What recruiters want from project managers (and what the project management industry thinks they want)
What do employers want from project managers? If you are in the market for a new job, then a study in Project Management Journal* may give you the answer. The researchers looked at over 760 jobs and documented what recruiters were asking for. What came out on top might surprise you.
The top 5 skills requested by recruiters
OK, the first one on the list won’t surprise you at all: employers are looking for project managers with good communication skills. ‘Communication’ covers reporting, presenting and interpersonal skills. The top five skills list looks like this:
What professional bodies tell us is important
The interesting thing about this study is that the researchers compare what job ads ask for to what the project management professional bodies and literature tell us is important. In other words, they are comparing supply (project managers developing professionally through well-trodden credentials) and demand (what employers actually want).
Leadership, for example, is the thing that is most talked about at the moment in the professional project management world. The researchers say it is the hot topic for professional bodies and in professional development for project managers. But the job adverts say it is only in 8th position when it comes to being a desirable skill for a job candidate. Employers would rather have someone good planning skills (the 7th most requested competency) rather than a leader.
Another interesting fact for readers of this blog is that cost management comes out so highly in the adverts. It doesn’t feature at all in the top ten skills that project management literature tells us is important. We (the collective project management industry) are not supplying project managers with good cost management skills because it is not considered an essential skill. The employers beg to differ and count being able to balance the books as one of the top five. In fact, cost management features as a top five skill across three of the five industries studied: construction, engineering and government all rank cost management as essential. It doesn’t feature in the top five for ICT or healthcare projects (but that isn’t to say it isn’t in the top ten – this data isn’t given).
Time management is the same: the literature doesn’t rate this as a critical skill for project managers, but the research shows that employers value it very highly. Stakeholder management is in the same situation: a top five skill for recruiters but only ranking number 15 on the list of things that the global project management body of knowledge and literature think a project manager should be able to do.
So are professional bodies teaching the wrong things?
Professional bodies and the project management body of literature do not stress an importance on cost management, time management or stakeholder management and they do focus on leadership. This doesn’t align to what employers are asking for, based on this study of job adverts. So, are professional bodies focusing on the wrong things?
I don’t think professional bodies are focusing on the wrong things. I don’t think employers are asking for the wrong things either. The two sets of requirements are very different: a national or international project management association is focused on helping project managers be the very best that they can be based on the received wisdom and years of research into what makes project successful. An employer wants someone who can deliver a project and fit into their team and their existing project culture. Now.
There may also be something else at play: employers want people who can deliver in a very dynamic market place and perhaps the recognised industry standards for project management haven’t yet caught up. We’ve seen the introduction of stakeholder management in the latest PMI standards so there is definitely a shift towards aligning the knowledgebase with the practical skills that project managers need to be successful at work.
If nothing else, this study might explain why you are finding it so difficult to fill project management positions in your business!
* Ahsan, K., Ho, M. Khan, S. ‘Recruiting Project Managers: A Comparative Analysis of Competencies and Recruitment Signals from Job Advertisements’, Project Management Journal, Vol. 44, No. 5, pp36-54
One way to distinguish yourself from the other project managers in the department is to think about how good your grasp is of project finances. This is often an area where project managers have weaker skills because not all projects require them to balance lots of books and sometimes big projects even have financial analysts assigned to them so they don’t have to worry about working out the detail themselves.
So if you want to set yourself apart and develop a USP (unique selling point – something that makes you different from everyone else), building your project financial skills is a great start. You can then demonstrate how much value you add by being able to explain the project financials to your C-suite stakeholders.
Show you have a grasp on project finances
When asked, you should be able to talk knowledgeably about your project’s budget and whether or not you are on track. If you don’t have the figures to hand and you’ve been caught in the corridor by an exec who wants to know, explain that you don’t want to tell them the wrong thing and that you’ll check when you are back at your desk. Then follow up and email them the right figures as soon as you can. Of course, if pushed, you can always give a ballpark figure.
