4 Leadership Selection Mistakes to Avoid

It is intuitively obvious: one of the key factors for successful projects is putting the proper person in charge.

Sounds simple enough to do; it’s not. Selecting an individual to lead a successful initiative should be based on their ability to lead. Put another way, using some other criteria to pick a project or program manager is the first step down a troubled path. I’m assuming you know what makes a good leader; if not see my post “What Makes a Great PM”.

To help avoid putting the wrong person in charge, here are the 4 most common selection mistakes to avoid:

Selection based on Availability

Time after time, I see projects where a project leader is chosen, not because they meet a thoughtful set of leadership criteria, but because they are an available resource. The “Who is the least busy?” model. Rarely is this a good selection method. A lot of the time the least busy resources are not that busy for reasons having to do with their efficiency or effectiveness as leaders.

If you feel as if you are forced to make a decision based on availability because the project must get underway, make sure the “must” is a true constraint and not an arbitrary decision. Then consider how else you might find a leader who has the right stuff to make the project a success. You may have to step in temporarily until you find the right candidate.

Selection based on Subject Matter Expertise (SME)

Another common method of choosing project leadership is trying to match specific knowledge related to the project at hand – a subject matter expert. Often this is also paired with the phrases “hands on” or “not afraid to get their hands dirty”, meaning that in addition to managing the project, this person will be expected to perform SME-related tasks. This is one of the worst models because it seems like a reasonable approach. It isn’t.

For projects of any significant size, relying on a single resource to be the SME while they are trying to manage the project is generally not a good idea because something will suffer. That something is more often than not the overall management of the project. SME-project managers by definition have their time divided and most will gravitate toward what they are most comfortable with, namely the subject matter at hand. While there are capable SMEs who can also manage projects, expecting them to do both at the same time rarely turns out well.

Selection based on Reward (or Punishment)

The third bad model for selecting a project leader is assigning responsibility purely as a reward (or punishment). This is a model that works only if the person is truly being rewarded for prior project leadership work. If the reward is for some other good deed or accomplishment, find another way to recognize or compensate them.

Projects meant to fail (yes, I’ve seen this used as a management technique) are usually used as punishment or as a precursor to termination. Of course projects predestined for failure are inefficient and costly, but it’s worth mentioning since it occurs more often than anyone would like to admit.

Selection based on Political Recommendation

The final method is the most dangerous – putting someone unqualified in charge because your boss (or your boss’s boss) made a “recommendation”.  Of course if the recommended person has the right stuff, then putting them in charge becomes a win-win for you and your boss. But if this is not the case, a troubled project is right around the corner. So while perhaps politically expedient at the start, the project will ultimately be your responsibility. After all, it’s not your boss’s fault the person you put in charge dropped the ball or that you failed to provide the proper oversight, guidance, mentoring, etc.

There are a number of ways to dodge this bullet. One way is to use a shadow PM to actually take the leadership role and work side by side with the “named” PM. This can be tricky as it requires the cooperation of the questionable PM who may not totally accept or support the arrangement. Another way is to agree to the placement on a conditional basis, where the candidate is given a set of challenges that will clearly (and hopefully quickly) demonstrate their inappropriateness for the position. The last way to not get caught in this trap (and my personal favorite): agree to consider the recommendation but reserve the right to make the final call with no interference (or retribution).

These are my top examples of PM selection mistakes. Do you have others?