The Forgotten Risk: Dealing with Project Manager Departures

Change Management

Projects are often the means by which much change is instituted within organizations. As such, the literature and concern with project management are also increasing. There does not seem to be the attention in the literature that specifically looks at the impact when a change in project leadership occurs during the life-cycle of a project. This is an important practical concern and project risk, as it happens often enough to be raised by senior executives. Given that there is little evidence in the project management literature, I have turned to the literature in the management field on leadership, change management, and dealing with the unexpected that provides some insights.

I begin with an exploration of the role and importance of the project leader, and then discuss the types of changes going on in organizations that might impact project leadership. I conclude by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the literature reviewed in helping us deal with this practical problem. Finally, I provide recommendations for practitioners facing this situation and for further research in this area.

Key Leadership Characteristics For Successful Projects

This review recognized that there are many levels of leadership required within a project, however for the purposes of this review, I focus on the project leader/manager as the person responsible for the overall execution of the project (Briner, Hastings, & Geddes, 2001). I want to focus on when a project leader change takes place mid-project and how this loss impacts the project. Having an understanding of the role of the project leader and competencies required for a successful project outcome, will help the reader understand the impacts caused by a sudden leadership departure.

There seems to be general agreement on common characteristics required of project managers including a variety of leadership and interpersonal skills, organizational competencies, technical expertise, team building, project management, and relationship skills (Ammeter & Dukerich, 2002; Benimadhu, 2003a-b; Mourier & Smith, 2001; Pinto, 1998; Story, 2003). Likewise, Pinto (1998) and Mourier and Smith (2001) underscore the value that the leadership component of the project manager’s role is one of the single most important characteristics in successfully implementing projects. While there are a number of factors related to the success of organizational change efforts, among them is having a strong project manager. And intuitively, Mourier and Smith add that correlated with failure, is a project manager’s departure before the project is completed. This suggests that it is the project team leader who is a critical component to the success of the project and, in fact, may be perceived by team members as highly influential on the performance of the project team.

As projects increasingly become the means by which major organizational change is instituted, project manager skills and behaviours have greater influence on contributing to the success of projects; projects that are both complex and continually affected by change. Several Corporate Leadership Council Research studies (2003a-d) indicate that companies undergoing corporate transformation are at risk of the change initiative failing, due to people issues. Their work supports this paper’s theory that losing key people will contribute to this risk and that strong leadership is essential to successful change implementation. While their specific findings address broad corporate transformations, if we consider the project environment during this time of transformation as characterized by any number of changes: personnel changes, resource shortfalls, budget cuts, design failures, requests that speed up delivery, management changes, new government regulations, and the list goes on (Deeprose, 2001; Kotter, 1996, 2005), they all add to the complexity, urgency, and impact on the organization and team.

While any number of changes can affect organizations today, my focus, the change that influences project manager departures from projects, warrants a closer look at what might be the contributing factors to those unexpected departures occurring prior to the completion of a project. In particular, losing a key project leader is fundamentally important to project success and businesses should understand the importance of understanding the impact of leadership change on a project.

The developing model (Table 1) illustrates the types of factors affecting organizations that contribute to project manager turnover. Given today’s turbulent and uncertain business environment, I suggest that organizations consider the following model to understand the change drivers contributing to unexpected turnover of project leaders. This model outlines:

  • Contributing Factors to Changes
  • Impact on Projects contributing to Project Risk
  • Impacts on Project Team Members

This model lays out the root causes, impacts on projects and the organization, and team member perceptions that have to be addressed. Depending on the impact, the model indicates the possibility or project risk the unexpected change in project leadership has.

Given the limited research on managing the risk of a project manager/leader change in the literature, this might suggest, as my article title indicates, that this a hidden risk on projects.

Table 1
Contributing Factors to Changes in Project Leadership

Contributing Factors to Unexpected Turnover of Project Managers

Impact on Projects

Strategic Options

 Long-Term Strategic Options

Labour market

  • Macroeconomic growth
  • Consumer changes
Scarce skilled resources

High turnover due to other opportunities

Disruption to project continuity

Offer challenging work

Competitive compensation

Strategic planning

  • Leaner, more dynamic
  • Restructuring, downsizing, acquisitions
  • Business models becoming obsolete
Availability of resources to draw from at all levels

Difficult to predict whether employees will still be around

Loss of job security

Huge costs in process re-engineering and improvement initiatives

Lack of motivation within organization for projects of this type (flavour of the month)

