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Hiring Project Managers: Should PMPs Apply?

In the last decade, the popularity of the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation and similar certifications has exploded. Partly, this reflects what the demographics of project management associations demonstrate--the use of project management is growing, most particularly in organizations and industries that have not been considered traditional project management environments.

Ten years ago, the number of PMPs was less than 10,000 (I was the 6,944th). Today, there are more than 100,000 people who are currently certified as PMPs, and the certificate numbers are on the threshold of 200,000. These are interesting statistics--enough people to populate a small city have decided that holding a PMP designation is important; an equal number have thought it important at one point in their careers, but have since let the designation lapse.

Yet these statistics belie the true popularity of the PMP and designations like it. The fact that people are getting their designation is a symptom of a much larger fact--the number of organizations that use the PMP as a screening criterion in their process of hiring project managers has gone through the roof. Today, it is the rare job posting for a project manager that doesn't ask for PMP certification as a qualification. More importantly, hiring managers candidly admit that they only look at resumes of those who have their certification; other resumes simply don't get a second glance.

This raises a number of concerns and challenges. While the number of project managers with a PMP has increased exponentially, organizations indicate that a large proportion of their projects are often still not successful. As well, there are a large number of perfectly capable and competent project managers that--for one reason or another--refuse to get their certification.

This is probably a good point to highlight that my message here is not that certification is the domain of bad project managers, or that only those that don't have certification are good project managers. There are many capable, competent and professional project managers that have their certification; there are also many who, despite having a certification, are not necessarily particularly good. Presumably, this also holds true for the population that calls themselves project managers but don't have a certification.

This highlights a very real problem--if the PMP designation is being used by organizations to screen for project managers, are their hiring practices producing random results? Are they hiring the project managers they think they are hiring, and do those people have the skills to truly be successful? Certainly, the implications of the statements above are that the there isn't an overlap between competent project managers and certified PMPs. So what is a hiring company to do? How do you confidently hire a skilled project manager, and how do you maximize the likelihood of doing so consistently and repeatedly?

Experience managing similar types of projects. While project management as a discipline is universal, how we deliver specific types of projects is the key differentiator. We need to be looking for people that have experience in the business and technical areas--and the technical processes--that will be used to manage our projects and deliver results. That said, there is an issue of resource development to take into consideration here; we all have to start our careers somewhere. We may be willing to provide a learning opportunity, especially for an internal candidate wanting to move into project management. Where this occurs, it should be a conscious choice, with recognition that additional effort will be required to support their becoming successful.

Comfort dealing with ambiguity. One of the greatest challenges in any project is the fundamental role that uncertainty plays. At the start of the project, everything is on the table--and certainty may be a far away proposition. Effective project managers need to demonstrate sufficient tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and a process to manage gradually toward creating certainty.

Communication skills. Most of project management is about managing expectations. Expectations don't get managed except through communicating. Project managers need to be able to comfortably communicate and interact with every position and level of the organization they will be expected to be in contact with. Again, there are development considerations where internal candidates may be given the opportunity to improve their communications skills, but this would require concrete plans to acquire the appropriate skills.

A bias toward urgency; and focus on results.

Leadership and people skills. The ability to lead effectively is a subtle one, and not easy to test or screen for. Frequently, the best leadership skills live in those who are the most modest about them. Effective project managers need to balance empathy, support, enthusiasm and determination. They need to be able to adapt their style and approach to those around them, and recognize what the team is missing and how best to fill that void. They should be able to demonstrate an ability to step out of their comfort zone in order to respond to a need of the team.

Fit within the organization. Lastly, project managers need to be able to fit into the organization, and in doing so to challenge but not threaten. More and more projects are in some way focussed on changing the organization, which requires an understanding of culture and an ability to shape it. All too often, I've seen project managers with the "right skills" bring a process and approach that is so alien to the culture they are working in that success was never possible. The successful project manager must be able to demonstrate the ability to adapt their approach to the needs of the culture around them.

The greatest challenge in terms of hiring project managers based upon the criteria defined above is that there are no filters you can build into your resume inbox, no easy "yes or no" questions and no checklists that can be utilized to be able to quickly identify candidate project managers. The process is a complicated one, and one that requires thought, attention and focus to be able to successfully navigate. But--and let's be honest here--if we're hiring people that are going to manage the delivery of results that define the strategic future of our organizations, can we afford to do anything less?

Mark E. Mullaly, PMP

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