How to Hire the Right Project Manager (the first time)

finding a project manager can be like finding a needle in a haystack

Let’s start with understanding where you stand today. I bet you don’t actually know … yet … 

This article is designed specifically to help you identify the right PM—as opposed to the left one—starting with bridging the gap between your perceived needs and your actual needs.


Congratulations! You just won a new client; it’s a multimillion-dollar deal, and you’ve decided to hire or resource a Project Manager (PM). You’re smart enough to know you can’t juggle all the moving parts of this hefty goal without one.

Whether you’re instigating a search through a recruiter, or requesting a PM through your existing Project (or Program) Management Office, there’s still some upfront work you need to do before picking your metaphorical PM rabbit out of a hat. And it starts with being realistic.

I often meet executives who have crafted a deck and pitched a presentation. The presentation has gone well, and they believe their presentation deck is comprehensive enough to ensure a seamless transition to a project manager who will then be expected to deliver on the goal.

Guess what? It’s not. A successful presentation may be a green light to move forward on a project. It may generate excitement and infuse passion, but without a thoughtful and practical execution plan, which includes requirements, schedules, budgets, and often more, all you have is an unqualified idea that is attached to a strategy that has not been validated against any inkling of reality.  Ouch.

I know it hurts to hear, but let me say it one more time because it’s important:  a sales deck is not a vision, a strategy, or a plan. It can have elements of these things, but the goal of such a deck is to win business, not to deliver final results. The real “what” and “how” is usually missing.

OKay. You get it. I hear you.

From a resourcing perspective, this means you need to hire a project mind-reader and certified therapist, not only to transcribe your pitch into a decipherable language but to dream up the “what” and then translate and deconstruct that dream it into tangible buckets that you can work on.

Functionally, the role of a project manager teeters between transcriptionist and wild and visionary producer/therapist. That’s a big spectrum. If you need a lot more of the latter, and you get “transcriptionist,” you will be left with one big ugly mess. If you hire for “visionary,” when what you need is “secretary,” chances are he or she will realize they are out of your league, and move on.

So let’s take a step back. Do you want to know where you stand today? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is your vision a combination of vaguely defined products and services with made up delivery dates? It is multiple projects (a program), or one project? Is it unique?
  2. Is your vision flexible? What about your strategy? What about those promised products and services, and delivery dates, how flexible are they?
  3. Where are you in the development of your product(s) or service(s)? Have you provided a proof-of-concept? Are you still concepting?  Do you have a prototype?
  4. Have you gathered business requirements, and have you vetted them with qualified people? Are requirements still changing? How frequently? Have key influencers been left out?
  5. Do your detailed plans and high-level plans map back to one another? Are you aware that both of these plans are of equal importance, and that they must both be accurate? How well do the two align? Are there significant gaps? (Note: If you did not start with an accurate picture of reality, then when it comes to committing to budgets, schedules, and deliverables, make sure that you communicate assumptions and risks as transparently as possible, and don’t act surprised when you’re asked to return to your client with your tail between your legs.
  6. Is this the first time you’re working on a project of this nature? Did you consult with qualified/credible people? Did you evaluate similar types of projects? Did you build in contingencies? Did you build in dependencies? And what did you communicate to your client?

If you can answer these questions truthfully and comprehensively, you’re now in a great starting position to have a conversation with a recruiter or your local PMO (Project Management Office), and are more likely to hire a better fit. Sadly, even after you identify your actual needs, there is another challenge recruiters know but rarely tell you: you could be stuck with whoever shows up. Gasp!

So why not skip this step altogether and spare yourself a headache?

Well, anyone who has ever handed off a boatload of work to the wrong person can tell you just how painful this can be. It not only sullies your reputation when the hire screws up but spending twice as much money and effort to clean up after someone else’s mistakes is irritating.

Sure, you may never find the perfect project manager, and that can be sad, but by going through this process, you:

(1) get to make informed decisions about how to resource against missing skills and abilities

(2) prevent issues from arising that you could have foreseen

(3) mitigate against an outright “bad” hire, which means less exhaustion, less frustration, less depression, less turnover, and more happiness, along with a higher probability of success.

So, let’s get started you, you open-minded-intelligent-business-guru. Where is your project in its evolution, really?

Did you find this useful? Have suggestions? Have questions? Contact me on LinkedIn.

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