This way up
Project managers eyeing a spot in the upper echelons of project management should focus on leading.
by Susan Ladika
You can tick off a long list of project successes. You can talk about how you've worked on progressively more complex projects and managed diverse teams. But if you want to land a spot as a project executive or move into the project management office (PMO), that fantastic résumé isn't always enough to seal the deal. Along with impeccable technical expertise, it's going to take strong leadership skills and some good old-fashioned connections.
Reaching the executive level requires being “an inspiring leader for other people,” says Christer Andersson, PMP, program manager at Nokia Siemens Networks in Lyon, France. That means motivating team members, keeping them interested and encouraging their productivity.
In other words, it's not always about you.
The job entails making sure everyone else on your team looks good, regardless of their skill set or work ethic, says Barbara Edington, PMP, assistant professor of IT management at St. Francis College in New York, New York, USA. “It's not about your horn. It's about your orchestra.”
For project managers accustomed to focusing on the nitty-gritty details of deliverables, making the move up can mean a shift in focus.
“Skills like communication, negotiation and relationships with people, are sometimes more important than technical skills, especially for the PMO,” says Ozeas Vieira Santana Filho, PMP, program manager at SENAC, an educational training company in São Paulo, Brazil.
“Many times people think [project management] is a project business. It's really not. It's a people business,” says Jennifer Whitt, PMP, president of Optimo Inc., a project management training firm in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Project managers have to be able to develop trusting relationships with people on and off project teams, as well as build and nurture strategic business alliances, she says.
Ms. Edington recommends getting to know the people you hope to work for and with. The director of the PMO is one obvious choice, but she also advocates having lunch or coffee with someone you don't know. “Comfort keeps you where you are,” she says.
Try meeting with someone from the company's legal department one week, then perhaps introducing yourself to a project manager from another organization or industry the next week. “You can learn from different fields,” Ms. Edington says. “Everybody's got the same problems.”
Even if your company doesn't have formalized training in place, project managers who want to advance must commit to honing their skills, whether it's taking an online course or earning a certification.
Sometimes you have to go down to move up. Shaun Roedel, PMP, was an experienced project manager when Vanderlande Industries hired him to be manager of project management at its Atlanta, Georgia, USA operation. But before he could take on his new role, the company first asked him to run a project himself so he could gain hands-on experience using its methods and methodologies.
Mr. Roedel admits he was at first “a bit troubled” by the request given that he'd already spent 15 years in project management in the U.S. Navy and then at Vanderlande's competitor Rapistan. “In actuality, [it] was very good practice because I really learned how our system works.”
Know What You Want
Some companies make it easy—mandatory even—for project managers to build the skill set they need to make their way to the upper levels. Yet even if your company doesn't have formalized systems in place, project managers who want to advance must commit to honing their skills, whether it's taking an online course or earning a certification.
Training helps project managers grow into leaders—and because best practices are “evolving every day, the project manager must constantly stay updated,” says Mr. Santana Filho.
They should also recognize and embrace their passions, even if it takes some digging to discover what those are.
“Introspection can highlight what we do really well,” says Ms.Whitt.
Although people often focus on trying to turn their weaknesses around, she says project managers looking for a way into the PMO “really need to look at [their] strengths and run with those.”
And that self-examination just might help get them in the door. The people in charge of PMOs don't always have time to train the people they hire, she says. If a candidate has a clear idea on whether they're more strategic or detail-oriented, it makes it easier to see whether they might fit into the PMO.
A diverse background can also help.
After working in IT, Jose Angelo da Costa Pinto, PMP, returned to school to get a degree in management, followed by a master's degree in information systems. Now the Porto, Portugalbased project management consultant is working on a doctorate in economics.
With such a diverse educational background, Mr. Pinto says he's better equipped to see how theory turns into practice. Conversely, project managers with a body of knowledge limited to technical skills have a harder time envisioning the big picture and thinking strategically, he says. And in the upper levels, a narrow view toward project management can be a handicap. Project managers need to see how they can help an organization holistically if they want to rise up.
To get a better idea of what it's going to take to snare a spot in the PMO, project managers should consider sitting down weekly or monthly with a supervisor to discuss career goals.
It may also help to recruit a veteran who knows the ropes, says Rommy Musch, business manager and PMO expert at Orange Business Services in Wellington, New Zealand.
“The right mentor is always willing to pass on information and enjoys the opportunity to teach others,” she says.
Her own mentor taught her to focus on areas of key business concern, while reading and observing good business practices bolstered her knowledge.
Reaching the executive level requires being an inspiring leader for other people. That means motivating team members, keeping them interested and encouraging their productivity.
—Christer Andersson, PMP, Nokia Siemens Networks, Lyon, France
Project managers should consider sitting down weekly or monthly with a supervisor to discuss career goals.
Project managers can't be afraid to take a good, long look at their track record. Not only will you gain a better idea of what to highlight, but you may find that what initally appears to be a glitch on your project résumé can sometimes be transformed into a bright spot. For example, the ability to turn a project failure into a lesson learned may help you show growth and perspective if you can prove you've learned from it, Ms. Edington says. That willingness to take on a messy project that no one else wants—and turn it into a winner—is also a great way to build your reputation.
The journey to the PMO often means going above and beyond the call of duty, says Shaun Roedel, PMP, the Atlanta, Georgia, USA-based manager of project management at Vanderlande Industries, a Netherlands-headquartered designer of automated systems that handle parcels and baggage.
He still recalls one assistant project manager who put in extra time—going to the job site twice as much as expected, spending time with the finance department and studying how various aspects of the project worked. “That was his way to success,” Mr. Roedel says.
Showing you're willing to step up can certainly help demonstrate you're “ready for the big time.” Yet Mr. Andersson cautions against being so eager to jump in that you take on too many tasks—and then fail to complete them.
“If you say you're going to do something, you'd better be able to do it,” he says.
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