What is a Project Manager and how to hire one effectively

One of the complaints that seem to reappear constantly is that hiring the right project manager is next to impossible. Especially in areas such as IT that is frequently accused of not having enough of the right people in any position.

Which in the face of the current recession (or is it depression) seems strange.

Recent academic studies have shown that problem lies not in the supply but in the demand.

One of the biggest problems with hiring a project manager is simply determining what you really require and asking only for that. But doing that requires a change in the preconceived notions to better reflect reality.

The second problem is being prepared to spend the correct amount to get the required skills. This second issue however, is closely related to the first. In many ways, it stems from the first issue.

So what is a project manager and how do I hire the right one.

The first question to consider is, “What is a project manager?”

You would think that the words would be a clue. A project manager is a manager of projects. But in fact, that’s only half-right. A project is a short endeavour that is unique and time bound. That is, it has a defined beginning and a defined end. In between is a process that will be unique for every project. This is considerably different from an operational endeavour. Operational processes do not have a beginning and an end (or at least, one hopes not). And its processes are consistently repeated rather than unique to the cycle.

The second part of the answer is that this individual is a manager. You’d think that was straightforward, but I don’t know how many project manager advertisements I’ve seen where the position is listed as technical non-management.

While a project can be planned and directed, it really can’t be managed. Instead, what a project manager does is manage the people involved in a project. The problem is that the individual members of the project team do not directly (or even indirectly) report to the project manager. This leads the unaware to mistake a lack of formal authority with a non-management position.

In fact, a project manager is at the very least, a supervisor level individual. Personally, I prefer to refer to that type of person as a lead hand (e.g. a lead programmer or lead business analyst). Of course, that reflects my origins in construction.

The second issue is that project managers are often expected to be hands-on experts in the area that they are responsible for. Again, this is a gross misunderstanding of their role.

In fact, the project manager is the avatar for the project sponsor. Effectively, they act as the hands, eyes, and ears of the project sponsor who actually owns the project. This is why an active sponsor is so critical to the success of a project. While the project manager is an assistant, the authority rests with the project sponsor.

As such, the project manager must be able to function at effectively the same level (or slightly below) as the project sponsor. This means that if the appropriate project sponsor is a vice-president then the project manager must be capable of functioning as an assistant vice-president. If the project sponsor is a director, then the appropriate project manager must be able to function as an assistant-director.

While having subject matter expertise can help a senior manager, being expected to be hands-on is foolish. Their job is to direct and manage the efforts of their people. And they need to be hired for those skills — not the ability to post an account.

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