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Project Management - It's Time for HR to Step-Up & Evolve

Project Management - It's Time for HR to Step-Up & Evolve

There is a human-centered nuance to being a project manager that makes all the difference. In this article, we dig into the importance of HR paying attention to the soft skills and the well-being of PMs. These are the biggest value-adds a company can make for project profitability.

Hans Arnbjerg |

When project delays and budget overruns creep in and annoyed customers leave complaints, where is blame assigned in your company? Project managers? Of course it is. Unfortunately, this is doing them, your clients, and your business overall a disservice.

Project management makes for an interesting coaching case study. A PM is typically hired for their technical qualifications while the essential human skills go almost entirely unvetted. Projects are loaded onto their schedules at an unrelenting rate. Then, when things don’t quite go to plan, senior management gaze frustratedly at progress reports and bottlenecks chastising the PM for a problem they can neither diagnose nor solve from the metrics.

There is a human-centered nuance to being a project manager that is routinely overlooked by leadership, HR, and sometimes the PMs themselves. But, it makes all the difference. If you are going to get the most out of project managers going forward, you must start paying attention to soft skills, well-being, and employee satisfaction. These are the biggest value-adds your company can quickly make for project profitability.

The Problem Most Leaders Miss with Project Management

Technical V Soft Skill Focus

The focus on PM recruitment has always been on the technical skills a candidate brings to the table. Can they forecast? Are they technologically fluent? Are they effective risk managers? Can they efficiently apportion the right resources to be successful? This is because the industry tends to obsess over the facts, figures, KPIs and metrics and pay considerably less attention to the impact soft skills have on project outcomes.

Skills like leadership, motivation, stress management, conflict resolution, communication are much less quantifiable and, therefore, less tangible. As a result, they don’t get the focus and upskilling that they need.

The reality is that project managers are asked to be leaders without the same formal power afforded to C-suites and line managers. They rely entirely on personnel management skills to get the best out of their teams. The only problem is they are rarely provided with adequate coaching and upskilling in these areas.

Overloading Project Managers

The 2017-2027 Project Management Institute report suggests that a shortage in project managers will soon result in a loss of over $200 billion in GDP for 11 of the world's biggest economies. While we remain on track for that shortage to be accurate, the demands placed on current PMs will only continue to increase.

The issue with adding new demands is PM schedules are already overrun. They have too many projects to give the requisite attention to each of them and this impacts quality and personnel. They don’t get the opportunity to apply themselves fully to the role which leads to costly errors and delays. In fact, it is so costly that for every $1 billion invested into a project, $106 million is wasted on solvable project management challenges derived from overloading.

Underestimating the Impact of Employee Wellness and Engagement

In scanning through the metrics and KPIs, senior management try to find drivers of success or failure but they are looking in the wrong place. Project punctuality, customer complaints and financial overruns veil what is often behind the failures - project manager well-being and engagement deficits.

40% of project managers are suffering from significant stress levels. When managers are stressed and overrun, their engagement levels suffer. The reduction in PM engagement subsequently reduces team effectiveness because PMs are overwhelmingly responsible for subordinate engagement. Where well-being and engagement are not prioritized, businesses begin to see deteriorating rates of absenteeism, turnover, and punctuality of the individuals and project deliveries

By overlooking PM wellness and engagement, you forego potential growth opportunities.

How can PM issues be resolved?

With the growing need for project managers and the ease of switching roles in full-employment economies, retaining top talent is a business-critical issue. However, senior management is too concentrated on top-line metrics and cost/benefit strategies to notice.

In the pursuit of higher revenue yields and tangible benefits, intangible cost burdens placed upon PMs are forgotten or dismissed. This means that the driving force for impactful change needs to come from other sources - HR and Professional Business Coaches.

Communicating issues in the language of senior leaders through HR

Ingrained in the role of HR is the license to objectively assess employee needs and align them to business goals. With this in mind, HR must take the opportunity to audit the imbalances created by taking on too many projects and the lack of available resources, both human and otherwise.

