By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D
Senior Executive Director of Project Management, IIL 

Last year, I wrote a blog entitled My Most Important Best Practice. In the past several months, people have been asking me what I learned from this best practice. This is good news because it means that people are reading my blog.

I have modified this blog to include what I learned. As most often occurs in industry with continuous improvement activities is that the capturing of one best practice can lead to the discovery of other best practices.

During the almost five decades I have spent in the project management arena, I have collected many best practices that eventually end up in my textbooks. Most of these best practices revolve around continuous improvements to the project management methodology and result in updates to the policies, procedures, forms, guidelines and templates used for managing projects.

Actually, the wording “best practice” may be incorrect. It may be better to use the words “proven practice” because a best practice implies that it cannot be improved further. Proven practices, on the other hand, are subject to continuous updates.

There is one best practice that I have used over the years and have never been able to improve upon. I regard it as the “best” of the best practices, and it relates to how I run my life (related to project management, of course!). This best practice has not appeared in any of my books.

I spend a great amount of my time traveling and conducting seminars and workshops for the International Institute for Learning (IIL). We work with PMI chapters around the world and will send out brochures and e-mails about upcoming programs.

Once the announcements are made regarding the programs, I begin to receive e-mails from people I have never met, wanting to take me to dinner. I enjoy having dinner with the PMI chapter officers the night before the event because they tell me about the companies that will be attending and what their expectations are. This input is invaluable because it allows for some customization of the presentation.

Unfortunately it is other people, many who have no intention of attending the conference, who offer to take me to dinner for their own personal reasons. Regardless how many times I ask them the reason for the meeting, they prefer to say it’s personal and we can discuss it over dinner.

This is what usually happens:

5:30 p.m.: The individual picks me up at my hotel and drives me to a restaurant at least 30 minutes from my hotel. This means that I am now at their mercy for a ride back to my hotel and they have my undivided attention.

6:00 p.m.: We arrive at the restaurant, end up sitting in some remote location where nobody can hear us or perhaps even see us, and order dinner. My host tells the waiter that we are in no hurry and want a slow, leisurely dinner. This usually gets me nervous because I will be a captive longer than I expected.

6:10 – 7:30 p.m.: My host tells me about their life history from the age of 10 to their current age of usually 30-40 years old. This includes information about their family, their education, the number of courses they took, their grades in the courses, and what they learned. And as expected, a lot of it is totally unrelated to project management. This also includes facts about their employment history. If they have an unhappy home life, this portion of the meeting can run for another hour. When this happens, I am under the impression that my host has me confused with Dr. Phil. I pretend to listen attentively, my mind thinking about starting an IIL blog entitled Dr. Phil on project management. Recognizing that this new blog could drive me to serious drinking and drugs, reality soon returns and once again I am clueless as to why they are telling me this. The suspense in now killing me!!!  Why am I here?

7:30 – 9:00 p.m.: For the next 90 minutes, they tell me all of the facts about their current employer, especially everything that’s wrong with the company related to project management and everything they did (or at least tried to do) to correct the situation. Of course, they are very adamant that 99.99% of the problems are because of senior management. They try to make it appear that they are God’s gift to project management and yet their company does not appreciate their efforts.

During the discussion they continuously ask me, “Didn’t I make the right decisions?” or “Don’t you agree with me?” or “What would you have done if you were me?” At this point I am getting a little nervous for fear that I may not have a ride back to my hotel. I am also fearful of giving this individual my ideas for how I would handle the situation because I have no idea what they would do with the information, or whether or not it would be taken out of context. And, once again, I am still in suspense as to the purpose of this meeting.

9:00 – 9:30 p.m.: Now we get to the real issue. Since their company obviously does not appreciate their efforts, they want to leave their company and is there anything I can do to help them find employment elsewhere? I just spent 4 hours listening to someone who wants a project management position somewhere. Now I finally figure out that my host really does not believe that I am Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer, but instead thinks that I am an employment agency. And as you might expect, they now pull out a resume from their briefcase. 

You cannot imagine how many times this has happened to me. So, what’s the best practice for how to handle this situation?

  • When people ask to take me out to dinner, I ask them one question: Why do you want to take me out to dinner? This catches them by surprise and most people refuse to answer the question and try to change the direction of the conversation.
  • Relentlessly, I keep asking the same question until I get an answer.
  • If they have a valid reason, I will be glad to have dinner with them.
  • If they tell me it is a personal reason, then there’s no question in my mind that they are seeking employment and want my help. I then tell them that they can join me for breakfast in my hotel between 6:30 a.m. – 7:00 a.m. to discuss whatever they want. I make sure they understand that at 7:00 a.m. I am heading to my lecture and our breakfast meeting is over.

In 30 minutes over breakfast, all of the important information is discussed. Most of the time they decline to have breakfast with me and just send me a resume. This best practice has worked well for me for several decades. And for those of you that know me, give up the idea that any time soon I will have an afternoon TV talk show like Dr. Phil to discuss personal issues related or unrelated to project management.

Although this situation may appear humorous, it does bring up a very important point; why are some people unhappy with their current project management position and want to change jobs? To answer this question, we must ask another question; what do project managers expect from their employers such that they are happy with their position? My experience is as follows:

  • A Reasonable Salary: Most project managers that earn a reasonable salary and are happy with their job will not leave the company. Project management may very well have the lowest turnover rate of any profession. There appear to be items more important to project managers than money such as happiness on the job and quality of life. I have seen project managers refuse promotions to positions that may require that they surrender their project management duties.
  • Lifelong Educational Opportunities: Every project manager that I have ever met was proud to be called a project manager even though they were facing enormous challenges and often complained about the lack of support from their parent organization. Project managers want to perform better and better with each new assignment. Companies that are willing to support lifelong educational opportunities for their project managers have taken the first major step toward employee retention.
  • Visible Executive Support: The most common complaint I hear is that executives do not support project management. Visible executive support is needed and I stress the word “visible.” Quite often, people tell me that the executives do not understand project management and refuse to attend any type of training for executives. My experience is that most executives do in fact understand project management but do not exhibit this knowledge because they have personal agendas for their lack of support such as a fear that project managers may end up making decisions that are reserved for the executive levels or that project managers may become more powerful than the executives.

If executives want to retain competent project managers, then they must show support. There are several ways it can be done including the creation of a “wall of fame” to display project successes, congratulations that appear in the company newsletters, and reporting successes to the local media for publication.

  • Decision-Making Ability: Project managers understand that they may never have all of the authority they expect to make every decision. But they want sufficient authority to make those decisions that are commensurate with their responsibility.
  • A Pleasant Working Environment: This involves having a corporate culture where people are willing to work together freely and share information. Companies that create an internal competitive culture and refuse to share information because information is seen as a source of power end up destroying morale for project management and good people will leave the company.

Obviously there are other issues that could have been considered. But these five items are, in my experience, the most common reasons why people may wish to change companies.

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