Picking a Project Manager Successor

Change happens. Perhaps an opportunity arises that enhances your career on another larger project, in a PMO position or as a portfolio manager — or something outside of your control places you a position of needing to find a successor. I hope that you have more than a few minutes to make a decision this critical to the success of the project. Keep the thought in the back of your mind from the beginning of the project.

Question 1: Should the next project manager come from the project staff?
Of course, that depends. You may have a go-to person on the project who wants to move into management and you believe qualifies through knowledge and personality to lead the project the rest of the way. Or not. All things being equal, promoting from within is good because it motivates people by showing that promotion is possible if they stick with the organization. However, there are challenges to moving from one-of-the-guys to project manager. The role and responsibilities differ significantly.

Question 2: What skills and traits are essential in a project manager?
I have talked about the skills and traits of good project managers in one way or another in most of my posts. Picking just a couple examples, you may want to check out The Ethical Project Manager and The Accidental Project Manager. To answer question 2, I suggest just a couple traits the absence of which spell disaster for a project.

  • Able to listen and communicate effectively. Although just understanding and doing is enough for an individual contributor, it is not nearly enough communication ability for a project manager.
  • Sees himself or herself as a potential manager. As you know from experience, being a project manager requires the mindset that you are in charge and you are responsible.
  • Respects stakeholders – all of them.

Question 3:  What training opportunities should potential PMs be given?
Since as a forward thinking PM, you have considered the possible need to recommend a successor before the event actually happens, you need to recommend training opportunities and growth experiences for potential candidates. Formal training in PMBOK certainly provides an overview of the responsibilities of a project manager.  Your role as a “coach” is to help with your team members’ development.  This should include basic training project management as well as tools like MS Project.  IN an earlier post I gave some ideas for training (PMs – No Time for Learning).

Question 4: How can you mentor potential PMs?
One activity I have found useful is to let my potential successor attend meetings on my behalf. I meet with them before the meeting, ask questions about what they expect and what they want to do, review any presentation materials, and clue them in to any traps. After the meeting, we meet again and I listen to their observations and summary of events.  Also let them assist in updating project artifacts (Progress, status, risks, issues, etc.).  And meet with them regularly to help as a mentor.

When appropriate, I also give candidates opportunities to manage special projects under my direction. These activities may be related to the current project work, they may be a risk-reduction experiment or even a company sponsored task. I want to see how they handle being in charge even on a small effort before I recommend them for project manager.

I try to spend some time with any potential manager reflecting on what is happening on the project from the perspective of management. I want to sensitize them to the many directions I am pulled because of stakeholders, contractors and senior management.

Question 5: How do you let go?
A project that has been your baby from the “get-go” stays with you. It is hard – sometimes very hard – to give up the reins of control. Make a transition plan, execute it and then, after you have done everything you can to prepare and select your successor, you have to walk away. That does not mean you cannot be contacted by your replacement if they have concerns or questions. It means that you wait, you do not initiate.

If you have other pearls of wisdom on selecting a PM successor, please share.

One Response to “Picking a Project Manager Successor”

  1. Project Manager Job Specification Says:

    Yes, a project manager should come from project staff, as it will take enormous time for the new manager to get addicted to this new project. It can lead to submission of the project too late!


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