Project Management Institute

Becoming Boundaryless

The Changing Career Landscape for Project Managers

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These days, fewer employees are maintaining linear careers within one organization. Due to globalization and advancements in technology, the opportunities for career development are much more diverse across organizations and sectors. Therefore, professionals’ careers are increasingly mobile and dynamic—including those of project managers.

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This research focuses on the ways in which individual projects contribute to a project manager's overall career growth.

Professionals who hop from project to project within and outside of their current employers are pursuing what's become known as boundaryless careers. Hallmarks of these careers include:

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However, previous research suggests project professionals in boundaryless careers struggle to advance because of individual projects’ temporary, finite nature. This research sought to explore the inner workings of projects and how professionals are growing within them. The researchers found that project professionals tend to proactively seek opportunities for growth—especially when they receive insufficient support from Human Resources (HR) specialists or line managers.

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Investigating boundaryless career support

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Research to date focuses excessively on how moving between projects aids career development. This research focuses on the ways in which individual projects contribute to a project manager's overall career growth—including challenges, barriers, and opportunities they encounter. Specifically, this research seeks an answer the question:

Who supports what aspects of career development on projects?

The researchers gathered perspectives of project professionals at different levels—junior, middle, and senior—and different roles (project manager and project team member) as well as different types of projects (e.g., infrastructure and construction) with different project sizes.

Qualitative research included interviews, literature review, and focus group workshops, combining to provide insight into career trajectories. This methodology informed the researchers on the support and resources project professionals use for their career development.

Findings

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Researchers concluded that career support on projects is nascent, reiterating the propositions developed in Huemann et al. (2019), “Who Supports Project Careers? Leveraging the Compensatory Roles of Line Managers,” forthcoming in Project Management Journal:

Project professionals take control of their careers and seek support when they need it and when it is lacking.

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Line managers are often considered career advisors and coaches, but they're not the only ones providing career support on projects. When line managers cannot or will not fulfill this role, project professionals must seek support elsewhere—which is available in different forms depending on the context. Project managers show creativity and proactivity in seeking and developing compensatory career resources.

HR departments can play a more active role in project professionals’ career support.

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HR management specialists often operate on a more strategic level nowadays, creating mentoring systems that organizations offer for project professionals. However, they typically don't work closely with these employees on projects, creating gaps in career development support for project professionals. If line managers’ span of control is large, and project professionals work on multiple projects, lack of oversight from HR managers is particularly challenging for project professionals.

Project professionals co-create career support.

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These employees need to be able to access support from different people, depending on the mix of projects and the effectiveness of line manager support. Sometimes, co-creating support is their best option. Practices that compensate for lack of line manager support should be studied more closely.

Those who've received support during their own career are more likely to support others.

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This study revealed that career support for project professionals was provided primarily on initial projects and in crisis situations. Many project professionals reciprocate the support they received early in their career with advice and mentoring activities offered to others later in their career.

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OVERALL TAKEAWAY: With these findings in mind, organizations should encourage and enable line managers and HR specialists to support project professionals’ career development. This way, individual projects become sites for career-making work and activities, and dynamics are created which enable project professionals to help and support others throughout their careers.

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