Hiring, training, and letting go of project leads

Issue 4 of 5: When NOT to train

This is the fourth instalment of our mini-series on Training vs letting go of project leads.

Issue 1: The cold, hard facts
Issue 2: When to hire
Issue 3: When to train
Issue 4: When not to train
Issue 5: When to let them go

Let’s dig in:


Last week, I dropped the drip on when to train your project leads. The answer? Anytime you are facing a shortage of experienced project leads (expect this—there is a shortage), when you’re rounding out T-shaped skills, when you want to level up the team’s processes, and when you want to rewire a few bad habits.

This week, we’ll give you some too honest answers about when you should NOT train those project leads and what to do instead.

Terrible reasons to train your project leads

Here are some shockingly honest reasons we’ve heard from prospective client partners about why they’d like to put their project leads through our training. The answer was no.

To keep the cats fat and keep juniors down

Yup, I swear on Mother Theresa’s grave I just got this one. If you want to train juniors or unpaid interns to prop up the salaries of overpaid executives, it’s a lose-lose. Other than being unethical, training juniors to advance their skills without advancing their title or compensation, nor giving them a clear growth path with support means they can’t help you meet your goals or evolve your company. They leave, you stagnate. Guess what happens next?

Ironically, using training to prop up a top-heavy fort is an expensive mistake. If you do this, expect your juniors to burn out quickly, to talk negatively about your company to peers, and to leave in two years or less. Replacing them becomes a regular part of your talent eating contest. Unhappy juniors can’t meet management’s unrealistic expectations, plus they can’t effectively manage stakeholder relationships because all-star egos get in the way and choose cashflow or client needs over the team’s health (aka bad fits)—even when training gives them the tools and training to create alignment. If your turnover rate is over 10%, take a cold, hard look at your intentions. To keep and nurture your talent so you can stay competitive in this weird future, maybe you gotta stop trying prop up your company from the bottom and let one of the crotchety dinos at the top eat an asteroid instead. Then continue to hire and train juniors and treat them right so they have room to grow.

One lead wears all the hats

If you want to train someone in digital project management so they can wear every hat and be an operations manager, bookkeeper, content developer, strategist, oboe player, business developer, and project lead all in one, this is a fast way to drive them to burnout. Also, that’s seven full-time jobs (if you don’t have the revenue to support more hires, you’re either weak in sales, not charging enough per project, or burning over on your projects). Instead, if you’re feeling the capacity pinch, consider a virtual COO or bring on a part-time freelancer to support your team.

Because your project leads are ‘broken’ and this could fix them

If you think Clarice is ‘too dumb’ to be a project lead and she ‘keeps dropping the ball’ because she’s ‘just not getting it, you know?’—just fix her up with a little training and she’ll be perfect. Umm, not quite. To put it softly, Clarice might not be the problem here, but your perception of her and her PM role might be. Not to say that Clarice is the world’s perfect human, but before you write her off, ask yourself a few honest questions:

  • Are you willing to embrace different communication styles? Not every project lead is built the same. Clarice might speak or communicate differently than you do and training won’t or shouldn’t change that (better conversations might)
  • Do you genuinely want Clarice to be good at her job? That means she’ll take up the power and space she deserves. That might mean you or your company processes might need to change. Are you ready for that?
  • Are you prepared to put in the emotional energy to repair your direct or indirect relationship with her? Training can support alignment, but it won’t do the hard emotional work for you to get things back on track
  • Do you know what great digital project management looks like? Trick question: it’s invisible and if you’re seeing it, maybe the whole org needs a PM reboot. Are you willing to learn alongside Clarice?

On the other hand, if Clarice ‘hates project management, she never asked for this bullshit, and doesn’t want to be a better lead because she’s freaking terrific,’ don’t waste your effort.

Remember: training (especially this apprenticeship) has powerful ripple effects that touch everyone on the team. It’s not a weekend renovation project. You will experience growing pains. And they are completely worth it.

Because you’re eating up your talent

If your company is churning through talent faster than a sweet tooth doping on Pepsi syrup, your reputation will speak louder than your good intentions to train. In fact, unless you assess the root cause of your bleed: an unscalable business model, dangerously optimistic CEOs, sales issues, massive operations gaps or breakdowns, egoism, runway shortages, mismanagement, siloed communication, or irritable skeletons clacking through your office, training your project leads won’t make a damn bit of difference to your bottom line. But it will wake them up so they can decide if your company is the one they want to dedicate 50% of their waking life to. So maybe you should.

Nobody said it better than Jason Fried: "If the only way your business can survive is by treating your workers terribly, it’s not that people don’t care enough, it’s that your business model doesn’t work." —Jason Fried, CEO Basecamp

To sacrifice a scapegoat

Whoops. If you have incidentally created a psychologically unsafe and toxic environment where teammates cannot be candid, solicit and receive honest feedback, and aren’t invested in each other or their work, don’t expect a project lead to transform that with a little training and a stiff upper lip. We can’t suck out the poison, but you can. And you should—before it destroys your whole company.

Now that you have a solid idea of when you should hire, train, and not train your project leads, what’s next?

Up next

Keep your peepers on your inbox. In our final instalment, we’ll be covering when to let your project leads go.