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Scott Berkun on Hiring and Managing Project Managers

Scott Berkun on Hiring and Managing Project Managers

Scott Berkun may not have written THE book on project management, but he did write a best seller on the subject back in 2005, The Art of Project Management, which has now been updated and reissued under the title, Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management. More recently, Scott published a rather thought-provoking book entitled, The Myths of Innovation.

I contacted Scott and asked him a couple questions about interviewing, hiring, and working with project managers. Here are my questions and his responses:

When interviewing project managers, what should the hiring manager be asking and what kind of answers should s/he be looking for?

Hiring project managers is tricky because there’s no single skill set that matters most. You have to sort through what combination of abilities matters in your organization and build an interview that gives candidates a chance to demonstrate them.

Broadly speaking, you are usually looking for someone with a passion for the job, the right attitude, and strong people skills, You are also looking for someone well versed in decision-making, crisis management, and conflict resolution. How much weight to place on any of these skills varies with the project and the company.

In the interview, the best bet is to talk about situations – get the candidate talking about their toughest situations and what they learned, or describe the toughest situations you’ve been in and let the candidate walk you through what they’d do.

When do their eyes light up? When do they get excited? Passionate? What mistakes do they confess? What is their thought process? In an interview I want to do everything I can to learn about the person and get the best possible sense of how they’ll behave on the job.

What basic advice do you have for people managing project managers? How do you elicit their “best work”?

Don’t be a jerk. Most people hate their bosses. They find them annoying, demeaning, indifferent, or self-centered. If you can dodge those bad management bullets, you’re way ahead of the pack.

Be fun, supportive, interested, and generous, and magically people will do better work for you than for other managers. Bonus points for matching people to assignments they care about or find interesting: if you’ve hired smart, motivated people they’ll do great work naturally if you just get out of their way.

If someone wanted to move from the role of developer or designer to that of project manager, what skills would you encourage them to develop?

It’s all about facilitation – helping other people to be effective, rather than doing great work yourself. The hardest part about that transition is loss of control: instead of playing with bits, for instance, which are slaves to their programmers, you play with people, who are slaves to no one.

It’s a different kind of satisfaction. I’d encourage people thinking of switching to make sure they are capable of being happy at enabling other people to make great things, rather than to be the person doing it themselves.

Have there been any true innovations in the process of hiring and managing teams in the last ten years or so? If not, will there ever be?

I thought Zappos’ process of offering employees money to leave was pretty damn clever – the riff-raff will take the cash and go, while the truly passionate will choose the job and stay. Self-selection saves a lot of grief on all sides.

What makes a good manager, one who hires well, never depends on a single clever trick or some technique that only they’ve discovered. It’s the combination of all their skills that makes them succeed or fail. Anyone who points to a singular explanation for their success is either a liar or a fool.


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