Artificial Intelligence

The Successful Digital PM, Part 5C: Retention

The final post in my Successful Digital PM series is also both the trickiest for me to write and the one that has been the most eye opening to me as I've written it. Retention of all employees is critical to keeping an organization running like a well-oiled machine, and given the integrated role of a PM across projects, this is doubly true. Metal Toad hasn't always gotten it right, but we've learned a lot along the way. Below are some things I've learned and strategies we employ at Metal Toad to achieve success.

The final post in this series was both the trickiest to write and the one that has been the most eye opening as I've written it. Retention of all employees is critical to keeping an organization running like a well-oiled machine, and given the integrated role of a PM across projects, this is doubly true. Metal Toad hasn't always gotten it right, but we've learned a lot along the way. Below are some things I've learned and strategies we employ at Metal Toad to achieve success.

Other posts in this series:

The Stable PM Stable

Project manager retention can be difficult. That 6 month learning curve I outlined in the previous post has caused some damage in its wake. Historically, we haven't been great at PM retention, but with each new hire we've had better results and decreased turnover rates in the department. When I took on the PM Director role, my self-assigned primary goal was to stabilize the department, and I have my fingers crossed and knock on wood regularly thinking I may have finally managed to do it. Per part 5A in this series, hiring right to start with is key. Over the last three years, we've transitioned from the young-agency model of "You think you have what it takes to be a PM? Okay, prove it!" to "You've got the right skill set/a transferrable skill set. You're hired!" to "Your skill set, traits, and knowledge are spot on, but do you actually know what you're getting into?" and the results have been very positive. But finding highly qualified individuals has been hard; note that during many of our hiring rounds, we've only found 1-2 good candidates from an initial applicant pool of 100. Once we find them, it's worth our time to keep them around!

We're not alone in our journey to find PM stability. I've talked to numerous to peers at other organizations (both agency and client-side), and project manager retention is a common problem. Obviously benefits, pay, and other perks play a role in retention, but my experience has been that there are a number of issues within organizations and aspects of the role of project management that lend themselves to high turnover. Here are some of the top issues we've identified and steps we've taken to alleviate them to the extent possible:

