Working in, or leading, a project management office (PMO) is different than strictly being a project manager (PM). A PMO team can face enterprise-level risk, change and issues management, process management, business issues and more. For project managers, it can also provide an environment to develop leadership skills.
But not all PMOs are created equal. That’s why we wanted to hear directly from an expert managing his own PMO.
Mike Zekser, our interviewee, has worked in a variety of project management roles over the past 25 years, has been a PMP since 2004 and has a Six Sigma Green Belt. More specific experiences include managing highly technical projects, M&A both inside and outside of IT, starting multiple PMOs, plus development and implementation of process improvement programs. Mike is currently working in financial services in the Atlanta area. In addition to the above certifications, he has a B.S. in Project Management and Software Development. He also runs a group mentoring program for PMI Atlanta.
So, let’s dive in!
What are your biggest challenges in hiring for your PMO?
Mike: Typically, it’s finding the right combination of experience, willingness to learn/adapt/grow, cultural fit, attitude and sense of humor. While I didn’t intentionally put those in a specific order, depending on the role and company, those may be prioritized differently.
What are your best practices for hiring for a PMO?
Mike: I’ve always gravitated toward having a candidate speak with a future peer and those I consider internal customers for the PMO. My definition of internal customers is a combination of those we most often engage for resources as well as from sponsors. Anyone interviewing, of course, gets a copy of their resume; but I may ask them to probe an area or topic that I want their opinion on. If they just say they liked the person, I’ll ask what they liked. As painful and time-consuming as hiring someone can be, it’s much easier to spend more time hiring the best person instead of dealing with a bad hire. But, at a certain point, you have to go with your gut.
What is the difference between a non-technical project manager and a technical project manager?
Mike: Having worked in IT for a long time and having also spent several years outside of IT in Operations and in M&A Support, I’ve seen quite a few scenarios play out; and very often success depends on the project team and sponsor as much as the PM. If the PM will interact often with the sponsor, then regardless of technical experience, the person needs to be able to speak to the sponsor in their language. Some sponsors may be highly technical and some purely business focused.
A solid PM should be able to translate between layers in the organization. I’ve seen people who aren’t very technical handle technical situations really well because they focus on asking good questions to understand the situation, have good relationships with the technical SMEs and ensure the team keeps the appropriate business objective or goals in mind. I’ve also seen technical PMs that are good with Engineers but are not very strong in translating into and speaking in “business language.” As a manager, part of my role is to understand my people and help accordingly.
What are your thoughts on the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification? How important is it in your hiring decisions?
Mike: While usually a good indicator of a person’s commitment to a PM role, like all certifications, it doesn’t tell you anything qualitatively about their skills. If you noticed one of my earlier responses about finding the right combination of skills for a good candidate, all are soft skills. That’s because good project management is about a PM’s ability to lead a team toward delivery of objectives or goals. If someone doesn’t have their PMP, I’ll ask why and often look past that provided they have the soft skills, project management skills and experience that I’m looking for. This all said, if there are two candidates considered identical, the one with the PMP will likely win.
What are the top three character traits of a successful PM?
Mike: The ability to be inquisitive without rubbing people the wrong way, an understanding of when to lead versus when to follow and a sense of humor. If I can add a 4th here, that would be tenacity.
What are the top three skills you look for in a PM?
Mike: Written communications that are tailored to the audience, project planning and presentation skills.
How do you keep your team of PMs motivated and on task as the nature of a PM is a big responsibility with little authority?
Mike: If you have good PMs, this can be straightforward. I’m hands on by nature, but I also like to give people room to succeed. After all, I have my own job and I won’t have time for that if I’m trying to do everyone else’s job too. I like to conduct weekly reviews of all their projects so I understand what they are already doing well and can identify where they might need guidance or help.
As a manager, I’m a strong believer of speaking with people to share positive feedback and to provide constructive guidance throughout the year, not just at review time. I also will periodically check in with sponsors and resource managers to gather feedback.
Keeping PMs motivated, to me, is about letting them shine, letting them know when they shine, helping them improve as appropriate and making them feel like part of a PM team. On many projects, there is only one PM. That means PMs spend most of their time with people who are not also PMs. So, taking time to build that team feeling goes a long way toward motivation, morale and retention. Also, and this is personal philosophy, but I don’t ask people to do things I wouldn’t do myself. I think most people appreciate that. I know I always did.
What trends are you seeing in the PMO world?
Mike: Would it be too obvious to say remote work while we’re still dealing with Covid? 😊 I’ve always viewed project management as a contact sport. We need to engage with project resources, sponsors and anyone else who can contribute to success in the eyes of the organization. Working remote has never been my preference but we must always adapt. Video conferencing is incredibly helpful in ensuring people feel connected these days and I doubt it will go away and I doubt it will go away even when Covid is behind us.
I think PMO’s will gravitate toward being more lightweight. The key for me, whether as a PM, managing PMs or in a non-PM management role, is finding the right balance of structure while minimizing process administration and I think that should be a focus for any PMO. The more time you spend on administrivia, the less time you have to do the actual job. For example, if as a PMO Manager, I do weekly project reviews with PMs, attend project meetings here and there and maintain contact with key stakeholders; I don’t think I need monthly or quarterly roll-up reports. This creates more work for PMs and for me.
Also, I think sometimes PMOs fall into the trap of asking for info for the PMO itself, which can create the risk of asking for things that add value for the PMO instead of the PMO’s customers.
The tools keep evolving. PMs used to live and die by e-mail and we still do. But the line has blurred between traditional e-mail and collaborations tools like Teams and Slack. I don’t know what’s coming next, but I am sure it will be interesting.
I understand that you work heavily in a PMI mentorship program. What is the one piece of advice that applies to every new PM you’re mentoring?
Mike: Great question! I’ve been running a group mentoring program for our PMI chapter for four years. If I can only offer one bit of advice, it would be to apply project management to the development of yourself and your career. Project Management is a structured, repeatable approach to deliver desired results. If instead of just thinking like that on your projects, what if you applied some aspects of that to developing new skills and building your career? Learn to break your personal big goals into bite-size chunks. It feels more achievable and rewards you with a feeling of progress.
Well, there you have it. Sound advice from an experienced PMO professional.