Show you understand the business case
Ideally, when you discuss your project with C-suite stakeholders (or anyone else, for that matter), you should be able to demonstrate that you have an understanding of the financials of the business case. If the project is going to deliver some kind of return on investment, then you should understand how that is going to be calculated. If there are other financial benefits, make sure you understand those and how the project deliverables and the work the team is doing will actually end up generating cash when the project is complete.
Work with your finance team
Get to know your finance department! They are a source of lots of useful information so find out what help they can offer you and make use of them! Even if they don’t have the staff to be able to dedicate lots of time to your project they can often help with ad hoc queries especially when it comes to things like invoice processing, year end processes and accruals.
Be aware of context that your project is working in. For example, is the company under some financial strains or is there pressure to spend a certain amount of the department budget before the end of the year?
Also make sure that you understand the financial terms that you are likely to hear when it comes to company budgets – ROI, IRR, payback period and so on. Check out my videos on these subjects if you need a refresher.
Think big picture
How does your project fit into your programme and the business strategy overall? This will also help set you apart as in my experience many project managers don’t have the ability to think about the bigger picture overall and focus very much on their own projects and getting those done (although this is changing). Being able to see the big picture is a further way to demonstrate your value to the C-suite and to set yourself apart from your fellow project managers.
Showing that you have a grasp on your project finances and how this affects the project and the company overall brings a touch of reality to business case, and helps you explain your project’s contribution to your team members as well. Make your business savvy the way you distinguish yourself from the competition at the top level – it really can set you apart in the quest for a new job or for recognition in what you do.
Today I talk to Dr Andrew Makar, IT program manager and author of Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy, about getting a new job.
Why is preparing for a new job more than just about practising responses to interview questions?
Preparing to find the next opportunity requires a lot more preparation than futility trying to memorize an exhaustive list of project management interview questions. The majority of the “interview tip” websites seem to think providing over 50 interview questions is a useful resource a candidate can apply in an interview setting.
It isn’t realistic to memorize questions that may never be asked. This is why finding new opportunities and preparing for upcoming interviews is a reflective one much like a project management lessons learned session or retrospective.
I advocate thinking about past scenarios rather than memorizing questions. Reviewing your resume, reflecting on the lessons learned from those past projects and positions provides a much better background than rehearsing the perfect answer to a question that may never be asked.
You talk about a career contact matrix in your book. What is that?
The career contact matrix is a tool I’ve used to help me identify opportunities, leads, and follow up on active conversations for the next career opportunity. It’s a simple matrix that can track active opportunities and identify contacts for professional networking and follow up over a three- to six-month time period.
I developed a career contact matrix using a variety of formats including spreadsheets and mind maps. The career contact matrix consists of 9 simple columns including:
The matrix is managed like a project manager’s issue log where opportunities turn into qualified leads and other opportunities don’t meet your need or interest. By keeping in touch with your contacts, new opportunities can occur frequently and a timely phone call can open up an entirely new job opportunity. Another key benefit of an updated matrix is it becomes your emergency unemployment rescue kit. There is a template for the matrix in my book, Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy.
If you do find yourself unemployed, employers often use phone interviews as a way of cutting down the number of candidates they invite in to the office. What's the biggest difference between a phone interview and a face to face interview?
Phone interviews can be difficult because of the lack of subtext. You only have the benefit of the interviewer’s tone rather than seeing non-verbal communication signals. Most phone interviews tend to be screening interviews when there recruiter is vetting your profile for both skills and salary range. It is difficult to develop rapport with one phone call. The face to face interview is much better because you can look a person in the eye and determine if the opportunity is the right fit.
Remember, you are evaluating them just as they are evaluating you.
That’s a good tip. Do you have any others?
For the job seeker, developing your personal network and promoting your personal brand is a key factor to creating a career safety net. I use the career contact matrix to maintain an action plan for professional networking and building better relationships. I always dislike receiving an email from someone seeking a job when I haven’t spoken to them in a year. By developing better relationships and “checking in” from time to time, your job search becomes easier as opportunities pop.
