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Recruiting good project

Project Management Qualifications: Do they predict on-the-job performance?

Project manager vacancies are very relevant today. When recruiting good project managers – PMOs and managers of project managers tell me that just because a candidate has a project management qualification does not mean he or she will be any good at doing the job. If this is true, and widely known, why, then, do so many recruitment processes specify having project management professional qualifications as a significant part of their selection criteria?

At least one answer to this is HR. They are usually charged with choosing appropriate individuals from a field of candidates. Despite the competency models we have in project management, it remains very challenging to identify and measure critical project skill sets.

So HR professionals, in the absence of clear guidance from the project profession, have to use ‘signals‘. Signals are easy to detect indicators of a quality which is otherwise difficult to measure. Suppose you need to assess whether someone has the ‘potential’ to be a good project manager, how can you do it? Being ‘potential’ means it is not actually in evidence, so how can you tell? One common surrogate measure is to use educational and professional qualifications. They are just so easy to check.

Certification is a signal used by HR in many occupations:

In a study of IT and HR professionals, researchers found that HR professionals, on average, believed that certified IT professionals possess higher levels of competency than non-certified professionals…IT professional recruiters did not! Indeed, few of them believed that certification should be used to justify hiring decisions.

Pridicting on-the-job performance?

To be useful, a surrogate measure or ‘signal’ must correlate positively with the attribute that is being assessed.  So, what evidence is there that on-the-job performance is positively associated with project management certification?

Well, the truth is, very little!   The anecdotal evidence described in the opening sentence, and many academic studies over the years, both suggest that there is little correlation between the two:

Multiple, well-conducted, studies show that there is no statistically significant relationship between performance on PMI tests and senior management perceptions of PM performance in the workplace. (Crawford, 2006)
Work done in 2013 could find no difference between certified and uncertified project managers on their performance of project scope, time, and cost management activities (Cantanio et al., 2013)
In a very recent study, it was shown that certification alone does not directly predict project performance in project management outcomes (Farashah et al., 2019)

But you have to use something!  Recruitment is too expensive when it goes wrong to allow chance-based appointments, and you can’t rely on CVs in this world where they can be bought on the Internet, and organisations school candidates on how to write them.  Faking is a very real issue for all recruiters.

So what are the right 'signals' and how can they be used?

HR is right about the idea of ‘signals in recruitment.  Every selection process has to base judgements on small samples of information.  The question is, which signals most consistently predict future PM performance?  CITI’s research into project management capabilities conducted over the last 25 years and involving over 40,000 project managers confirms that experience is the very best predictor of future success when recruiting good project managers.  But that leaves us with the problem: How do you find those individuals with the potential to be good project managers but who have not had the opportunity to prove it?  That is to say, how do you identify amongst the less experienced people the ones that will perform well?  What signals should we use?

Beyond experience: Gut feel matters, but...

Many managers readily admit to using ‘gut-feel’ in their recruitment decision, which is a sensible practice, but there are consequences.  Firstly, there is a tendency to stick with people we know – from previous jobs or via our relationship network, which limits the groups from which to make a selection.  There is also a well-known phenomenon called ‘cloning’, which selectors often don’t notice.  Being naturally attracted to people who are similar to themselves, selectors end up recruiting people who are ‘in-their-own-image’, which can have unexpected and undesirable consequences during team formation and limits diversity.

And to make matters more complicated – the project world is VUCA-changing.  What we want from project managers now is different – more change competency, more ‘agility’, more innovation competency, more adaptable leadership styles, and more stakeholder sensitivity.  Continuing reliance on certifications and qualifications is not going to work and use of gut-feel, i.e., self-referential behaviours are unlikely to pick up these new and emergent qualities.

Self-efficacy and professionalism

CITI’s profiling or assessment of project managers uses four dimensions: Knowledge, Attitudes, Skills, and Experience, which we abbreviate to KASE.  As already mentioned, experience is the best co-variant with future performance; in other words, it is the best predictor.

The poorest predictor when recruiting good project managers is knowledge.  High levels of knowledge do not predict good PM performance, though good PMs usually have better-than-average knowledge of the subject matter than weak PMs.

It might be expected that attitudes and skills would correlate well because project management is a practice-oriented profession where skills – what we do and how we do it is of more importance than knowledge and knowing.  However, measuring skills is difficult, time-consuming, and a very expertise-intensive process.  The Association of Project Management used to run competency-centre based qualification, which while excellent in its conceptualisation, took three days to complete!

The surrogate measure CITI uses is based on ‘self-efficacy’. Self-efficacy is a measure that looks at a a person’s belief regarding their capability to attain a given level of performance when recruiting good project managers. It goes beyond having skills to include: understanding one’s abilities, applying those abilities, applying effort appropriately, and persisting in rewarding behaviours to produce successful outcomes. Put briefly; it is an individual’s belief in their innate ability to achieve goals. To assess self-efficacy, we use a combination of case studies and structured interviews that combine the evaluation of skills, personal motivations, and belief systems. And this turns out to be the right ‘signal’.

The selections CITI has made using this approach for clients have, over the past 20 years that we have kept good records, resulted in more than nine out of 10 project managers being assessed by their managers as providing good or excellent delivery performance in their role. And where our evaluation of ‘inappropriate for selection’ was set aside, almost all failed during their probation period.

So, the use of this self-efficacy signal does appear to successfully eliminate the vast majority of type one errors: the selection of inappropriate candidates when recruiting good project managers. It is much harder to establish how many type two errors there are: the non-selection of suitable candidates. But we are working on it.

So where now?

That an individual could become a project manager by attending a three day course and passing a couple of exams has always been a pipe dream, the demands made by the role are much more complex than that.

That certification by itself is not a good signal that the individual is a good project manager does not mean that project management certification is of no value. Far from it. Professionalisation of the discipline requires some form of standard and shared experiences. What it does suggest is that project management proficiency is much more about self-belief, emotional intelligence, attitudes, and skills, than being familiar with a body of knowledge.

Recruiters, PMOs, and managers of project managers need to align themselves to this and take the profession forward together.

However, if you need to recruit good project managers and have any of these concerns – please contact us on 01908 283600 or email

We would love to support you and your team by providing advice and support, facilitated workshops or knowledge based learning events.

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