CXO

When hiring a project manager, how important is direct industry or product experience?

Experience is something employers ask for in job postings, yet don't always get with candidates. We explore how important industry or product experience really is when it comes to project management.

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Image: iStock/DragonImages

When seeking an experienced project manager, the natural tendency for employers is to only consider candidates with industry or product experience that directly relates to the project, but how important is that requirement? It depends.

The key is evaluating risk factors and the overall impact on not just the project and the business, but ultimately the client and their needs. Various risk factors and implications play into a project's success or failure, including at the very least:

  • the truly unique nature and/or complexity of the company, its products, or its services, especially in relation to its competitors;
  • specific quality aspects and specifications;
  • the impact to customers;
  • safety;
  • the experience and skill level of other project team members and leadership;
  • how prepared and experienced an organization is as a whole to undertake the project; and
  • regulatory compliance, tax issues, legal and other legislation type issues.

SEE: Trouble hiring a project manager? Five possible reasons why (TechRepublic)

Jeremy Hill, who works as a Lead Engineer for Vonage Business Systems, agrees that "unfortunately there isn't any simple answer."

"Project managers come from such diverse fields that while some skills are easily transferable between industries, there are some that require very specific knowledge and in some cases certifications. A project manager who is overseeing an IT project, for example, would have a very different interpretation of 'defect' than one who oversees a manufacturing project. Fundamentals of project management, such as scheduling and cost-benefit analyses, even some templates are freely shared between PMs from any number of backgrounds—and it often doesn't take much for someone who is dedicated to learn to transfer those skills into a new role. Not all projects have the luxury of a PM who is learning on the job, however.

When I hire project managers, there is always a base skill set that I look for—more personality traits than actual abilities. But once that baseline has been established, I look for someone that can hit the ground running and won't be spending too much time playing catch up with jargon and industry specifics."

SEE: IT Hiring Kit: Project Manager (Tech Pro Research)

Laura Augustine, President/CEO Micaura Consulting, a project management consulting firm in Calgary, Alberta, says "each project varies vastly in its intricacies and execution, and scale is only one factor to consider; direct project experience is absolutely critical in a number of factors.

Planning can only get you so far. The planning stage is theoretical, and without direct project experience, you're likely to miss on a number of unknowns.

Understanding the industry is critical as well. Hiring a project manager with little or no direct industry experience is disastrous. We experienced this on a large scale (3bn) water project run through the energy and chemicals division of the organization I was working with at the time. Although much of the design was related to water treatment, the greater project scope was for an oil and gas company who had distinct expectations for how the project would be run, managed, and designed. The people with only water experience were eventually removed regardless of their project design experience because the project management norms, such as document management, reporting, resource curves, and not to say the least, jargon. Jargon in every industry regardless of actual validity identifies insiders and quickly ostracizes others."

SEE: Quick glossary: Project management (Tech Pro Research)

This is not to say directly related project experience is a necessity in every situation. It's the employer's responsibility (even when working with a recruiting agency) to analyze their situation and requirements and clearly identify if there is a need for direct related experience and where. More importantly, companies need to know precisely why this is the case (if applicable), and how and where this may translate in terms of risk factors throughout the project and the company.

In this article, I noted that the experience and skill level of other project team members and leadership can be factors in hiring a PM with directly related experience, and I'm sure that point raised a few eyebrows. Some companies have employees/teams with a wealth of technical and product/service-specific knowledge, yet no real project management experience. In this scenario, hiring a more seasoned PM who may not have directly related experience to work closely with a highly skilled product/service team can be a powerful combination. It may allow all players to more clearly assess success and risk from very different vantage points without full bias. It may offer opportunities to create better outcomes.

At the end of the day, the company is responsible for the project's outcome. Clients buy into products and services based on their faith in a business, its leadership, its customer service levels, and/or its reputation. Before hiring a PM, take the time to assess your business needs in a clear and realistic way.

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About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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