My past 3 jobs have all come from a professional network instead of a job posting system. As project managers, we can spend over 40 hours a week delivering projects. Take at least one hour a week to focus on your career including networking, opportunity prospecting and directing your own career.
Is the interview the best time to ask questions about salary and benefits? If not, when should you ask about these?
The interview is the best time to sell yourself. The hiring decision is usually the interviewer’s decision. The salary and associated benefits is an HR decision. Focus on positioning yourself as the desired candidate and obtain the hire decision. Once HR makes an offer, you can negotiate the salary and benefits.
In my experience, the initial phone screen or the job description will help identify the position title. You can usually find out about benefits and salary ranges incomparable positions from others in your professional network or using tools like salary.monster.com or glassdoor.com
What happens if the interview includes other things like tests or a presentation? How can people prepare for those?
I’ve asked candidates to demonstrate their skills in an interview by providing situational questions or even asking candidates to draw a small data model. In a project management interview, you want to provide specific actions taken using the processes, tools and techniques to manage a project. If you indicate on your resume that earned value management is a skill, be prepared to share how you’d apply earned value on a project or better yet how you would do it in Microsoft Project. Reflecting on your past job scenarios, providing real world examples with the techniques to support your responses will help you pass any test or presentation.
About Andrew Makar
A new European law about using contract workers comes into effect in the UK on 1 October 2011. If your project relies on temporary staff, freelance workers, or contractors, you may find that your project costs go up.
What is the new law about?
The Agency Workers Regulations entitles freelancers, consultants and other ‘agency’ staff to equal access to benefits and equal working conditions to those of permanent staff. That impacts everything from maternity pay to annual appraisals and the right to attend the Christmas party.
Employing a temporary worker on your project means that they will be entitled to information about job opportunities in the company, access to the canteen and to use the childcare facilities if these are provided by the company: basically, they are ‘equal’ to permanent employees. It is likely to take some time to establish how far this goes: will they be entitled to a car parking space, for example? Or luncheon vouchers? (Although I’m not sure if companies still give out luncheon vouchers!)
These benefits apply from the first day that the person takes a role with the company. There’s another level of benefit for contractors, though. This level kicks in after the person has been in post for 12 weeks. At this point they become entitled to the same basic working and employment conditions as a permanent staff member.
That means that contractors become entitled to the same working hours, rest breaks, equal pay, overtime payments and bonuses. They also become entitled to annual leave, with parity to what is on offer to the permanent staff. One quirk of the new law is that they can choose to take the time off or receive additional pay in lieu of the holiday time – not all companies offer permanent employees the opportunity to do this, instead opting for a ‘use it or lose it’ policy.
What is the impact on your project team?
Contractor rates are typically higher than permanent staff rates because contractors are currently not entitled to holiday pay, sickness absence pay or other benefits. With the introduction of the new law, you could have the opportunity to negotiate a reduction in contractor rates to take into effect the additional payments required for holiday entitlement.
Overall, costs for contractor staff could be higher, and you would be advised to review the provisions of the law and plan this into your budgets, especially if your project needs contractors on the team for over 12 weeks. You may even find it harder to get approval for temporary team members, because the terms of the new law make it less attractive to employee short term contractors.
Don’t forget the impact of all this on the permanent staff in your project team. Contractors are generally on high day rates – and now they are getting holiday pay? Managing the morale of your permanent team members when faced with high earning contractors could be tricky, so think about what you can do to address the balance. What else can you offer in terms of reward and recognition to support the permanent team members?
You may also find that permanent team members who have been thinking about contracting decide that this is the push they need to leave employment and set up on their own as a project management contractor.
First, find out if the rules apply to your company. Talk to your Human Resources department. This is the result of EU regulations, but even if you are working in a non-EU country, it could have an implication for your project if you have a European division. Normally, the rules of engagement in the hiring country apply so even if you are working elsewhere, team members based in the EU could be affected.
