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Over the past 24 years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview for project manager roles, be evaluated as a project manager, hire project managers, evaluate project managers, and coach and mentor project managers. Through this experience, I’ve learned that it is very difficult to identify a great project manager without first seeing them in action. I’ve read hundreds of resumes that had all the right titles, big name companies, and marketable projects only to be let down during the interview. I would find out that the candidate wasn’t the lead PM, didn’t manage the project end-to-end, or wasn’t really in charge of driving the project and making it a success.

The best option is to see them in action before making the hiring decision. Some companies will use contract-to-hire for this purpose. Another option is to check references but most candidates will only give you great references (who wouldn’t?). Better is to find your own references from people you already know that will give you an honest appraisal (caution: be careful if the candidate’s current employer isn’t aware they are interviewing for other positions as you may tip them off if you call the wrong person for a reference).

Assuming you can’t see them in action first, how does one size up a project manager? I’ve found it helpful to focus on a project manager who is balanced in experience, knowledge, and soft skills. It takes knowledge to have the right tools to manage a project, it takes experience to know which tools to use, when to use them, and to what extent, and it takes soft skills to navigate a project through a corporate bureaucracy. Here’s the list I like to use when evaluating or coaching a project manager:

PM Experience
Some people just focus on the project manager title and number of years with that title. I don’t find either to be relevant without knowing more about the projects. Here is a list of things to consider when evaluating project manager experience:

  • Extent of Experience: Number of years in a PM role, number of projects managed, size of company, and status of PM (employee or consultant).
  • Scope of Experience: Experience in the lead PM role of a project. Experience managing projects through the full project life-cycle.
  • Size of Projects: Size of project in terms of budget, team members, and vendors.
  • Complexity of Projects: Complexity of a project can be in the form of environmental or organizational complexity, complexity of the product or product integration, or complexity due to project dependencies, risks, or issues.
  • Types of Projects: Types of projects (ex: software development, systems integration, vendor selection, process improvement, technology deployment, etc…).

PM Knowledge
I have met some really great project managers in my career who didn’t know very much about project management. They were successful based solely on their personality and soft skills. With that said, having a large toolbox of skills and techniques can be very valuable to a project manager, especially as the size, complexity, and number of projects being managed increases. Here are some categories for evaluating project manager knowledge:

  • PMO: Knowledge of the concepts, processes, and tools commonly used to improve an organization’s project management capability via a PMO.
  • Portfolio Management: Knowledge of the concepts, processes, and tools commonly used to align programs and projects with business strategy and objectives via portfolio management.
  • Program Management: Knowledge of the concepts, processes, and tools commonly used to manage a collection of projects as a program.
  • Project Management: Knowledge of the concepts, processes, and tools commonly used to initiate, plan, execute, control, and close a project.
  • Formal Education: Project management training programs or college courses.
  • Certifications: PMP or other project management certifications.

PM Character
And finally, it is very rare for a project manager to become successful without developing outstanding soft skills. How many successful project managers do you know who have zero communications skills or confidence? I’m betting not many. Here are some categories of soft skills that are important for success in project management:

  • Ethics & Integrity: Gains the trust of leadership, stakeholders, peers, and team members.
  • Composure: Able to maintain composure and perspective while leading teams through tough situations. When a project is in a state of chaos, the PM keeps the team focused and moving forward.
  • Dealing with Ambiguity: Able to successfully function during times of uncertainty and changing priorities. Able to lead innovative projects that don’t have a clear roadmap to rely on for guidance.
  • Relationships: Able to build strong relationships with key individuals/allies throughout the organization.
  • Political Savvy: Able to recognize, understand, and maneuver a project through corporate bureaucracy and individual politics.
  • Results Orientation: Able to drive a team to overcome obstacles and achieve results. This is especially important during the last 5% of a project.
  • Communication: Adapts communication style as appropriate for the audience. Able to speak confidently in front of large groups. Good listening skills.
  • Confidence: Doesn’t need to sell anything. Able to make decisions and move forward without having to ask for permission. Has a sense for when it’s time to escalate a decision. Takes charge and drives projects forward.

How do you rate in these categories as a project manager? This list should help you identify your strengths and weaknesses so that you can develop a game plan for becoming a more balanced project manager. If you manage project managers, how does your team rate using these categories? How can you use this list as a tool to develop more balanced project managers? Lastly, what should be added to the lists above?

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