Getting Your Start in the World of Project Management
By Mike Raia Posted January 16, 2020
Some folks are naturally gifted in leading a group of people with disparate personalities and skills to achieve a strategic business goal. Other folks may not have this natural gift but are willing to work and acquire the skills to get there.
If you're someone who is energized by solving big problems and consider yourself good at bringing different opinions and skills together to make it happen, then project management might be a career option for you. It's obviously not as simple as just filling out a resume and getting started. Being a project manager and successfully taking on the related responsibilities comes with a lot of hurdles and skill barriers to get past.
Understanding the Scope
If you’re not familiar with the expectation already, a project manager is essentially the key person responsible for big new project implementations from beginning to end. That means that as a project manager, or "PM," you are typically given a lead assignment in a big organizational change, a new system, a client engagement, etc. You’re responsible for pulling the requisite team together, you engage in all the activities from starting planning to end training and adoption, and your control the results. You also take the blame for everything that goes wrong too. It’s a tough job, and anyone thinking about becoming a project manager is all glory and fun really needs to rethink the career path very carefully with a lot of research.
Hyper-Social People Who Produce Results Please Apply
Being a project manager is also about working well in teams. You need a technical team to make the details happen. You work with a change management team to transition an organization into a new reality. You report to an executive team to show results, seek authority and support, and to secure funding for your strategy and people and activities. Every day is about solving problems or securing resources through teams. If you’re not a people-person, project management is going to be a challenge for you to achieve successfully and consistently.
The Project Management Leadership Conundrum
Project management involves bringing people together from different backgrounds and skillsets to make new things happen in great leaps and bounds in very short time periods. However, you’re not the CEO, so your position is fragile and delicate. Unlike the top leader, you don’t necessarily get the authority to back your decisions; instead, you have to achieve your goals through networking, negotiation, leveraging, asking and selling. When people realize being a project manager is often an almost impossible task of achieving an executive goal with no executive power, many walk away.
Your Real Project Management Skillset
Knowing a system, program, discipline or business aspect is not enough. Instead, your background in an area is a minimum requirement to understand the technical side of a change project, but your soft-skills are critical for its success. That means you have to know what emotional intelligence is, how to negotiate effectively with hostile partners and managers, how to coach and motivate your staff under immense pressure and impossible odds, and how to think your way through explaining the unknown to a skeptical leadership team overseeing your work and progress. This multi-tasking of strategy, personnel management, networking and technical is accomplished consistently by very few people. Typical soft skills that increase success potential include:
- Expert background of an industry or program area based on solid experience
- Critical thinking ability and ad hoc strategy generation ability
- Comfortable flexibility in the face of changing conditions
- Excellent ability to communicate with multiple tools and channels (verbal, written, video, digital)
- Politically savvy towards internal and external stakeholders
- Financial background and a solid understanding of project budgeting/financing
- Deep expertise in operating and leading diverse teams
- Excellent time management capability
- An ability to create solutions where none seem apparent under normal procedures
- Ethical and accountable
- Self-motivated to keep moving forward even when things seem the most challenging
- A solid understanding of the project management process and tools
The Definitions of Career Success in Project Management
The simple truth is, there is no specific secret or a hidden perfect way to succeed in project management. The field is so fluid in expectations and demand, there is room for all types of personalities and skillsets. However, the most common success factors tend to steer towards those who tend to be self-reliant in solving problems with what they have and competently leading people through unknown situations. It also helps to have a real passion for seeing a change project completed from beginning to end.
This sounds and reads a lot easier than it actually is. Many would-be project managers fall by the wayside because the first challenge often seems far too impossible and hard. They run out of energy, lose motivation, become depressed or anxious, and then step away instead of completing the job. Those who succeed, however, reach the end and produce results. No, they’re not always perfect or as originally expected. Sometimes, a project end might be very lackluster. But being known for being a “doer” instead of just a “talker” in project management is gold for your reputation.
Getting Exposure First
One of the best ways to get a start in real project management is to first seek opportunities in your organization for participating in big change efforts. You will see firsthand what it takes to make a change process go from design to reality to post-project maintenance. This is invaluable because a textbook or class will never convey the real details and surprises that happen all the time on a real project.
You’re also going to need formal training. There are plenty of affordable college and junior college classes on project management. You can also take certification courses online (PMBOK, CAPM, Scrum Cert). A certificate helps add to your portfolio showing you have the formal tool training expected but don’t forget experience counts for a lot more.
Not sure whether to dive in with both feet? Try a free online training class first to understand what the field demands; just search for project management and multiple online class sites have ready courses to take at your leisure (Coursera, EdX, Alison) or through LinkedIn courses.
Mentors Make a Difference
Finally, you’re going to need a mentor starting out, someone who has spent time being a real project manager and can teach you the ropes with valuable advice and opinion. Again, experience trumps textbooks. A good mentor resource can point out early what to avoid and what rookie mistakes to not attempt that can derail your early PM career before it really starts. Many go into the field without a good mentor to call on, and they make all the same hard mistakes also made by many who came before them.
Fortunately, there's no shortage of need for project managers and plenty of work to go around. Go-getters will find a strong opportunity field waiting for them. But you have to be able to show early on how you are adept at connecting people and points to make things happen. Start right, and your path will take care of itself in the PM world.
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