The crucial role project managers play in retaining and developing talent

February 16, 2021

Business customers in the software services industry are increasingly working with their vendors and strategic partners in highly complex engagements, where their full time employees work directly alongside those of their strategic partners.

The economic pressure of the pandemic is forcing companies to do more with less, and much of this pressure trickles down to individual delivery teams in the form of tighter deadlines, increased number of deliverables and dependencies, and more limited resources – in a nutshell, everything is becoming more taxing, and more stressful for teams.

Technology companies have to continuously do more to deliver the high quality services that businesses need. But we also have to do more to keep up with what our own teams need. If we don’t, we risk losing our best people.

To stay competitive, every organization needs to be able to staff, retain, and grow top-tier, highly specialized talent that can confidently navigate highly collaborative projects and engagements. 

For project managers managing these kinds of complex projects can be especially challenging – in addition to the deliverables specifically demanded by stakeholders, they also play a critical role in ensuring talent retention.

Managing attrition is more complex than meets the eye. There are the obvious factors, such as compensation, benefits, and the other factors that are largely out of the control of most project managers on the ground, so let’s ignore those for a minute. What most project managers can control within their day to day life, is how we work with our teams. The human relationship between managers and their teams is extraordinarily important, and this can get lost amidst all that happens in a project.

It is vital that we don’t lose sight of what we can do to strengthen and support our teams. The good thing is that there is so much that we can do. 

We can control how we assess the things that impact our teams’ day to day happiness and productivity, what things are causing stress, the inefficiencies that we as project managers might be able to solve, and ways we can be proactive to solve problems for our team. We can control how much we invest into sprint retrospectives, documenting and acting on feedback from our teams, and showing our teams that we will go to bat to make their work days more productive and more rewarding. 

We can control how much time we invest in our teams’ career path planning, and leader and mentorship support structures. We control how much time we save for team member 1:1s and office hour discussions.

We can control how collaborative we are. The more we, as project managers, work with our teams to align on the best possible project plans to navigate the scopes, schedules, and budgets that we are given to deal with, the more that everyone will give their best effort to meet project goals, because there will be a sense of team. 

We have to invest in our teams, to make them the best they can be, so that we can also be our best possible selves. 

This begins with servant leadership, but it is more than that. It is valuing each other, looking out for each other, and being good to each other, to build a place where people want to work together. 

Project managers can help their companies attract and retain talented people in several ways: 

  • Collect both qualitative and quantitative feedback. Gather this feedback on everything from team mood, client relationship, to stress levels during every sprint retrospective in order to identify potential problem areas early, and before any frustrations grow into real attrition risk. 
  • Be laser focused on career path goals for team members. Ensure that team members have clear quarterly and annual goals and are supported in how they are tracking towards these goals with their manager and mentors, so that team members are confident in their long term future within the company.
  • Talk in-depth about the project strategy with team members that are working to deliver in the trenches. These discussions are often limited to specific stakeholders, which can lead to team members feeling out-of-the-loop or devalued – not great for motivation. The more that everyone understands and is engaged with the challenges and strategies for a project, the stronger the sense of team will be, which leads to greater retention.  
  • Collaborate with your team to estimate work, identify dependencies, and surface risks, and generate collective buy-in on scope schedules wherever possible. Show the team that they are empowered to participate in the shaping of the engagement, and that you (the project manager) will go to bat for the team to hunt down dependencies or resolve risks. Get better performance and retention by practicing servant leadership. 

Although these strategies can help avoid attrition, there is no strategy that can completely prevent it from happening – eventually, people may decide to move on for no other reason than to try something new. When attrition does occur, be prepared to talk openly about what happened, what strategies were taken to prevent it and what corrective action will be taken in the future to ensure that your talented team stays intact.

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