Project managers. You either love ‘em, hate ‘em—or have no idea what they do. But even if you know what they do, you may not always know whether or when you need one!
In this article, we’ll break down what good project managers do, provide some project management rules of thumb, and help you determine when you need a project manager and how to hire the right one for your unique needs. We've also provided some bonus resources that can help you in your hiring process.
So, let's dive in!
What Is A Project Manager?
Let’s start from square one: A project manager is the person responsible for taking an idea, a team, a deadline, and assorted tools; creating a plan; and making that idea a reality.
If you’ve ever been a part of a construction project, you may have worked with a general contractor. This person usually isn’t the electrician, builder, architect, or plumber. Rather, they’re the person who coordinates all those other skilled individuals, gets the permits, and makes sure everyone works toward the same goal at the exact time they need to.
So, if the project manager is coordinating all the people, then guess what…the electricians get to do what they do best, as do the builders, the plumbers, and the architects. And they all come in at just the right time to do their part. No drywall is put up before the electrical is inspected. No kitchen appliances are in place before the gas lines are run.
With a project manager in place, things run more smoothly, talented people get to do what they do best, and the client gets regular updates on how things are progressing and whether the timeline will still be met.
That’s what a good project manager does.
Project Management Rules of Thumb
If you’re not completely familiar with project management, you probably have a lot of questions. Here are some general rules of thumb to keep in mind as you consider incorporating project management into your organization.
What is a project?
A project is a deliverable that has a goal, a purpose, an owner, and clear start and end dates. It might be an event, the launch of a new online platform, a research study, an IT system change or upgrade, or the publishing of a book or magazine. The what is quite flexible; a project just needs to have those clear expectations established and defined.
How long does it take to lead a project?
We estimate it takes an average of 8-10 hours/week to lead a project from start to finish. More time is typically required in the beginning—when a project is starting—and at the end when it’s wrapping up. In between, the hours are usually a little lower than average—once the tracking tools are set up, meeting cadences are established, and a communication plan is in place and running.
Keep in mind, however, this is a general ballpark—not a cemented rule for all projects all the time.
How much budget should I allocate for project management?
A good rule of thumb is to allocate 10% of a project’s budget to project leadership. This amount can be allocated to people, tools, software, and a bit of travel, if needed. (An in-person kickoff meeting is always ideal!)
How many projects should a project manager lead?
As the project's leader, a project manager needs to keep margin in their schedule (and their brain) for strategic thinking, planning, and communicating. They are not only looking at today’s tasks, but also tomorrow’s milestones and next month’s goals. It’s important they stay proactive, not reactive.
In our experience, project managers do best when they manage no more than four projects at once. Beyond that, maintaining a big picture view becomes difficult, and PMs typically become less proactive and more “reactive”, responding to overdue tasks, responding to unexpected “update requests” from senior leaders, and generally just trying to survive.
How do you know when you need a PM?
Now, if you’re managing a small team, bustin’ your butt to make the world a better place, and trying to steward donor money well too, it can feel risky to consider paying a person who’s not doing (what’s thought of as) “the actual work.”
So how do you know when a project manager would be a wise investment to help your team, your goals, and ultimately, your mission?
You may find yourself thinking things such as:
“I’ve got the budget for a project but not enough team capacity to fill it.”
“We’re growing faster than we can bring people on board.”
“I don’t have time to find and onboard an ideal candidate; I need to start this project yesterday.”
“My team has too much to do and not enough hands to do it.”
“I know where this project should be this time next year, but I'm not exactly sure how to get there.”
Or you may be feeling pain points like these:
“I never quite know where our projects stand.”
“I have to dig through too many emails and Slack posts to find the latest information, and by the time I find it it’s outdated.”
“I need to be able to share updates and ideas to key stakeholders faster, more clearly, and with a more cohesive approach.”
“I wish my VP would stop asking for updates at random times; it’s causing unnecessary fire drills that derail the team and me.”
These are all indications that you may need a project manager.
New Hire, In-House, or Contractor?
When you’ve realized you do need a project manager, you’ve got another decision to make:
Should you hire a new staff member, fill the role from within your own team, or outsource to a contractor? Here’s how you can tell.
When To Hire A New Staff Member
Hiring a new employee is obviously a long-term commitment, so you’ll want to make sure you have a longer-lasting need beyond one or two time-sensitive projects.
You’ll want to consider hiring full time when you:
Have enough work for someone 30+ hours/week
Can see more projects coming in the next year or farther out
Want someone to ebb and flow as your projects, department, or initiatives change
(If you decide to hire a staff project manager, here's a sample PM job description to get you started.)
When To Use Existing Staff
While you may not have the budget to hire or outsource, but you know the role should still be filled, don’t fall into the trap of thinking “We have a PM tool. That will do the work for us, right?” Nope.
Think of it this way: Does a saw know how to build a house? Does a pen know how to write a story?
Of course not! These are tools that are used by experts to achieve the outcome they set out to create. The same is true for project management.
So, if you are strapped for funds, don’t just tack “be our PM” onto an existing team member’s role and assume they’ll figure it out. Instead, honor them and the role you’re seeking to fill by taking these steps:
Identify the person who has a knack for staying on top of responsibilities, is an excellent communicator, a trusted relationship builder, and loves to facilitate getting stuff done.
Allocate 6-8 hours of that person’s time to the PM role.
Give them freedom to set some of their existing responsibilities aside to do the work.
Formalize their responsibilities—for you, the PM, and also for the team so everyone knows what role this person is taking on.
Equip them with training and resources to to grow in their role. (Check out our free resources at Way Forth Learning.)
(Here's a sample PM role description if you decide to use an existing staff member for this role.)
When To Hire a Contractor
Because contractors are—by the nature of their work—prepared to ebb and flow, it’s best to contract when:
A project is brand new, and you have to start… like… now.
In some cases, you may know you want to hire someone eventually, but a contractor can get things started in the short-term, helping your project gain momentum and traction while you go through the new hire process.
A project will only last six to 12 months, and outside of that one project you don’t really need a full-time person for your team.
You have a long-term project (possibly even years), but outside of that one main project, you don’t need a full-time person.
When you’re looking for a contractor, you’ll want someone who’s not only competent and experienced, but who will also embrace your organization’s culture.
(Here's a list of questions to ask when you’re looking to hire a project management contractor.)
Taking Your Next Best Step
Knowing whether you need a project manager, when you need one, and how to best fill the role can feel confusing and overwhelming. But asking the right questions and following guidelines like the ones provided above can give you the clarity you need to take the next right step.
Please enjoy these resources we've compiled for your convenience. Feel free to adapt them to meet your organization's needs.