Career blueprints for project managers


What really is a project manager’s job? Are there qualifications that identify the proper manager for a project? What milestones should a project manager pass when seeking to make the most of his career?

The trouble with the title “Project Manager” is that his duties are expected to be defined in standard terms. Although there are such definitions, his role in a particular organization and on each assignment is usually visualized so differently that these definitions are ordinarily inadequate. On top of this are the substantially varying objectives of owners, designers, vendors and constructors.

Divergent Directions

Why do the objectives of the parties involved in the construction of a process plant vary so much? Their common goal would seem to be the completion on time of a plant capable of manufacturing a product of specific quality. However, because these firms are, in a sense, selling their products or services at different points in the construction cycle, the objectives of any one of them will be primarily related to its particular product rather than to the overall goal of completing the plant.

The relationship of these objectives, only some of which are common (Table 1), and how their application affects each of the firms and the success of the project need to be considered.

While the owner’s project manager will be working to hold design specifications at the minimum necessary to complete a plant capable of producing a specified product, the designers project manager will be striving to develop “fail safe” specifications to limit his firm’s liability. At the same time, the vendor’s and constructor’s project managers will be seeking to complete their “product” with minimum tolerance over specifications so as to gain maximum profit on sales. Obviously, project managers cannot all be working toward a common goal and still represent their firm’s best interests.

This variety of goals often is not understood, or is overlooked, by any or all of the parties involved. As a result, project managers often have difficulty resolving such things as approval of detailed designs, vendors’ prints, shop inspections, field quality-control and performance tests—all of which contribute to delays, extra costs and sometimes to the failure of components and even of complete plants.

Desirable Qulaifications

Recognizing such differences exist, what qualifications are desirable for each of these project managers?

As with management objectives, there is some commonality in qualifications, but these too will differ according to each firm’s objectives (Table II). However, there is one qualification that should rank first with all the firms: an ability to work very well with others. No project manager can achieve success if he cannot relate well with people, because he cannot complete a project alone but must effectively weld together the efforts of all the people involved.

Skill in Communication

Allied to this ability is that of skill in communication. This is especially important because most project managers operate outside of normal organizational frameworks and become involved extensively with people from other companies.

Management Objectives - Table I


Career Qualifications of Project Managers – Table II


Communication by edict may sometimes achieve this merging of efforts, but there are better ways. A project manager generally deals with highly qualified specialists. Therefore, he must have some understanding of many subjects if he is to engage in productive communication with another professional, who very likely will know much more than he will about a particular subject. The project manager can often overcome this deficiency by discussions with his own specialists, whose presence he may also request when discussing a highly technical point with the project manager of another firm.

Although a poorly prepared project manager can irreparably damage his project, he nevertheless cannot know all the details involved. He must, therefore, map out for himself a personal critical path of activities. Some aspects of a project will merit his detailed review, others only his evaluation of the opinions of professionals.

He generally should participate in the preparation, or in the detail review, of such things as contract negotiations, flowsheets, piping and instrument diagrams, layouts, material specifications, electrical drawings, sizing of critical or costly equipment, pollution abatement plans, material and product handling concepts, bid evaluation of expensive equipment, startup plans, and levels of initial provisioning. Either he or his representative should spend enough time on such critical activities to be sure that, the best course of action or design will be selected.

To achieve this goal, the project manager must be fully acquainted with contractual provisions related to liabilities, quality specifications, financial matters, warranties, confidentiality, bonus and penalty clauses, delivery dates, and changes. He must also be throughly familiar with his own company’s procedures and the qualifications of the people involved in his project.

Getting Broad Experience

Related to this skill in communication is another qualification that is a common requirement of project managers: broad experience, (For programs of development for project managers, see Table III.) Important here is to have been at some time a line supervisor, for from this responsibility the project manager will have gained a knowledge of operational problems, insights into personnel motivation, a financial outlook, familiarity with company procedures, and acquaintance with scheduling difficulties.

Even in those companies that do look after the development of their professional personnel, the key to personal progress still rests with the individual. A person must, therefore, assess his abilities, establish realistic levels of achievement and then deliberately seek the assignments and additional education that will prepare him for his career goal.

Too often, the younger engineer hesitates to ask for assignments in fields other than his speciality, perhaps because he is seeking to become outstanding in it. Even worse, his supervisor will often be under stresses to meet the organization’s objectives: and he will therefore want to staff his group with well-trained people–i.e., specialists–which can force the young engineer into specializing at the very time when he should instead be broadening his experience.

Typical Career-Assignment Milestones – Table III


Because the time to develop a career wholly through experience is limited, the engineer must resort to specific training—i.e., company or industry programs, or work toward a graduate degree. Obtaining an engineering license is also recommended.

Other Routes to Development

Personal development can also be accomplished in other ways. For example, when at the plant, the engineer should not limit his activities to immediate problems but (within the limits of professional ethics) seek out information on aspects related to project management, such as the maintenance history of certain equipment, raw-material receiving and storage methods, utility production and conservation procedures, safety requirements, labor relationships, product handling and storage operations, effluent-treatment techniques, and the condition of the plant with regard to such things as structural deterioration, painting, instruments and controls, insulation, and process equipment. From discussions with knowledgeable people, he will learn the practical aspects of design and construction that are vital to a project manager’s development.

He can do the same thing when visiting the operations of owners, designers, vendors of contractors, discussing with them such subjects as orgainzational relationships, the role of their project managers, guarantees and warranties, contract terminology, cost control and scheduling, confidentiality of process of technical data, and design standards.

The successful project manager is the engineer who understands a variety of disciplines and is able to blend these together to achieve a goal that varies according to the nature of his company’s aims.

Reprinted by special permission from



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