Offer challenging work

Create sense of urgency

Honesty about business case

Multi-skilled leaders in leadership and project management competencies

Create career opportunities

Business Changes

  • Organizational priorities shift
  • Increase in change initiatives
  • More complex and global business challenges
Inconvenience, transform, or terminate project

Transition to project culture and adapt to team’s working behaviours

Time and quality of information provided by team members, hidden agendas, trust might take time to re-develop

Too much to manage

Too few and different capabilities required

Understanding cultural issues

Watch for signs and prepare for changes before they happen

Seek alternative resourcing options including external

Strategic planning to remain focused on key business priorities
Crisis Events

  • The boss drops dead
  • Catastrophe
Shock and unexpected effect on team members

Unexpectedness leading to unprepared replacement plan or inexperienced/not fully capable replacement

Information/knowledge not documented/shared

Counseling services provided to team

Ensure appropriate documentation procedures in place

Develop a high reliability performance organization, practicing mindfulness
Human Resources

  • Lessening organizational loyalty
  • Rapid turnover of senior staff
  • Incompetence
  • Increased importance of human capital
  • ‘Accidental’ project managers assigned due to availability
Quick and frequent departures

Mindset/expectations and priorities of employees are different/changing and need to be managed differently

Team unity (i.e., team member behaviours become guarded, control becomes an issue)

Feeling loss of senior management support

Questioning roles and responsibilities; team struggles with issues, assessing whether their roles will change or be understood by new leader

Frustration, lack of hope, lack of commitment

Lack of results

Departed can become an easy target to blame project weaknesses

Competition both internally and externally for resources

Knowledge gap

Competitive compensation

Challenging work

Networking opportunities

Team workarounds

Reporting and monitoring

Paying attention to results

Operational audit

Strong team skills

Project manager selection review process

Legally contract to end of project

Maintaining organizational competitive advantage

Succession management

Knowledge management

New thinking and new frameworks

Filling the knowledge gap through resourcing plans

Managing the Risk

What can organizations do before losing a key project leader to mitigate the risk of this unexpected event? Weick and Sutcliff’s (2001) work suggests that high reliability organizations have developed ways of managing the unexpected and demonstrate five characteristics:

  • Preoccupation with failures rather than successes
  • Reluctance to simplify interpretations
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Commitment to resilience
  • Deference to expertise

Organizations that establish themselves by these characteristics are better able to notice the unexpected. Weick and Sutcliff term this “mindfulness” (p. 17). For the purposes of this review and how a change in leadership affects a project, Weick and Sutcliff is suggesting that if your organization is a high reliability organization and demonstrates mindfulness, then the capability for catching the unexpected happens earlier. This means the organization would be in a position to see the signs that a leader might jump ship or leave for better opportunities, thus minimizing the impact felt by the organization and the project team. Identifying the unexpected does not disable these organizations and their ability to cope does not make the situation worse by being caught off guard.

Anticipating and becoming aware of the unexpected before problems become severe requires taking action before the event happens. This requires watching for signs in the organization regarding resource trends/movements and putting measures in place before project managers depart. Containing the unexpected when it does occur would require equipping project team members as well as senior management to develop capabilities to cope with project manager departures, swift learning, and flexible role structures. Weick and Sutcliff suggest that high reliability organizations would be capable of helping people bounce back from unexpected events after they begin to occur quicker.

Managing the Unexpected

How is the project affected after the fact, is this a project risk that has been overlooked as an increasingly common project occurrence? What transitions take place when a project leader leaves mid-project, what mechanisms does a company have in place to address this change in leadership?

The developing model outlined in this paper suggests a number of key contributing factors that might lead to unexpected changes in project leadership. The questions in the preceding paragraph suggest the complexity of this situation. These questions have been addressed by several researchers (Conner, 1993; Harrington, Conner, & Horney 2000; Pullen 1993; Weick & Sutcliff, 2001) and provide interesting insight into managing under trying conditions.

The organization can anticipate and develop an awareness of the unexpected and act before problems become severe, watching for signs in the organization regarding resources and putting measures in place before project managers depart. Perhaps Pullen’s (1993) Strategic Shocks: Managing Discontinuous Change further supports an abrupt leadership change characterized by uncertainty, as a risk. His advice suggests developing a strategy for managing this discontinuous change, in our case, a project manager departure represents this discontinuous change. Following this abrupt leadership change, there is a period of uncertainty experienced by team members and a need for the organization to quickly consider the different perceptions that team members may experience under our different scenarios of project manager departure. What would you have to do to manage those perceptions/expectations?

