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Where have all the Project Managers Gone?

It seems unbelievable that my clients would be struggling to find and retain excellent project managers in today’s economy – after all, aren’t we still emerging from a recession?  However, once there are multiple data points with a clear trend line, it seems prudent to face reality.  I have no doubt that those companies who find and/or retain excellent project managers will have a secret weapon to succeeding during this turbulent, “new normal” economy.  Why and how?

First, let’s address why.  Execution is one of the three keys to delivering bottom line business results consistently.  In today’s volatile “new normal,” it is even more essential.  For example, customers are more concerned with making decisions as they don’t know what to expect – sales and profits can be significantly different from month to month or even day to day in today’s stormy environment.  Thus, many times, they are afraid to commit to a decision; even a simple one.

Cash flow is a consistent concern, and they can be worried about not having enough orders to keep their employees busy one day (should they sweep the floors?  Send them home?  Lay them off?), and are then overwhelmed with a backlog of orders the next week.  Also, since everyone is concerned about cost, the customer suddenly expects more for less; therefore, service is vital.  Quality must be an assumption.  All of this adds up into an increased need for flawless execution. 

In my experience in leading and participating on hundreds of project teams in multiple industries and globally, flawless execution requires excellent project leadership.  And, unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of excellent project managers I’ve worked with on the hundreds of projects.  Some are acceptable.  Others are good.  But few are excellent.  And, to make matters worse, excellent project leaders who execute flawlessly are typically underappreciated by executives.  After all, they resolve issues before they are visible and so they often go unnoticed.  It seems easy!

Thus, how to find and/or retain excellent project managers is critical.  Let’s start by defining an excellent project manager.  Which qualities are essential?

  1. Communication Abilities
    As is common place understanding for effective leaders, communication skills are vital.  However, I’ve found that achieving effective communication skills is not as simple as it sounds.  You must have a good enough understanding of the details to be able to effectively communicate the whys, yet in a high enough level format to be clearly understood by multiple levels of management (typically one of the two is missing as it is unusual to find both).  You must have enough passion or interest to take the lead with your communications.  Being a cheerleader is not enough – you must be able to provide constructive communication and contribute ideas as well as provide positive support. 
  2. The Ability to Synthesize the Data and Tasks
    You can be the most effective communicator; however, if the project team discovers that you are unable to synthesize the data and tasks to understand the scope of the problem or situation on a quick enough basis, you will quickly lose respect.   This does not require that you perform all the tasks yourself or that you understand the topic upfront, but it requires that you are able to ask effective questions, see trends and connections and draw conclusions.  Otherwise, you could easily spend countless, expensive hours discussing a $70 issue.
  3. Execution Ability
    Blocking and tackling.  Follow up.  Ask for status.  Provide thoughtful ideas.  Help overcome roadblocks.  Have a rigorous focus on priorities.  Manage the critical path relentlessly.  Last but not least, this is impossible to achieve without excellent leadership and teamwork skills.  Otherwise, no one will follow.

So, now that you’ve identified these skills, you need to find and retain them.  First, open your eyes.  During the last few years, I’ve seen some of the best resources go unnoticed or unappreciated.  Forget about the fancy three-ring binder reports and interesting conversations about sideline activities and take a step back and see who is delivering results in your organization.  It might surprise you.  Once you find this person, retain him/her.  It all depends on the person – some appreciate a simple thank you.  Others appreciate interesting work.  Yet others appreciate the recognition of their value and autonomy in decision-making (sometimes it’s as easy as supporting their decisions – how hard is that?).

Next, depending on what you find within your organization, search for this talent in the market.  Executive recruiters say it’s a tough market to find this type of talent (surprising but true), and so you have to be diligent.  Do not settle or hire the less expensive resource and hope for the best.  It will not deliver the results required to succeed in today’s “new normal”.  Typically, relationships and personal connections are your best source.  Do not give up!  If you are the leader with access to excellent project managers, you will be able to leapfrog your competition and deliver exceptional bottom line results.

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