills, who she is and why this will mean she will excel in the job she is interviewing for. Spending time fleshing this out, helped her CV become much more three dimensional. We used actual examples of where she had led teams, looked at what her bedside manner was like, how she reacted to deadlines but much more on an emotional level. I hope next month to hear how she has done.

Is there another way?

The other way that firms can make a difference in their selection to get the right attitude, character and behaviour on board is by using some of the evaluation tools available. We have used Thomas International in the past year and found it an effective way to look at behavioural responses in certain situations, it has been invaluable. It shows were gaps are (no-one is perfect) and where training needs might be. As with all these tools, they should be used to educate the interview process and inform decisions, not make the decision.

In short, continue to evaluate technical skills but endeavour to assess personality. When people leave firms it is often due to a fall-out, misunderstanding or ill-feeling rather than anything else. Getting the right behaviours on board is as important (possibly more important) than technical brilliance.