Understanding the reasons project managers leave and the impact the departure has on projects is the first step in addressing issues for this project risk and in developing strategies for preventing the event and managing the transition. Part of assessing the situation involves looking at the affects the change has had on the project team and stakeholder population and developing strategies for managing the perceptions and expectations. This becomes evident in reviewing our developing model that indicates that varying contributors to project manager departures sets off a variety of impacts on projects, differing perceptions, and emotions from team members leading to the development of strategies for both the short-term and long-term.

So where does this leave the project? We have looked at contributing reasons for project manager departures, the impact on organizations and projects, and reactions by team members. This model indicates that the reactions and resulting impacts vary depending on the contributing reasons for the departure. So how can organizations manage this, how are some organizations managing this now?

Managing the Transition

Work by Kotter (1996, 2005), Roberto (2002), and Pullen (1993) supports the need for planning, strategy, and good management in managing organizational change. Roberto recognizes that leaders must cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and to make sense of this and to deal with it effectively, it involves redefining the situation in small steps. This has merit, given our situation, as project managers leave a project for a variety of reasons outlined in our model. The organization selecting the incoming project manager and the incoming project manager need to develop strategies that assess the situation into manageable pieces and have a variety of strategies to use. These strategies are dependent on the situation and reason for project manager departure in the first place. Developing a variety of strategies that simplifies this complex situation allows managers to make sense of their confusing situation.

The incoming manager can develop responses to this period of uncertainty experienced by team members and stakeholders. The strategy and subsequent plan will depend on the reason for the project manager’s departure and an assessment of how things are handled. Key aspects of this plan should focus on strong leadership, an emphasis on the team and or groups within the project, improving and sustaining improved internal communications, and providing counseling, should the situation warrant it (Pullen, 1993). These responses strongly support this model and an understanding that the unexpected departure of a project manager for reasons associated with business and human resource changes has the greatest impact on project team influences such as team member behaviors, questioning roles, and team unity.

Sudden changes in leadership can be costly, no matter how well they are handled and managed (Parker & Skitmore, 2005). In order to minimize the impact and avoid disaster, the focus needs to be on not only what the incoming project manager might do, but also the selection of the right replacement. We know that the project leader has a tremendous influence on team members and on the success of the project. The significance of a leadership change can lead to team members having to adjust to a new leadership style and approach. It is important that the leadership replacement is on the same page as senior management and the project sponsor and that communication of expectations is clear. Selecting the right replacement leader is further supported by the work of Harrington et al. (2003). Harrington et al’s work demonstrated that good leadership is essential for dealing with unexpected events and unanticipated risks and that the key leadership characteristics include team building, resilience in the face of change, successful negotiation, clear communication, and effective project management.

The new incoming project manager and the right project manager can contain the affects of this change when it does occur. Developing a plan that focuses on helping people bounce back from unexpected events is a small first step. Equipping project team members and senior management with capabilities and an awareness to cope with project manager departures can help ease the transition. As senior management has a role to play in this transition, we can now turn our attention to the organization’s role in managing project manager departures and minimizing the risk to the organization and projects in general.

Managing the Transition and Succession Planning

Reviewing the literature on succession planning provided insight into how organizations think about and deal with the risks associated with rapid turnover in leaders. Several researchers (Mellina, 2003; Sauer, Li, & Johnston, 2001) all support the need to identify backups for key management positions and create a pool of skilled project managers because changes occur more quickly now than in the past. The reality is if a key management person drops out of the picture unexpectedly, it puts the company at risk. Much of the work in this area recognizes the impact of losing a project leader mid-way through implementation of a high visibility assignment (i.e., change initiative or project) but does not address what needs to be done. While Sauer, Li, and Johnston (2001) and Longenecker and Scazzero’s (2003) work is specific to IT firms, they go a step further in identifying the need for development plans and processes in place to support project management leadership capability. Thus, once the organization has project managers with the skills, then the appropriate assignment of project managers to projects can be made.

I found that characteristics of replacement planning and succession planning programs tend to emphasize the ability to anticipate short-term, unexpected departures of senior managers, while succession management systems offer some depth and breadth in managing layers of senior leadership and their supply routes. And in some succession planning literature, I found that it is questionable whether succession planning is really of value when business requirements change so rapidly. For example, Parker and Skitmore (2005) suggest today’s rapidly changing business environment makes it impossible to predict who will still be around, what positions will exist in the future. This is important for organizations to recognize, as it may be a contributing factor to why firms are not engaging great effort to identify and develop project leaders/managers.

