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Saving Time When Hiring a Project Manager


Hiring a project manager is a real challenge. A good project manager has to be capable of combining interpersonal skills with the technical aspects of project management. Unless you either personally know the person or have a personal recommendation from someone you trust who knows exactly what you are looking for and what the candidate has to offer, you won’t know if you have the right person until after they have started workalthough you might quickly learn that you have the wrong person if things start to turn sour quickly.

Hiring starts with knowing what you need and why you need it, and then the search for potential candidates begins. As someone who has seen job descriptions for many project management positions, who has been a project manager, has trained project managers, and has hired (and fired) project managers, I’ve often seen a lack of clarity in what people’s expectations are regarding project managers, which results in an ineffectively written job description. You can save yourself time as a hiring team, and the time of candidates and recruiters, while improving your odds of getting appropriate candidates by making sure that you are clear on what your needs are and articulating them in a well-constructed job description.
I said, “Hiring starts with knowing what you need.” So what is a project manager? Are there different types of project managers for different projects? How does that affect the job description and the type of candidates you should be looking for? Let’s explore some aspects of these questions and see how this can help improve your hiring focus.

As someone who has personally managed many projects, there are several things I want to know to help determine my suitability for a position with the title of “Project Manager.” Here is a selection of them:

  • What is the expectation about my role in terms of the split between business, technical and project leadership?
  • What is the scale of the project?
  • What is the environment like?
  • When does the project end?
  • What is regarded as success?
  • Are there already constraints on the project?

Answering these questions before seeking to hire a project manager (PM) can help define the role and the person who should fill it. So let’s take a look at each one in turn.


Expectations in Terms of Split Between Business, Technical and Project Leadership

In my experience of being involved with IT projects for 30 years, there are often three key roles that are essential on a project:

  • Business leader – the person who knows the organizational purpose for the project and what benefits the project will deliver to the business.
  • Technical leader – the person who knows what technologies are needed to implement the project objectives and can provide technical guidance to the team.
  • Project leader – the person who is responsible for leading the project team to deliver the objectives and has the knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently.

These three key roles may be performed by fewer than three people, and in some cases may all be the responsibility of one person with a variety of potential job titles – team leader, development manager, project manager, technical leader, etc. I have seen organizations go through different levels of maturity, from disorganized collections of people getting work done with just a technical leader, to understanding the difference between technical leadership, business leadership and project leadership and splitting this up across different people for larger projects.

One of the first questions to consider about your need for a project manager is what the relationship between the PM and other key leaders on the team will be. You should also consider the interaction between the PM and other key leaders outside the project team. What do you understand to be the main responsibilities of the PM as it relates to the project, the business and the technology? I worked in one organization where the PM and the technical leader were, at best, deemed peers, and at worst the technical leader viewed the PM as an administrative person responsible for scheduling work, which did not mesh well with the PM’s view of his role! There was a lack of understanding and agreement about the role of the PM, which resulted in less than effective working relationships between key leaders of the project team and the rest of the organization. Writing an effective job description would not be possible in this situation until the disconnect is resolved.

Often, in small technology teams, the PM is expected to contribute technically. Is this so for your position? I have seen job descriptions for a PM that really seem like they are more for a technical leader, as the technology needs appear to be paramount. Make sure this split is adequately stated in your job description. When you have understood this, you can add relevant expectations to the desired experiences of the person you are looking for.

People often underestimate the leadership and management effort required on projects. A general rule of thumb I’ve discovered from years of experience is that for every 10 people, there is a need for a full-time equivalent leader or manager. This may be one person or split between then PM (who would also do other activities) and one or more team leaders. This may or may not match up to experiences in your organization. Are you expecting your project manager to work full time on project management activities or are you also expecting them to contribute to other activities? Thinking this through should help your definition of and search for a PM.

Consider these different aspects to project leadership carefully and be as clear as you can about the role of the PM you want, making sure this is reflected appropriately in the job description.

What is the scale of the project?