Organizational Issues

  • PMs lack team support
    • Issue Details: This one is a common complaint, but thankfully one that we don't experience much at Metal Toad. In many organizations, there's an unfortunate "us versus them" mentality between groups, and in this case that often comes down to developers and project managers. The negative project manager stereotype of adding no value (which is understandably reinforced by bad project managers) heralded by some developers creates a toxic environment where a PM has to manage a projects without the proper level of team support. The opposite can certainly be true too, with project managers holding resentment against developers for being unreliable or having a diva mentality (again, reinforced by the small contingent of unreliable/diva devs out there). I feel very fortunate that at Metal Toad we hear feedback along the lines of "our project management team is the best I've worked with" from our developers, and we feel the same about our dev team. We're all aligned with a common goal of shipping great work, and titles and departments don't get in the way of that.
    • Steps to Alleviate: This one falls squarely on the shoulders of leadership. The personalities of your organization aren't going to change overnight, but any time you hear hints of blame being placed or "us versus them" language between any departments, it's time to step in and make sure everyone is on board as a team. Ultimately, you may end up with great individuals at your organization, but if they're not all acting together as a team, there will be pain and agony (and turnover) along the way.
  • PMs aren't empowered to make decisions with a proper level of autonomy
    • Issue Details: Project managers have "manager" in the title for a reason. While they're often not people managers, they are responsible for owning their projects and project-related decisions to the extent possible. Once project managers are fully trained and integrated on projects to the extent that they understand the nuances of how to approach decision-making taking into account all the important variables (and personalities), they should always have one of the strongest, if not the strongest voice on decisions. This isn't always the case, and sometimes business-level realities impact project decisions which can lead to overruling a project manager and changing direction on a project, but the less this happens, the better.
    • Steps to Alleviate: Perhaps surprisingly, one of the major contributors here can be fixed in the business development/sales process. No work contract is going to be bulletproof, but a project that comes in the door with well-defined boundaries and scope empowers a project manager to execute infinitely better than vague requirements and a client expecting we're going to build a site with the complexity of Facebook for $50K. In the case where a project decision has come down to keeping the budget intact versus keeping the client happy, trust the person who has been talking with the client daily and has a feel for their mood towards the project. Many project managers trend towards the iron triangle mentality of maintaining scope/cost/time, but as long as client satisfaction is considered as well, that generally leads to good outcomes. When we give more than a bit away in an attempt to appease a client, all too often the primary result is mis-set expectations and a still-unsatisfied client that keeps asking for more.
  • Organizational preferential treatment
    • Issue Details: With highly talented teams that have in-demand web skills, it's not surprising that sometimes those groups are given what can seem like preferential treatment by leadership. At Metal Toad, we haven't been entirely immune to this in our past, but it's something we identified and have worked to improve. Our development team has historically had low turnover and high job satisfaction, and they enjoy a number of protections from common developer complaints at other organizations. Our Vice President even has a "Developer Bill of Rights" sitting on his desk. I think it's an incredibly positive atmosphere for quality development, but it's important that it doesn't come at the expense of allowing other groups within the organization to be successful in their roles as well. For project managers, success often means managing project scope, cost, and timeline without facing internal resistance.
    • Steps to Alleviate: Creating a project manager bill of rights is a good start. If developers have the right to uninterrupted blocks of development time and having their estimates respected, then project managers should have the right to clear communication channels with developers and informed estimates provided for development tasks. Beyond that, much of this comes down to leadership presenting the case for a united team and making decisions that are healthy for project success for all departments.
  • PMs are thrown under the bus
    • Issue Details: It can be easy to point fingers when something goes wrong on a project, and in too many agencies project managers are presumed to be the person to take the fall if a project derails. This leads to a vicious cycle where PMs don't feel safe escalating concerns on a project, and instead bury little issues rather than sounding alarms early. By the time others start to notice the cracks in the project, it's often too late to fix things, and project managers can lose their confidence and motivation, get fired, or any other number of bad outcomes.
    • Steps to Alleviate: Metal Toad has been increasingly able to maintain and build trust with our PM team at an organizational level. Mistakes are treated as learning opportunities, and we have non-finger-pointing retrospectives following each project to outline what could have gone better. At a base level, this issue is all about trust. Make sure your PM team repeatedly hears that they have your organization's trust, and then make sure your behaviors reinforce that trust rather than undermining it.

