Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

What do you look for in a Project Manager?


We have recently hired a new Project Manager. While we were looking to hire, I spent a bit of time thinking about what skills would best complement our team. While it did not necessarily start out as the most scientific process, as we progressed, we started to get things more structured. I thought I would share my experience with my readers.

The first thing you need to establish is someone you are considering for the position knows the basics of project management. While this may sound like an obvious statement, it was quite an eye opener how many do not have a well rounded understanding. An accreditation such as PMP, PRINCE2 or Scrum Master is a good indication of some proficiency. I look for an element of commitment to one’s profession and use this as a way of eliminating the lazy ones. Depending on the type of organisation and the type of work you want delivered, an executive management degree like an MBA may be more appropriate as the first screen. Some make it in the profession without a recognized qualification. In my view it is likely to be the exception, rather than norm. Hiring someone is inherently risky. Stack the odds in your favour.

A Project Manager is an interface between the customers and the delivery team. Communication is a critical success factor. When you review resumes, look for uncluttered and grammatically correct ones. These indicate attention to detail, a key to successful communication. If you are using a recruitment agency, this becomes difficult. They have a tendency to use predefined templates and negates your ability to judge the candidate’s written presentation skill. When you are considering a candidate’s contributions in a project, always pay close attention to “I was part of …” sentences. Always enquire what the candidate’s role was in the success or otherwise. If you notice unusual gaps between projects, ask why. It may indicate projects that did not go well.

When you are interviewing, let the candidate speak first to an open ended question. This will give you an indication of confidence levels. More clear and concise the introduction, the better. A good candidate will stand out here. As you drill down to specific skill areas, always quiz someone on what methodology they use for estimating effort for a project. Many projects fail because work is under-estimated. A good project manager must have a consistent repeatable method for estimating. Follow this up with how they monitor and control projects. This is a tricky area to judge. Some Project Managers are great at initiating and starting projects, others excel in monitoring an controlling. Closing projects seems a more difficult art and fewer people excel here. It is unusual to find a single project manager with exceptional skills in all three of these areas. Depending on the mix of your existing capacity, it may pay to consider where the biggest gap is and focus your search accordingly.

Things never go to plan. If it did, project managers would not be required. A good project manager has a solid grasp of the risks the project faces and has some ideas about what actions they will take if certain thresholds are exceeded. Quiz the candidates on how they handled a similar scenario. Listen out for what plans they had made beforehand, how they initiated the risk actions and how things were escalated up the chain. People are reluctant to talk about things that did not go well. A good project manager will be able to articulate a reasoned set of actions even as things are unfolding.

Many organizations have an expectation that he project manager will provide vision for their projects. This is a flawed notion. Project managers need to be good leaders to ensure they command the respect of their team and lead by example. However, vision is a luxury for a project manager. It is the role of the top management or the client to provide he vision for the product. The project manager’s responsibility is to deliver the products within given tolerances, and to escalate as soon as the tolerance is likely to be exceeded.

I am keen to hear about your experiences. Drop me a line if you have hired recently. I would love to know how you went about it.

7 responses to “What do you look for in a Project Manager?

  1. vvakar February 7, 2012 at 3:12 am

    The one thing I would love to see in a PM is good negotiating skills. Things like, how to get people to tell you what they REALLY think about something. Social dynamics in development groups tend to be muted because developers are often naturally introverted and conformist, but that doesn’t mean developers don’t have opinions of their own. I’ve seen projects where a more dominant developer took the initiative in a direction that was really not ideal, just because that developer somehow had a preference for that direction. A good PM won’t have the time to learn product architecture etc, but should have a way to cut through this invisible bureaucracy. In the end it’s all a game. I’ve seen PM job ads that even ask for some knowledge of game theory.

  2. Peter Dolden February 7, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    There’s a redundant adjective here, Project. All tasks are projects and require managing. What is required is a “good” manager. This is someone who can take the money, manpower, materials and resources and achieve the specific predetermined outcome desired. Look to the individual and how they conduct there life and what they have acheived. Don’t go solely for highly qualified specialists as they often get promoted to the level of their incompetance.

  3. Maher February 7, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Its an interesting article however I will have to add that every project is different and not every successful project manager is made for every project. There are so many factors that affect the project managers role. 1. The organization’s behavior towards a project manager. 2. The companies procedures. (How good are the procedures and are they needed) 3. The tendering process. (Did the project manager have the chance to communicate with the employees that bid the project. 4. And one important factor is the culture and how other employees lookup to the person. (Consider a case where you would place a young project manager who is knowledgable and highly experienced and place him in a culture where age plays an important role. What would happen is alot of older employees would have a rejection to his leadership (e.g How come at such a young age) especially when that person is not given the title of a project manager. So what ends up happening is you get a project manager with FULL RESPONSIBLITY but no AUTHORITY and thats a recipe for disaster. Actually, I have encountered that there are plenty of projects which are built as such. Furthermore, if we are talking about an organization with many procedures, this makes the project not lean. Again every project is different, one must consider the mix of people on the project. If you dont have the right people, it would give its leader a very difficult task. Another item to consider are the interest of different departments. I come from a lean process environment which works well on complex projects. In lean environments, work gets done more efficiently and experienced project managers shine. In highly procedural companies, you would find that all project managers would lose their skill and they become easily replacable. I have noticed in the East that large project required double the amount of people that in the west. But again a project manager need to understand the upper managements strategy towards the project. If this strategy is not communicated then the Project Manager would be lost.

  4. Nelson Gapare February 9, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Mate, long time. I like that piece. The one thing I would say in addition to those key ingredients, is pragmatism. I have had some numpties that are well qualified, but just couldn’t deal with difficult situations, nor negotiate. And, if you have a pm with no vision you are screwed because you need them to be forward thinking to manage risk and deliver through the team.
    Cheers. Nelson

  5. Pingback: How do I lead when I’m not the line manager? « Project Management in Practice

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