I wish I had a £1 for every time I have seen a role profile for a project/programme/PMO manager (my working area) , either permanent or contract, where along with a series of specific and defining skills and capabilities, it stipulates “must have X years (of) experience in ‘Industry A’”, where the role is to work in ‘Industry A’. ‘X’ is usually at least 5. Currently, this is particularly true of insurance, but cuts across the whole of financial services. Of course the glut of candidates and paucity of roles is a major enabler in this behaviour.
If you have worked for 10 years or more you are sure to have seen it before, but as a candidate it is frustrating when you know you can deliver in the role and want to be considered, but fail the litmus test of industry years . “Because they can” is the answer most generally received when one asks why they state that they need that experience.
Now we know the market is tight and that brings out defensive and opportunistic behaviours in many employers. They only want to make safe hires, ie not leave themselves open to the risk of criticism and thus ensure that a specific hiring decision will not come back on them. If they can cherry-pick from competitors they will. This makes a lot of sense in more product/sales roles, but does it carry the same weight in change?
In project management, there has long been a debate about whether industry years is more important than more generic project management skills and this seems to be an extension of that question. It seems useful to use this blog to explore this further and consider the best response to future needs.
Successful change is broadly an effective blend of corporate strategy and politics (with both “P” and “p”), detailed subject matter knowledge and good planning, management, tracking and reporting. This may be a little simplistic, but is illustrative of the essentials.
Put simply the business sponsor should be the lead in the area of corporate strategy and politics, business staff and analysts lead on the detailed knowledge leaving the planning, management, tracking and reporting to the change professional.
So why is it so important that the change professional has deep industry specific experience?
- There is not enough or relevant sponsorship capacity for the undertaking and they need the change professional to supply this and double up
- The change is of a (small) scale or the cost pressures are such that they want the change professional to cover some or all of the business analysis responsibilities
- There is a belief that having successfully(?) filled the role in another company in the same industry increases the chance of success for this endeavour
- It is just more comfortable and easier to bond with someone who speaks the same language and share the similar experiences and scars.
There may well be more but these seem to be the main arguments.
Looking at sponsorship capacity first; the engagement of an effective sponsor is consistently identified as a critical factor in successful change. It really needs to come from the business as the relationship between that person and their peers and colleagues will be very different from a more transient change professional, especially one on a contract or interim assignment.
If one has a shortage in sponsorship capacity it would be nice to think one could “buy it in” and maybe some years (20?) ago when companies in the same industry had greater similarity there were opportunities for that. However now companies are much more complex and less comparable, just look at the difficulty many have in identifying their competing peer group. Business infrastructure, culture, organisational wellbeing, risk appetite and many other factors, some subtle, some not, make important differences.
Additionally, most competency frameworks would highlight important gaps between those required to be good business leader and those for a manager of change. It is rare that one person can excel at both, so in doubling up at least one role will suffer.
If this is the reason for looking for deep specific industry experience in a project/programme/PMO manager then I suggest the problems are deeper and the chance of eventual success is impaired. This is no comment on the hired manager, but more on the necessity of the business to supply effective sponsorship.
The second reason is looking for a doubling up in analytical skills and detailed knowledge (sometimes call subject matter expertise – SME) through specified industry years. This again blurs two skill sets that rarely co-exist at high levels in one individual.
It is a possible answer for a small undertaking, but even the removal of separation between the roles can create conflicts and a loss of objectivity. Similarly any overload will have a magnified impact on both delivery and transparent reporting and reduce the effectiveness of problem solving.
Again if this is the rationale when hiring for a significant change of any scale, the portents of eventual success are not good.
The third reason is based on the question whether success is reliably repeatable. The short answer is in that there is evidence of this, but not for the reasons that are often put forward and previous industry experience is not the determinant.
Research a couple of years ago identified the characteristics of “alpha” project manager ie those with a track record of repeated success. I have blogged about this before so will just summarise here:-
- They have an inbuilt dashboard of what is important and deserves their attention
- They deal with unplanned activities better as the know to expect the unexpected
- They manage their diaries better and leave time for supporting and unplanned activities
- They know how to “get things done”.
The last point was recognised as being contextual ie ANY change of role in the same organisation or to different one will result in a significant drop in effectiveness. The key is that the “alpha” picks that up again quickly; other less able project managers struggle.
The reader can see from this that just because a candidate has worked in another company, which despite being in the same industry is likely to be very different in its support and receptiveness to change, it does not mean they can or will repeat previous success. Instead it is more personal capabilities that support the transfer of performance.
Just think how often a new “star” project or programme manager has failed to deliver to expectations? And then consider what their reputation was based upon?
Before I close we should look at reason #4. This is more understandable, but is unlikely to improve the quality of recruiting. Most coaches and trainers will say that it is easier to bond with someone who shares common views and experiences. Of course one has to be able to work with the project/programme/PMO manager, but you are hiring them for a purpose, as agents of change. Being comfortable with them is probably not the most important or most effective consideration. Other considerations such as trust, empathy and gravitas are more important for leading significant change.
So, where does this lead us?
I think that the reliance in looking for industry years in change agents is very understandable and well intentioned, but does not serve anyone interested in driving effective change well.
As business leaders it is important to understand why one is placing that requirement ona role profile and consider if it is masking other, more significant issues. The delivery of successful change is becoming more difficult as both the complexity of the business environment and the pace required increase and success will likely hang on fine distinctions.
To recruiters, I want to offer comfort that “alphas” do exist, but caution that many other project managers are “lucky” ie they got it right once or twice, but that does not mean they can reliably reproduce it. In identifying the alphas look at why they were previously successful and not just where. This may appear to introduce some additional perceived risk, but proper selection will in fact reduce it.
In short don’t lose your best candidates by applying inappropriate filters, consider why they have been successful and if that reflects personal capabilities that they can transfer effectively.
Ian Sutherland is a highly experienced, versatile and pragmatic change professional; equally happy operating as a programme manager, managing a PMO or working within business as a catalyst of change. With over 30 years working in financial services, mostly delivering business change within the City, he has experienced a huge amount of change. Hehas a keen interest in how we need to adapt our approach and skills if we are to successfully deliver change in an increasingly complex, demanding and fast moving world, both business and personal.
His personal blog can be found at talesofanactivemind.blogspot.com