It’s costly to hire someone only to find that they are not a good fit for the project team. I spoke to Garrett Miller, an expert in hiring and author of Hire on a WHIM (more on what WHIM is below). Here’s what he had to say about finding the right person for the job.
Why does it cost so much to hire the wrong person?
There are two scenarios to look at when trying to calculate the cost of hiring the wrong person.
The first has to do with the direct costs of when hiring the wrong person results in turnover. The estimated costs of turnover vary from 50% to 150% of the employee’s salary. Experts say to increase those numbers when considering managerial positions. Needless to say whether you are calculating the costs on the lower or higher end, both are unacceptable.
That’s potentially a lot of money to a cash-strapped PMO. What are these costs made up of?
I’ll list a few of the biggest expenses and keep in mind all of the costs to replace this employee were already expensed to bring the outgoing employee on board in the first place.
Cost associated with hiring the wrong person include: Advertising for the position, HR costs to receive and sort through possibly hundreds of applicants, time to phone screen, coordinate and conduct interviews and travel expenses that are associated with the interviews. Once initial interviews are conducted there may be second or third interviews, reference checks, back ground checks, developing a package, the offer, the medical check and then the on-boarding process begins. For some companies the on-boarding process is a few days for others it’s weeks or months of training. One must think about the time it will take from beginning of the process up until the employee becomes productive. Have you considered the costs associated with efforts to cover the open position by other associates? The longer the position stays open the greater the burden on those covering and the pressure to fill the open spot increases. Many times it’s the increase pressure to fill that leads to poor choices and the cycle is set to repeat.
What’s the second way of looking at the cost of hiring someone?
The second scenario when looking at costs associated with hiring the wrong person may be even more costly. It occurs when the wrong person is hired and they don’t leave but they stay. The cost of having an employee that is a poor fit or that is missing an essential quality can be devastating to productivity. As valuable management and HR resources are mobilized to address and or try to “fix” the hire the morale and productivity of others may be negatively affected while the issues are addressed.
When wrong employees are brought into the company there is also a cost to the hiring manager’s reputation. The life blood of the company depends on bringing excellent talent on board and when this doesn’t occur the hiring manager is falling short of his or her greatest responsibility.
OK. We want to avoid that. How can managers avoid this when recruiting new project managers, by getting the right person first time?
We can never eliminate hiring errors but we can put ourselves in the best position to get it right. Here are just a few thoughts:
Often our interviews are conducted in sterile environments where the atmosphere is very stiff, safe and controlled. I think it is appropriate to conduct initial interviews in these settings because you want to set the candidate up for success. I find that conducting second interviews in a different, less predictable environment can help shed light on a candidate. For example conducting the second interview in the company café adds a whole host of factors. As you are standing in line you may bump into colleagues which may trigger spontaneous conversations, how did the candidate react and conduct themselves? Was the candidate polite to those behind the counter, were they patient, nervous, did they pick up after themselves? All of these help me see the whole person. If I’m going to interview them anyway, why not mix things up, you may be surprised by what you see, hear and observe.
That’s interesting. So, finally, what are your top tips for hiring new project managers or project personnel?
For some the tendency is to look for someone who is a driver and can just get things done! Though this is a great quality to have on the team, I also want someone who also possesses the quality of Humility.
I define Humility as the ‘ability and willingness to learn’. I need project managers that are always in the learning mode. They are open to new ideas and actually solicit ideas from others. They may have had terrific success doing things their way but they are willing to really listen. Pride is at the root of a lot of projects that have gone wrong. In the project review process you will often hear the question, “Why didn’t you ask for help or let me know that you were stuck?” Humility lends itself to cooperation, collaboration and good coaching opportunities.
More about my interviewee: Garrett Miller is a workplace productivity coach and trainer, keynote speaker, and author of Hire on a WHIM: The Four Qualities that Make for Great Employees (2010, www.HireonaWHIM.com). Known for his extensive experience in hiring, training, attracting, and retaining top talent, he is president and CEO of CoTria, a company that provides time-saving solutions to help clients manage more efficiently.