The literature (Mellina, 2003; Parker & Skitmore, 2005; Sauer, Li, & Johnston, 2001) strongly supports a dynamic, changing business environment and the need to develop key leadership talent in response to this environment; however it is Parker and Skitmore’s work that provides an understanding into the unexpected affect this has on team members and the potential risk this creates for the project.

Given this brief literature overview, it suggests that in dealing with the unexpected departure of a project leader, companies can develop succession plans and have a number of approaches to consider so there is a reservoir of talent and bench strength available to replace a project manager. An organization that moves in the direction of developing a pool of resources, where leaders are available who can take over at a moment’s notice, who can meet organizational and future needs, provides companies with the needed flexibility and confidence that they will have the leadership talent when needed. Succession plans that are living documents that take into account the unexpected also places an organization in a position to react quickly and with the assurance a project will be lead to a successful completion.

It is widely accepted that dynamic changes are taking place within business and project environments, affecting the stability of project manager tenure. Most of the literature is practical and does not clearly connect the impacts of project manager departures to the project, to team members, or to the organization. Some researchers have shown the need for developing transition plans, but evidently more research is required in this area.


Where do we go from here? The key challenge in addressing this project risk is to create and identify strategies, programs, and opportunities that build on how, when, and why leaders change unexpectedly and link these changes to strategies for transitioning team members in order to ensure continued project success. I suggest a number of short-term recommendations that both the organization and the individual project manager should adopt, offering a quick solution to the situation. I also provide some long-term recommendations.

Short-Term Recommendations

For the Incoming Project Manager:
  1. Develop a transition plan to help the project team deal with this unexpected change. Reassess where the project team has developed to and ensure there is alignment on common purpose and goals; re-establish roles, accountabilities and working relationships. Become familiar with teamwork plans and how things are done.
  2. Provide counseling to manage the uncertainty, stress and possibility of reduced productivity.
  3. Implement motivational fixes to address lagging motivation. Celebrate success, demonstrate appreciation for team members’ efforts, and refocus on the project goal.
For the Organization:
  1. Prepare the organization and its leaders to cope with constant change and transitions that require reorientation or re-creation. This involves developing the necessary skills in leaders and staff.
  2. Create practical strategies that managers can use to engage and retain talent, such as a compensation strategy focused on retention and creating a management style and corporate environment that is supportive.
  3. Challenge leaders with opportunities that keep them at the cutting edge of their profession and equip them with the skills to meet the organization’s current and future needs.
  4. Identify within the project plan, training replacements, shadowing opportunities, and rotations; ensure a resource plan has been created, recognizing key issues, compensation initiatives, challenging work, and legal contracts that specify commitment to the end of project.

Long-Term Recommendations

For the Organization:
  1. Develop a pool of backup resources for developing project manager capability.
  2. Examine the external and internal supply routes for developing project managers and for ensuring that resources are available for unexpected events.

There are a number of short-term and long-term recommendations listed in Table 1; however, for the purposes of this paper I have selected a number of key recommendations to emphasize immediate actions that can be taken. This paper recognizes the need for taking this research further and exploring how organizations develop and implement actions for coping with the unexpected departure of project managers.

Future Research Agenda

This review set out to discover what management literature there is to help organizations deal with the need to replace a project manager mid-project and I have found that more work needs to be done. Below are some ideas for future research on dealing with project management departures.

  1. Limited information could be found in the management literature. If frequent, unexpected changes to project leadership is a serious risk to the project, then a number of areas could be further explored:
    1. Acknowledge the risk once identified and assessed as having an impact on the project
    2. Incorporate into contingency plans.
    3. Identifying the risks of staff turnover – managing from both a planned perspective and being able to manage the unplanned staff turnover.
  2. The literature provides guidance on the after situation, after the unexpected turnover has occurred, rather than the before situation, when the event has been recognized. This is a gap that needs to be explored.
  3. What kind of change management tactics do organizations employ to facilitate the transition from project manager to incoming project manager?
  4. What methods should companies utilize to support leaders during this transition?
  5. How do companies retain key project leaders during high periods of change?

We know that the marketplace is more volatile, with a higher degree of uncertainty, and that turnover of key executives and leaders is rapidly increasing. These recommendations assist organizations and project practitioners in understanding the impact felt by organizations and teams when project leaders depart unexpectedly.


About the Author

Kathy Cowan Sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath is a Program Manager and Change Leader in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of an organization, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer/board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.



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