Role-Based Issues

  • Project managers are at high risk for burnout
    • Issue Details: In my post on traits there are references to "chaos" and "fires." While skilled project managers handle that chaos with seeming ease and grace, stress accumulates over time. Good project managers aren't taking stress out on their teams or the client, but the alternative is often internalizing it, which has its own drawbacks. Sometimes a project manager has one too many projects on their plate and when the carefully planned full-capacity balance is thrown off, they reach their tipping point and everything cascades. Eventually, even for the most resilient personalities, burnout creeping in is a possibility. It may not be burnout in the sense that your PMs suddenly throw up their hands in exasperation and head for the door (though that's also a possibility). Instead, it's often a more subtle burnout, and one that no one besides the PM themselves may notice initially. The more common burnout comes in the form of decreased willpower, emotional exhaustion, or "fuzzy brain" syndrome, where it's increasingly hard to engage your brain in both focused thoughts and creative thinking. I know the feeling, because I've been there and, luckily, back.
    • Steps to Alleviate: To combat building internalized stress over time, outlets are incredibly important. I like the work hard, play hard mentality, but we try to also maintain bounds along the lines of reasonable working hours. PMs should work hard when at work, but leave work at a reasonable time, and then avoid taking work home with them to the extent possible. We try to set client expectations that we'll provide a very quick response time during working hours, but avoiding responding in off hours save for emergencies. During those off hours, physical activity, hobbies, socializing, and any number of other things will help alleviate work stress, but the specifics are up to the individual. Instead, it's on the company to maintain a healthy project capacity. Even more so, I'm a huge proponent of vacations. The Europeans have it right when they take extended vacations, because they do wonders for getting out of a mental funk and reinvigorating you to come back to work with a fresh perspective. I try to take my PTO days in large chunks when possible, trying to spend at least a week on vacation. And when I'm on vacation, I prepare well in advance to make sure things are covered and then unplug entirely. If I'm thinking about work, I'm doing it wrong. I encourage other project managers to do the same, and at the organization level, we make sure our work culture doesn't discourage employees from using their PTO days in full.
  • Projects are never-ending
    • Issue Details: Some big enterprise organizations primarily contract out for 6 month to year-long PM positions. Some PMs are attracted to those type of contract roles, because they have defined start and end dates. At Metal Toad and many other organizations, a PM won't have that luxury. For one, project scope often calls for managing multiple projects simultaneously, and when one project ends, another is assigned. Beyond that, many clients stick around long-term over multiple years (which is usually a good thing), and along the way, ghosts from earlier projects may be dug up. Then there's ongoing support agreements, warranties, and stubborn bugs to squash post-launch. It can all add up to feel like even though there are site launches and wins along the way, there's never a light at the end of the tunnel. A happy project manager will look for the next win, while a struggling project manager may feel like there is no way to win.
    • Steps to Alleviate: To begin with, this is an important thing to look for when hiring. The best project managers are optimists grounded in reality to some extent, and actually enjoy the never-ending challenge. Even so, eventually new projects and clients without baggage and a change of scenery are a good thing. There are a couple primary ways to alleviate this. The first is to hand off projects between project managers over time. You don't want to switch off mid-project if possible, obviously, but reassigning a new project manager to a client's projects every 6 months to a year can be a positive for both the project manager and the client. The clients and projects that are easiest to have success with often go to newer project managers, and the battle-hardened veterans salivate over the chance to pick up the project that looks like a guaranteed disaster and try to right it. The second strategy which we're currently in the progress of implementing at Metal Toad is to abstract support and maintenance tasks from the primary project team to the extent possible. Previously, we've handled smaller ongoing support clients fully mixed in with bigger projects, but it caused excess noise and distraction many days, and wasn't a great experience for those customers either. Instead, we're creating a delineation between Metal Toad Project and Metal Toad Managed Services. Project is exactly what it sounds like, while Managed Services will handle support requests, maintenance, DevOps tasks, and small feature requests or small projects as capacity allows. This will allow our project management team to pass clients in maintenance mode to a different primary contact within the organization for ongoing support until their next project comes about.
  • Project management is hard
    • Issue Details: Yes, that's incredibly vague and perfectly obvious. But it's still important to throw it out there. The Digital PM role wears a lot of hats and has a lot of responsibility for happy clients, project success, and the organization's bottom line. To be successful, you have to really want to work hard at it (see: traits > intrinsic motivation). A question I ask project managers is: "Given the numerous skills, traits, and knowledge required of you in this position, you could go down any number of other career paths that would pay as well or better and might be lower stress. So why project management?"
    • Steps to Alleviate: That can be a tricky question to answer, but ultimately it comes down to career path for most people. Some people see project management as a be-all, end-all to their career, but others view it as a stepping stone to something else. It's important to make sure that your organization aligns with the career goals of your PMs (ideally you figure this out in the candidate stage). The closer aligned you are to those goals, the longer they'll stay. If you find the person who wants to be a project manager indefinitely, just make sure that they have the right perspective on how to continually renew their excitement for projects and avoid burnout. Just make sure that your PMs maintain bigger-picture perspective on what they want to be doing, and regularly reinforce that your organization is committed to making sure they can achieve those objectives.

Those are just a start, but if you're addressing those issues at an organizational level on both a cultural basis and procedural basis, your project managers will likely be a happy bunch. Some of these come from personal experience at Metal Toad and other organizations, so I'm curious to hear what the top retention issues at other organizations might be. Leave a comment!

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