Making it to the executive level takes initiative and drive, but training and education can help you meet those aspirations.
Project managers looking for entrée into the often-elusive executive suite might want to consider heading back to the classroom.
Take the case of Suhail Iqbal, PMP. He has leveraged education and experience to reach the highest level at his organization: CEO of SysComp International Pvt. Ltd., Islamabad, Pakistan.
“My leadership journey has progressed through diverse professions and educational tracks, from a soldier to a civil engineer, to a computer scientist and engineer, business manager, technical lead, project manager, program manager and finally the executive of my firm,” he says. “I attained various certifications while shifting my professions and improving as a leader.” Along with the Project Management Professional (PMP®) credential, he also is a professional engineer and Microsoft Certified Trainer.
There's no question, project managers can make it to the top—but they need a plan.
Map the Route
Project managers should work directly within their organizations to identify a career path that leads to the higher levels, says Jimmie L. West, Ph.D., PMP, dean of PM College in Havertown, Pa., USA. “Ask, ‘How will I get from project management to the executive level?’ and ‘How do I move up from a business-level project office to an enterprise project office?’” he says. “When offered an assignment, ask management, ‘How much value do you put in this role?’ and ‘Will it allow me to move up?’”
Ultimately, project managers must take responsibility for planning their future, says Joanne Gumaer, PMP, president of IlliniaQ Inc., a project management consulting and training firm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. They must decide where they want to go, what they want to achieve and how to get there.
Once project managers have researched and identified the required core competencies, they should conduct a personal assessment to identify any gaps and create a learning plan. “You'll need to figure out how best to acquire the competencies, whether through classes, readings, coaching, mentoring, formal education, certifications, challenging job assignments or a new job,” she says.
Project managers who aspire to the highest levels must look beyond business expertise and bottom-line performance. They need to gain experience, training and education in people skills, too. It's not enough to bring in the numbers, Mr. Iqbal says. “If project managers are to reach the executive level, they must be adept at [people] skills, especially leadership and people management,” he says.
Formal training is the most frequently used method to develop leaders, but it may not be the most effective, according to a 2005–2006 survey of 5,500 leaders and human resource representatives in 42 countries by Development Dimensions International, Bridgeville, Pa., USA. Special projects, inside and outside of job scope, are a more beneficial tool, the report says.
“Develop an appreciation of the foundations of project management and then get exposure to a large variety of project contexts,” says Wilhelm K. Kross, Ph.D., Value & Risk AG. “Manage projects in extraordinary situations, such as crisis projects, troubled projects or fast-track exploratory projects.”
Project managers should seek experiences that force them to think strategically, shifting from task- to relationship-based behavior, says Joanne Gumaer, PMP, president of IlliniaQ Inc.
If project managers want to move up the career ladder, she recommends they be able to answer some of the following questions affirmatively before they accept assignments:
* Am I moving out of my comfort zone?
* Am I acquiring global experience?
* Does the assignment require me to think and act strategically?
Job rotation is another way to gain exposure to different business areas, says Margaret Meloni, PMP, president of Meloni Coaching Solutions in Long Beach, Calif., USA. Project managers should advance through the ranks by taking on bigger and bigger projects, then moving on to programs, ultimately seeking out leadership roles in other components of the company.
“Run a large program and it will test you while showing you your strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “It also allows you to see how well you do and how happy you are in the role.”
Project managers may benefit from a one-on-one training plan, says Margaret Meloni, PMP, president of Meloni Coaching Solutions, Long Beach, Calif., USA. “Find an executive you know and admire and you'd like to emulate. Approach [that person] to establish a mentoring relationship and model your behavior after them.”
Some organizations have an established mentoring program or are willing to pay the expenses of a coach who “can help you establish goals and then become your accountability partner,” she says.
Earning an advanced degree helps, too. “If you have an MBA, it's the beginning of credibility,” Ms. Meloni says. “If all things are equal, the master's degree will win out.”
Although employers are more interested in how effective people are in delivering results than their education and training, Ms. Gumaer says, it's a lot harder to move up without the right academic background.
Wilhelm K. Kross, Ph.D., director at Value & Risk AG in Bad Homburg, Germany, credits both his academic background and progressive business experience for his rise to the executive level. He completed a master's-level thesis in engineering and initially worked as a trainee on large-scale projects, moving on to spearhead several exploratory corporate initiatives. Then, at the age of 26, he was recruited to manage an entire mining operation.
As his career progressed, he migrated into the professional services sector and took on increasingly complex challenges. Dr. Kross says he continues to draw on his education and training, particularly in crisis situations or when complex solutions have to be developed quickly.
Mr. Iqbal advocates life-long learning. Even with his success, he plans to pursue Six Sigma Black Belt and professional risk manager's certifications. “Like organizations learn and mature over time, leaders learn new skills and tools through continuous education,” he says. “In today's world, no level of education or training is complete, because as you climb a hill, another much larger and mightier awaits, necessitating the need to climb further and higher.”
www.pmi.org << SEPTEMBER 2006