I often see jobs advertised for a project manager that don’t give any indication of the scale of the project(s) to be managed. There are several factors that affect the seniority and capabilities of the person you want to hire, including:

  • How many staff will the PM have on his team? Managing a five-person project is different in many respects to a 20-person project.
  • Are staff from other parts of the organization involved? This staff may only be available at specific times and for specific amounts of time, so this needs to be carefully managed. The use of several staff members from other functions often requires good persuasion and negotiation skills.
  • Are vendors involved? Managing large vendors or a large number of small vendors is not for the inexperienced, as you don’t want the vendors to take advantage of your company.

Generally, with small project teams the PM is expected to take on some non-PM project activities, which relates to the previous discussion about the split between PM, technical and business activities. The larger the project, the more important the interpersonal skills of the PM come into play. Consider these various issues when deciding what skills you want in a prospective PM.

What is the environment like?

Some PMs have not had training in project methodologies, either in formal or on-the-job training, and may struggle when moving from an informal to a more structured environment. Good PMs with plenty of experience of different methodologies know that methodology is just a tool to help get a project done, and they can typically adapt to an organization’s given approach. A PM without this experience may not recognize this and will follow a methodology like a book instead of using it in an appropriate manner based on the situation at hand.

PMs that come from a highly structured top-down company may find it difficult to work in a heavily matrixed organization. In particular, the need to manage by influence in a matrixed team rather than by direct command can be a difficult challenge for them. Therefore, you need to consider what the environmental aspects of managing the project(s) in your organization are that will affect the skills you need in a PM, and then consider how to document them in the job description.

When does the project end?

It helps to know if you are expecting the PM to take a development system into production and maintenance. Some developers who have become PMs are not skilled in aspects of production launch and ongoing maintenance. Furthermore, they may view these as less interesting parts of their work and want to get onto the next development project, whereas for the organization, moving into production and maintenance are exciting times when the value of the investment in the project is finally given back to the organization. Know and articulate what you are looking for in terms of the “end” of the project.

What is regarded as success?

As an organization, do you know what the key measurements of a successful project are? Do you focus more on the project’s internal measurements (such as getting something done on time and on budget) or on external measurements (such as gaining more customers)? Is it a combination of several factors? Is it the ability of the PM to constantly adjust to changing requirements while keeping team morale high and effectively getting work done? Knowing what is important can help drive how you write the job description and how you assess candidates.

Are there already constraints on the project?

As a PM, I really want to know what I have been set up with. Is there already a budget, are timescales set in stone, are the resources already identified? Clearly, if a PM comes into the middle of a project there will be expectations about all these things, but organizations typically have some high-level budget in mind before any project starts. What are you expecting from the PM in terms of helping the organization estimate work? I have rarely seen job descriptions make reference to how much experience a PM has in organizing work estimates and project risks, yet these are critical to the success of projects. Even if you are using Agile techniques and have much flexibility for each release, there are going to be some overall expectations. Understanding what you are expecting from a PM is going to make for a more targeted job description, especially in terms of being able to define the expected skills you are looking for in a candidate.


I hope you have realized that there are many aspects to project management that your organization should review before beginning the hiring process. I have presented a selection of some of the more important questions to consider, and each organization will have its own unique requirements. Whether you are hiring a contractor for a single project or a full-time position can also influence the job description.

If you find it challenging to consider some of the above questions there are several resources that can help. For instance, there are many interesting topics on various discussion forums about project managementI have found a recent one about whether a Project Manager should be a Scrum Master on LinkedIn fascinating, with several views I had not previously considered, such as organizations deciding that the PM takes on the role of product owner rather than scrum master.

Once you believe you have a good understanding of the role, you can start to develop the job description, reviewing it to make sure you feel it reflects what you want the person to do and the skills you want them to have. Of course, it will never be perfect, but with careful thought it will be part of an approach that results in more appropriately targeted candidates for your organization to consider.

Good luck with the hiring!

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