Project Management Institute

Back in gear




Several years ago, Padhraic Ludden, PMP, with business and technology solutions provider EDS, Dublin, Ireland, found that his project management career had grown pretty mundane. While Mr. Ludden was using project management tools, he wasn't actively developing the project management discipline within his company.

In 2000, however, Mr. Ludden was tasked by his superiors with building a project management capability group with EDS Ireland and encouraging his colleagues to become certified. To accomplish these goals, he began working with the local PMI chapter and also earned his master's degree in program management at the University of Limerick. “Since being more actively involved with PMI and [furthering my] project management education, I have found my career really exciting,” he says.

Mr. Ludden's experience isn't unique. Many project management professionals experience a career plateau at some point. In part, this is a result of demographics. “It's a function of the baby boom,” says Tony Lee, publisher of The Wall Street Journal's in Princeton, N.J., USA. “Advancement opportunities at many companies are clogged with people in their 40s and 50s.”

Fortunately, you can re-engage in your career using a few simple but effective exercises. First, look at your job with a new perspective. Think of yourself “as not just a project manager, but the CEO regarding the project,” says Shay Shargal, manager of PILAT Management Consulting, Tel-Aviv, Israel.

You'll make decisions keeping in mind the financial, as well as the technical, outcome of the project, says Mr. Shargal, who used this tactic when developing electro-optic equipment for the defense industry. Thinking like a CEO also reinforces the importance of the project—and your contribution—to the company.

Another tactic is to volunteer for new projects outside your realm of expertise. “Look for opportunities to initiate or get involved in projects that you or your company can get excited about,” says Arlene Hirsch, the Chicago, Ill., USA-based author of Job Search and Career Checklists [JIST Publishing, 2005].

By voluntarily tackling a new assignment, your colleagues and superiors may find it more difficult to pigeonhole you as, for instance, strictly a manager of telecommunications projects. That, in turn, can make you the logical choice for more challenging assignments down the road.

Jump Start

As Mr. Ludden's experience illustrates, moving ahead may require additional education. Heading back to the classroom can jump-start your career in several ways. Studying new topics forces you to move outside your comfort zone and can set you apart from your peers—think of it as “positive risk.”

Look at the candidates your company hires and the employees it promotes, Ms. Hirsch says. If, for instance, everyone on the executive team has his or her MBA, you'll probably need one to join them. Overall, education pays: In the United States, the 2003 median weekly earnings for an individual with a bachelor's degree was $900; that rises to $1,064 for someone with a master's degree, and $1,349 for Ph.D.s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fred C. Cowart, PMP, senior project manager with Battelle Energy Alliance in Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA, completed his master's degree in technical management in 1989, some 20 years after he first earned an engineering degree and entered the workforce. “I wanted to protect the latter part of my career,” he says. “My advanced degree has helped me become a better manager, strategize better and think in a more global way.”

Some companies lack a defined career path for project managers. If that's the case at your firm, work to establish one. This was the strategy used by Saúl Sánchez, PMP, a project management and controlling office manager with gedas, Puebla, Mexico, the IT subsidiary of Volkswagen Group.

Mr. Sánchez worked with his colleagues to establish both technical and managerial career paths for project managers. He collaborated with the human resources staff to determine job descriptions and qualifications for project managers at all levels. For example, they decided that senior project managers needed global experience.

Fortunately, management championed and supported the idea, Mr. Sánchez says. Because gedas’ business is to develop IT projects for both Volkswagen and external customers, management recognized that the company needed a structured, formal method to help employees develop project management skills.

He also helped develop an incentive program that rewards project managers for meeting operational and financial objectives. “It kept me motivated more than before because I know that project management is important to the company.”

Greener Pastures

After assessing the opportunities available within your organization, you may need to look outside to find the position that best fits your skills and interests. If the people above you are more skilled or experienced, your best chance for quick advancement may be moving to a new company. “It is much easier to get outside an organization to move up the skill curve,” says Gordon Bartlett, PMP, a former senior project manager with The Frame Group Pty Ltd., Sydney, Australia.

Same (Project), Different Day

Use these tactics to boost your enthusiasm for work.