Once these imbalances are recorded, HR can articulate the disengagement, declining quality and productivity results of overloading and the subsequent needs of employees. The impactful statistics can then be presented in a way that entices senior leaders motivated by quantifiable KPIs to act.

By shining a light on the business benefits foregone through overloading, HR can convert PM needs for engagement and wellbeing strategies into a tangible business priority.

As a starting point for the discussion with leadership, it helps to know that companies who focus on engagement find that PMs:

HR is the ideal vehicle to bridge the gap and deliver the right message to senior management. Running employee engagement surveys, assessing employee well-being and compiling the data for management allows PMs well-being and engagement to become tools for performance and project improvement.

Initiating Soft Skill Development

Accepting a role as a project manager is not just accepting the technical disciplines anymore. There are far more leadership, motivation, and specialist balancing acts to be considered. The demand of a PM’s interpersonal skills has grown. PMs are asked to collaborate with a wide variety of stakeholders efficiently, effectively, and motivating.

To find or create the best PMs, soft skills must be prioritized either during the initial recruitment or as a part of the individual's career development. This means further coaching in areas such as:

  1. Leadership
  2. Strategy
  3. Communication
  4. Facilitation and debriefing
  5. Rapport building
  6. Motivation
  7. Conflict resolution
  8. Employee engagement
  9. Influence and persuasion
  10. Critical thinking

HR & Professional Business Coaching Developing PM Soft Skills?

As the overseers of your human capital needs and active participants in transforming the conditions of your PMs, HR are ideally suited to understand the upskilling needs of PMs. The familiarity and empathy with the current situation help to provide a sympathetic ear.

Equally, from a practical standpoint, HR training and experience in matters of conflict resolution, employee engagement, cross-departmental communications and organization, team recruitment, teamwork would make a significant impact on the soft skills of the PM.

There is a natural fit to extend the role of the HR department to encompass PM soft skill development. However, there is an unfortunate irony to avoid. Extending the role of HR should not come at the cost of overloading them. Where this is likely, professional coaching is the best alternative.

Under the guidance of HR and PMs, professional business coaches can provide expert upskilling services that fill the gaps. A coach provides an impartial perspective familiar with the ins and outs of project management with the ability to offer scenario-specific solutions.

Additionally, from the PM perspective, a coach may present a safer environment psychologically. HR is, fundamentally, employees of the company and its leadership team. PMs may be concerned that admitting weaknesses and incompetencies to HR will impact them professionally. This is not the case with external coaching. Interactions are confidential allowing PMs to approach their upskilling openly and honestly without concern for occupational threats.

This is why external professional business coaches might just provide the best avenue for PM soft and hard skill development. Specialized coaches are trained professionals experienced in the layers of project management. They have first-hand experience that resonates with that of the PM.

In Closing…

As organizations look to the future, it is crucial to consider the demands and expectations of your employees. It is essential to understand that work-life balance and favorable conditions are becoming non-negotiable thanks to the supply shortage of PM. If changes are not made to the conditions provided to PMs, turnover and HR headaches will occur.

In addition, however, despite the power shifting to PMs in terms of demands, they too will be required to transform. Getting by on technical skills alone won’t be enough to cut it anymore. To be proficient, PMs must have the ability to effectively lead and inspire teams and the capacity to balance the needs of highly skilled professionals. Without evolving the soft skills, technically-skilled-only PMs will slip down the pecking order.

Like any profession, PMs and their senior leaders face significant disruption. It is time to outgrow the limited view of project performance and dig into what really matters to success. If your organization is struggling, perhaps it is time to enlist the support of a professional business coach to open the door to new prospects for your team, employees, and organizations overall.

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Meet the Author

Hans Arnbjerg

Hans Arnbjerg

CEO & Founder, Project Governance

Hans Arnbjerg has worked for more than 25 years within project management, focusing on how to enable Project Management Offices (PMOs) to execute strategies as well as training project managers. Hans has a soft spot for the well-being of project professionals and is dedicated to linking this to successful strategy execution.

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