Hiring, training, and letting go of project leads

Issue 2 of 5: When to hire

This is the second 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 gave you the facts. Project leads are undertrained, underpaid, underappreciated, and in high demand. This week, I’ve got some tips for what do look for when you’re thinking of bringing on your next project lead and how you can make sure you hire the best kind.

When to hire your first lead

Most companies will start feeling the pain of running too many projects when they hit between five and ten people. At five people, we notice their underdefined processes—usually held together with a lot of spit, tape, and optimism—begin to crack and falter. These are the signs to watch out for:

  • Communication with clients and teams becomes more reactive
  • Multiple projects are kicking off and launching too close together
  • Team friction or burnout becomes noticeable
  • Teammates start dropping the ball and missing things
  • Project overages burn through your cash reserves
  • Projects burn over 100–200% as you try to repair trust with stakeholders through gold plating and feature creep
  • You want PM help but don’t have enough revenue to hire
  • The worst part? You have no visibility into how bad things are because you can’t stay on top of your project or company metrics


This is when most owners approach us with curious questions about what to look for and how to pay for a project lead...

  • Should we hire a full-time project manager?
  • Should we just get our designer to learn PM?
  • Where do we look? What skills should we hire for?
  • How much should we pay?

Luckily we put together a hiring guide to answer some of the big ones!

Psst: if you’re smaller than five people and are overwhelmed with projects, my guess is you’re either in startup mode (wearing all the hats), or you’re running too many small value projects and not setting clear boundaries about scope. You may not be able to afford a full-time PM at this point, but a freelance PM might be a great investment. We know some good ones—hell, we’re even planning to train some to offload demand. More on that later.

When to keep hiring

As you grow, you’ll want to monitor your active projects. For ultimate profitability and focus, we recommend each project team manage no more than three active projects at once (note: you can manage more, but don’t work on them actively in tandem). Three is a great balance because it improves focus, produces faster and more profitable projects, and gives the team a chance to work on the business as well as in the business.

You can scale up your project leads for every five to ten additional people you hire. Try to scale dedicated or cross-functional teams so that your nice humans don’t get abused and pulled off old projects and onto new ones every time something fresh comes in. Watch out, though: You’re going to hit a weird margin pinch between 20–80 people (and the related overhead) that’s based on something called diseconomies of scale but that’s for another newsletter.

Tips for hiring

Here are some sharp things to keep in mind when you’re lighting the PM torch.

Check the forecast

Aim to have at least 3–6 months of revenue forecasted in your pipeline if you want to make a hire. And don’t forget to account for the additional revenue required to support the new staff.

Focus on onboarding

Onboarding is more important than hiring. Spend at least 3–6 mos on onboarding: remember, there are team processes, clients or customer relationships, and the unwritten cultural rules that take time to learn, too. Don’t expect your new project lead (even if they’re senior) to be fully productive until at least 6–9 months in. We’re working on an onboarding guide, so keep checking back.

Diversity and inclusion

If you want diverse candidates, you have to put in the work. We’ve seen several viable candidates lose out in the interview process because they’re not ‘communicating directly’ in a way that companies equate with a ‘cultural fit.’ Let’s be real: this is racist bullshit and it’s a cop-out. If you want a diverse team, you have to be open to diverse communication styles and you have to seek out diverse candidates. This talk by Farai Madzima is a fantastic summary of how different cultures communicate, and you know what? It’s our job to be more thoughtful during the hiring process. Also, don’t ghost your candidates. That’s also bullshit. Don’t forget: they’re interviewing you, too. And they talk.

Now that you know when you should hire, here’s what you should pay:

Salary guides

Here are some helpful salary guides just in case you’re thinking about rewarding your project lead with a golden pay bump...


The Digital Project Manager Salary Guide

Robert Half 2019 Creative & Marketing Salary Guide

Great. You know the facts and you know when to hire. Now what?

Up next

Keep your peepers on your inbox. Next week we’ll be covering when to train new project leads.

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