Mentor Others. Ann Tomalavage, PE, PMP, was getting restless in her position as a project manager with environmental firm Weston Solutions Inc., West Chester, Pa., USA. So, she asked her boss if she could teach other engineers how to transition to a project management role. “I was still involved in project management work, but was doing something new and interesting,” she says.

Think About the Impossible. Brainstorm things that are impossible, but have huge payoffs. That can lead you to ideas that are workable and that can make you more valuable to your organization. “Ask yourself, ‘What would be impossible for me to do, but if I could do it, would it accelerate my career?’” advises Mark Goulston, M.D., and senior vice president with the consulting firm Sherwood Partners Inc., Santa Monica, Calif., USA.

Look for Projects That Need Doing. Figure out a way to improve your company, and make this your project. You may find that few people actually use the manuals that support an application because they find them confusing. Rewrite them so they're clearer, and you'll gain fans while boosting your profile within your firm.

List Pros and Cons. Compare the costs and benefits of staying in your position versus moving to a new one. You may find that there's more to like about your current job than you thought.

A self-assessment may lead you to an entirely new industry or new functional role. Determine if your personal aspirations align with your company's job categories. Ask a human resources professional to help identify key factors that lead to advancement. Steffi Triest, now managing director in the Berlin, Germany, office of 9:PM International Inc., arrived at her post via law school. To finance her studies, Ms. Triest had worked at a project management firm.

When Ms. Triest realized that she didn't enjoy day-to-day work as a lawyer, she switched careers. “Now, I'm in the fortunate situation of being able to offer my customers cross-boundary knowledge,” she says.

Of course, when the economy is contracting and many companies are letting go of employees, you'll need to adjust your career goals to reflect reality. “Success in these terms is still having a job, even though your career is on hold,” Mr. Bartlett says.

The Hunt

If it's been more than a few years since you last were job hunting, you'll find that the job search process has changed. Securing new employment will require dealing effectively with your emotions, as well as today's market.

Realize that you have experience, skills and a network, all of which can be used as you look for a new position. A lack of confidence will affect how vigorously you tackle the job market, as well as your communication with potential employers. “Don't feel like a beggar looking for a handout,” Ms. Hirsch says.

Find a professional or networking group that can support your development and inspire you to reach the next level. For example, your local PMI chapter offers the chance to interact with other project managers and learn of potential openings. “We are getting a lot of calls and e-mails from people looking for project managers with certification,” says Porfirio Chen, PMP, project manager with Copa Airlines, Panama, and president of the PMI Panama Chapter.

Participating in PMI is likely a first step in your networking, says Ann Tomalavage, PE, PMP, president of Malarkey Consulting Inc., Pottstown, Pa., USA. “In our chapter, many of the people that come to the meetings are project managers. They don't hire other project managers.” However, attendees can alert you to other opportunities within their organizations. From there, you'll need to follow up with the individual in charge of recruiting for the position.

Today, many job candidates communicate with hiring companies via the Internet, but don't be afraid to follow up offline. “It increases your chance of at least getting an interview,” says Twyla Southall, a U.S.-based program manager with Bank One, Columbus, Ohio, USA.

If you've been job hunting for more than a month or two, don't be tempted to inquire about positions that are only slightly related to your experience and goals. “I have not seen this approach work, ever,” Mr. Bartlett says. Instead, you should identify and target firms that are most likely to need your skills. Research these organizations and concentrate your search accordingly.

Job candidates today should expect “behavior-based questions” that give the interviewer an idea of the ways you'll handle different situations, Ms. Hirsch says. For example, an interviewer may ask you to describe a project on which you worked that failed. Answer honestly, but don't feel compelled to offer an example that had truly disastrous results. “Choose from the middle of the deck,” Ms. Hirsch says. For instance, you could discuss a software development project you oversaw in which most, but not all, of the features worked fine. Let the interviewer know where you did succeed, and what you learned from the aspect that failed. img

Karen Kroll is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based freelance writer focusing on business and corporate and consumer finance. Her articles have appeared in AARP: The Magazine and American Way, among other publications.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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