Hiring, training, and letting go of project leads

Issue 5 of 5: When to let them go

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, we dissected the discussion about when NOT to train your project leads. Propping up dinosaur execs with juniors who do the grunt work, attempting to disguise an unsafe psychological environment, and “you think your project lead is incompetent but don’t provide any cognitive or emotional support to them anyway” top the list of reasons NOT to train. One more: an obvious one is simply that they don’t want the training. You can’t force someone into a growth mindset if they have a closed one.

This week, in our final instalment of Hiring, training, and letting of project leads, we’ll unearth some beasts to battle before making the most difficult decision you’ll have to make: when to let those project leads go.

When to give up entirely

You have permission to give up on your project leads after you’ve done everything below:

  • Given them a realisticjob description but they still can’t meet all the requirements
  • Given them an opportunity to grow but they’ve wilted
  • Given them regular praise for the work they’ve done but they dismiss you
  • Given them time to improve but they’ve stagnated
  • Given them support to reach their goals but they abuse it
  • Given them opportunities to get team alignment but they refuse it
  • Given them access to a community of supportive project leads but they’ve rejected it
  • Given them fewer projects to manage but they can’t be strategic
  • Given them permission to push back against bad ideas but they are meek
  • Given them the benefit of the doubt but they fail repeatedly and don’t get help
  • Given them the time it takes to actually make these changes (1 year minimum)
  • Given them a market rate salary they deserve but they are ungrateful
  • Given them training but they don’t apply it
  • Given them resources but they glaze over them
  • Given them a fighting chance to prove you wrong but they remain hostile, passive-aggressive, or unreachable

If you have given your project lead compassion, time, and a clear growth path and they have repeatedly failed to rise up and take the proverbial torch, you can let them go because you’re not serving each other. Life is too short for a bad fit. Be kind, but be swift. The compounding damage of keeping on a bad project lead is just as painful, if not worse, than the gap without one.

Project management is difficult

Have you ever had to craft the perfect message to soften a jaded client? Project management is a tough job. I’d say almost as difficult as being an owner (trust me, I’m both). Project leads often show up looking shell shocked from handling the project grenades that land in their paths each day. They deal with the angriest stakeholders, the most misaligned expectations, the biggest tangles of project yarn. The rub is, like in business development and executive leadership, the work they do is often invisible, so they might not look all that busy to you. And most of the time, the surreal expectations I hear managers and owners demanding from their project leads (when they don’t treat or pay leads the same as their designers and developers) are mindboggling. If only they knew the brilliance of nurturing these fantastic humans. They literally help you run a healthy and sustainable company. Without them you’d be, well, doing it all yourself.

"In the end, the success of your business rests on the health of your projects and the adept hands of your project managers. Average project managers can hustle projects in and out of your company. Good ones can manage project scope and can predict their impact. Fantastic ones? Well, they’re worth more than their weight in gold. They’re the ones who truly keep the lights on." —Top tips for nailing project management

Whatcha gonna do?

Now you have solid criteria for all your options. What do you need to do to ensure you have someone who supports your team and company in building the right things and building those things the right way? Are you gonna train, hire, or give up on your project leads?

If you’re not sure. Start with the first step. Maybe you can message them with a small token of thanks today. I bet they’d really appreciate that.

Or maybe you can tell them you’ve got their backs and give them a supportive nod by sending this PM manifesto. Or some resources.

Hell, maybe you give them an opportunity to develop their longterm career path with you and offer them an apprenticeship. We’ll be there for you both.

Whatever you do, know they’re rooting for you just as much. And so are we.

(Unless you’re an asshole)

Up next

Stay tuned for a brand new case study next week highlighting the journey of Dev Society and their first digital PM apprentice (now Director) Laura as they transformed into a digital co-op serving charities like Oxfam and Amnesty International.