Want to build your business? Prioritise your project managers

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Project management is key to commercial success, but delivering the organisational bottom line depends on valuing and retaining people over skills, writes Lindsay Scott.

In recent years project management has emerged from the traditional bastions of construction and heavy industry, permeating pretty much every sector. The Project Management Institute (PMI) predicts that we will need 15m more project managers globally by the year 2015 [1] - yet only 9% of organisations currently report successful project execution [2]. That’s a damning scenario that businesses should be acutely aware of if they are to profit in a competitive marketplace.

So where are we going wrong? The starting point is a commercial recognition of the wins that the right project management resources can achieve. There is a big distinction between the trained and accredited project manager with years of experience, and the 'accidental' project manager who lands on a project simply because they happen to be in the corresponding department. Consider, for example, a financial analyst within a company where a new financial system implementation is needed. The obvious assumption is that this person knows their job and department, is a subject matter expert, and is therefore equipped to deliver the project. Therein lies the road to disaster.

Don’t disregard the management in project management

I encounter many organisational leaders who simply don’t appreciate the true value of a fully trained project manager who is able to hit the ground running. Knowing a specific market or product is not the same as knowing how to manage people and processes to achieve project objectives. That requires a separate and discrete skillset. Recognising that it is people who deliver projects successfully is really the key to success.

Training and retention are key business drivers

Even in mature organisations, we still fail to understand the connection between good projects and good business. If the person allocated has no prior exposure to being a project manager then you’re leaving your success to chance. Would a finance department operate successfully without chartered accountants? Projects and project managers work in exactly the same way.

Bringing on new talent to deliver increasingly complex projects is an obvious concern for organisations now. So how do you ensure that talented junior staff are supported by the project leaders you need to drive your strategy forward?

The gap does not lie in theory or qualifications. It lies in good management of people. When I interview for a senior project manager role, I spend very little time exploring the technical side. Yes, that’s important, but what sets a good project leader apart is their ability to handle the softer skills – managing behaviours, resolving internal politics, motivating people and providing the right leadership. Ultimately, complex projects depend on hundreds, if not thousands, of stakeholders. Cracking that nut is what ultimately makes the difference between success and failure in a project.

Our 2014 Project Management Benchmark Report [3] shows some worrying trends around retention. 55% of organisations are struggling to fill project management roles in the current climate. 28% of employees are unhappy in their current role. When I interview project managers looking to move, though, money is rarely the key motivator. Their primary driver for change is to get away from internal politics and challenge themselves in a way that their current role cannot do. The danger is that we find ourselves dealing with an apathetic and demotivated workforce. This is the antithesis to good project delivery.

CIPD strategies to retain valuable talent

Leadership programmes that fast-track talent can go some way to addressing retention concerns by showing a commitment to experienced and valued project managers. However, organisations can mistakenly focus entirely on outstanding talent, ignoring those who might not shine quite as brightly but still do an excellent job every day. The project management field is full of ‘noisy heroes’. Those that ‘shout loudest’ are easily seen when it comes to talent spotting, yet it is often the calmest, solid project managers that are the real talent. You need these people to continue delivering projects successfully as they’ve always done. If you don’t pay attention to them you’ll struggle to retain them. It’s important to clarify how you recognise and drive talent on more than one level.

One practical solution is to introduce coaching into the mix. A good coach is always scanning the rest of the business to see where experiences can be gained and talent developed. They act as a champion, helping project managers to develop their project, people and business skills. A coach doesn’t have to be expensive. The process does, however, require time and an organisational commitment to developing your project managers in a way that suits their motivators and drivers in their careers.

The business case: The consequences of getting it wrong

If your project managers are not motivated and supported on an ongoing basis then the impact will be felt on your business-critical projects. A burnt out, unappreciated project manager who doesn’t want to be there raises a performance issue that can permeate a project. If retention strategies are non-existent and project managers are heading to the door you will have to replace those resources on the open market, incurring time, costs and delays. Not to mention the costs associated with project failure due to poor or unskilled performance. These figures can quickly escalate without the right leader in place to maintain control. It’s a common problem; I have seen it happen many times. If we consider this from a commercial perspective, the benefits of boosting retention levels through smart people management, training and development will ultimately drive healthy long-term organisational development. Projects are typically riskier than business as usual, demanding a fine balancing act of different processes and people. Looking after human assets in this acutely complex profession is a whole different ball game. That’s where the real challenge lies.

Lindsay Scott is the founder and director of project management recruitment company Arras People, and a respected author for PMI and PM Network Magazine. She will be speaking at Project Challenge on Wednesday 15 October. Entry is free and delegates can register to attend the event at www.projchallenge.com.

[1] Project Management Talent Gap Report, ©PMI 2013 http://bit.ly/1qAnkTy

[2] Pulse of the Profession, ©PMI 2014, http://bit.ly/1slUzMW

[3] Project Management Confidence Index, © Arras People 2014, http://bit.ly/1slWZuP

About Lindsay Scott

About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott is the founder and director of project management recruitment company Arras People

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