Defining the core competencies necessary to ensuring professional success & longevity

Two construction business owners were sitting in a conference room. They were both asked a simple question: “What makes a great project manager?” The first leader responded with, “A great project manager is responsible for $10 million to $15 million in volume and a margin contribution that is commensurate with our companywide standard.”

With a look of confusion, the second leader responds by saying, “Those are results, not the true measure of the manager. A great manager is one who can deal with ambiguity, communicate effectively with crews and customers, and plan around the many challenges a team may encounter on a project.”

Both answers are correct—to a certain degree. One business owner chose to look at the output, while the other chose to look at the core competencies that drive success and, hopefully, superior output. But there’s a better way to go about answering the question.

When hiring a project manager or any other leader, do you become enamored with the wrong things on a résumé or in an interview, rather than screening for the right composition?

The Pitch

Résumés do a superb job of highlighting project successes and workload capabilities. A strong résumé should indicate the candidate has the traits we seek in a manager. In an interview, you might ask them to describe their projects and talk about their weaknesses.

One might even assume that in order to reach the desired volume of work and hit a company’s margin goals at a previous company, the individual must have the skills necessary. However, there is a distinction that great firms have tapped into—correlation and causation are too entirely different things.

First, it is safe to say that all résumés should paint the candidate in a positive light. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t give them a second glance. The problem is that in a results-driven industry like construction, it is easy to zone in on the facts and figures. Interviews barely clip the “white caps,” providing just a glancing glimpse into the candidate’s DNA. The first question a firm must ask before ever probing a candidate at the cellular level is what makes a great manager, superintendent or estimator for their particular company culture? What are the core competencies they view as mission critical?

The Core Competencies

Core competencies are hardly revolutionary. In fact, leaders have historically used them as a benchmark. “We want a great communicator, a great planner and someone who has a knack for business … ” The issue? The assumption is that if a manager can “run a $15 million project and make money,” they must be doing those things correctly. First, a firm must clearly define the traits they seek in a project manager, such as:

  • Superior communication skills—The candidate possesses the ability to proactively engage with clients, trade partners and the design team effectively and work towards win-win solutions. They have strong listening skills and an affinity to actively engage in communications even in difficult situations.
  • Ability to deal with ambiguity—As a design-builder, there is normally not a script. The best manager has the ability to take the ambiguous and create something concrete and communicate that across the entire project team.
  • Proactive planning skills—The best manager plans weeks and months in advance with the skill of a grandmaster of chess. In addition to having a plan, the individual has examined all of the areas of potential failure and created contingency plans.
  • Adaptability—Things do not always go well in the industry for a host of external and uncontrollable reasons. While the best manager has a well-defined plan for success, the individual can also adapt to adversity and channel that energy into positive reactions.

The endgame is not to create a wish list of impossibility, but to articulate to the team what success looks like for the firm. With the menu of options, a search team can now provide a deeper screening of candidates.

The Vetting

An individual’s résumé is their sales brochure. Similar to reading an advertisement of how a car gets 30 miles per gallon or goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds, a screener only has a glimpse of a candidate’s capabilities.

It is incumbent on the firm to determine if the results the individual has sold are a good fit with the competencies required by the firm. For instance, consider posing the following questions to the candidate:

  • When determining communication skills, ask the candidate, “Walk me through a real example of when you had to give bad news to a client.”
  • When trying to determine the candidate’s ability to deal with ambiguity, ask them, “We just landed a project in (insert a foreign market here), and you’ve never worked there before. How would you begin that project?”

Role playing is not new to the hiring process, but the aim of this step is to evaluate the candidate’s answers based on that of a successful manager’s profile. There may not appear to be a right or wrong answer in the conventional sense as it relates to communication skills, but there is a correct answer in terms of what the firm is hiring for and specifically needs in a project manager. Depending on whether this firm was a hard-bid or design-build contractor, the right answers to the question might look starkly different.

Lastly, by having defined core competencies at all levels in the firm, individuals can see what is required, not only of the position they have, but of the positions they may want to aspire to achieve in the future. A project engineer may see the requirements of a project manager as undesirable and opt to work toward a role in the field or estimating simply because their competencies align better. In the end, the firm creates an ecosystem that allows all individuals to thrive and reach the right end results.