Project Management Institute

On Your Own

When the Boss Won't Help, Here's How to Climb the Project Management Career Ladder

BY JEN THOMAS | ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE AUSTIN

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For project professionals, a boss can be the biggest advocate—or biggest obstacle— on the career path. A helpful manager will mentor and champion project wins, promote face time with high-level executives and spot career opportunities from on high. An unhelpful manager, on the other hand, might leave top-notch talent to fend for itself or step into the spotlight to claim every team win as a personal victory.

It's no wonder, then, that 60 percent of employees say they've left or would leave a job over a bad boss, according to a 2018 survey by staffing firm Randstad US. Those numbers are bleak—but not insurmountable. With a little strategic thinking and know-how, project and program managers can still climb the ladder without help from a benevolent or proactively supportive boss. No matter the impediment, in these three situations there's a way forward:

60% of employees say they've left or would leave a job over a bad boss.

Source: Randstad US 2018 survey

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The Boss Likes the Spotlight

Signals: Projects—and the people who manage them—are prioritized by how much C-suite attention they reflect onto the supervisor. The boss tends to steal credit for project wins and accomplishments.

Solution: Promote dialogue and forge direct relationships with internal stakeholders.

Being great at the gig is the bedrock of professional advancement, so first and foremost focus on project success, says Pullak Mohapatra, PMP, manager of IT strategy and the project management office (PMO), PNB MetLife, Mumbai, India. Keep in mind that spotlight-loving supervisors might be more apt to greenlight scope changes because they're more eager to please executives and project sponsors. “If that's the case, your team is going to have to be more agile, adapting to changes with little turnaround time.”

But don't assume this means wrapping up one project and then waiting for the applause for the boss to die down before immediately diving into the next. Instead, take a breath between initiatives to talk to key stakeholders about the outcome, stressing the entire team's performance and noting both the successes and the struggles, says Amber Simonsen, PMP, director, product development and delivery, marketing, Alaska Airlines, Seattle, Washington, USA. Such a strategy helps secure face time beyond the boss, without explicitly circumventing any boundaries.

“I think far too few project managers talk about the hard stuff,” she says. “It's always, 'Oh, we completed the project on scope and on budget,' and it's like, well, yes, that's your job. What was the hard stuff that you did? What did you have to overcome to get here?”

Speaking up, especially when things are not going exactly to plan, demonstrates leading through adversity—a highly sought trait in most work-places—and that's true even if the project wasn't an all-out success, says Ms. Simonsen. For example, last year she finished managing an e-commerce and IT project with a multimillion-U.S.-dollar budget and a year-plus schedule, but “we knew, when it went live, that there were technical issues that would require manual workarounds for some of our employees,” she says. Rather than avoiding the issue, she initiated a conversation with the leadership team to acknowledge the project's shortcomings and the schedule and resources required to fix it. “I think owning those pain points ultimately helped me with my career, because I became known as a leader who would be honest and who really pulled back the curtains and let folks know what was going on.”

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The Boss Is Buried

Signals: The supervisor is too busy to eye the horizon and map out a skills development plan or talk career goals. Keeping project professionals in the same role indefinitely seems like less of a hassle to the boss than dealing with the transition and turnover.

Solution: Stretch the role and the responsibilities in order to grow on the job.

In an ideal scenario, bosses will fill the roles of supervisor and mentor, encouraging and nurturing professional growth, whether within the company walls or beyond. But if on a daily basis they can't even spare a second's glance up from pivot tables, they hardly will be able to play career counselor, too.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, says Suhaib Taqvi, PMP, head of examination systems, Genix Ventures, Melbourne, Australia. “A boss having little time for you is actually good because it creates room for you to do much more than what you are expected to do. That can help you grow both in your career skills and within your organization.”

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—Suhaib Taqvi, PMP, Genix Ventures, Melbourne, Australia

Mr. Taqvi put this into practice when one of the leaders at his organization resigned a few years ago. His boss didn't suggest Mr. Taqvi step into the role, but Mr. Taqvi volunteered to do just that—without a pay or title bump—while human resources looked for a replacement. And while the time in an interim position was stressful, it also was chock-full of skill-building and learning, he says. Above all, it show-cased his career ambition to others at the company.

Daryl Acker, PMP, took a similar approach when he volunteered to lead the newly formed PMO in the non-intensive diabetes therapies business unit at PMI Global Executive Council member Medtronic in Plymouth, Minnesota, USA. “I've gotten positive feedback, and I've also been able to present in front of the senior leadership team here about the idea of a project management office and what the next steps are so we can be successful,” says Mr. Acker.

Not only does Mr. Acker act as a program manager in the organization and run the PMO, but he also has filled a key role in mentoring younger project managers and project analysts. “Being able to provide support and mentorship—I think that was critical to creating my own opportunities,” he says.

Of course, there has to be a high level of trust and a mutual understanding to make sure ambitious career climbers aren't tasked with a job they're not yet ready for or asked to take on an unfair workload. But with the right stretch project or stretch position, those who volunteer to add responsibilities can send a significant message. “Management is aware that I am capable of much more than I'm doing right now, and when the opportunity arises, they can support me in a new role with increased responsibilities,” says Mr. Acker. “For me, this has worked really well, and although there was a little more work at the time, it's helped me show off my talents for a future career move.”

When Moving Up Means Moving On

Sometimes, career advancement requires finding a new organization. These red flags can signal that a bad boss might be impossible to overcome:

1 Project Talent Is Pigeonholed

Professional growth hinges on diverse experiences-something a boss, or even the company as a whole, might be unwilling or unable to provide. “If you feel like you're in a rut and you can't expand your knowledge or responsibilities within the organization, I think that's when you say, 'Maybe it's time for me to find something else to do,'” says Daryl Acker, PMP, program manager, Medtronic, Plymouth, Minnesota, USA.

2 Project Managers Aren't Seen as People

Amber Simonsen, PMP, knew it was time to leave a deadend job when it became clear the boss's only concern was her results. “Working for someone who you respect and who cares about you as a person, and not just as a producer, is really important,” says Ms. Simonsen, director, product development and delivery, marketing, Alaska Airlines, Seattle, Washington, USA.

3 Dialogue Is Discouraged

Communication is at the heart of everything you do, and without it the project's success—and your ultimate career success—could be in peril. “If your communication always seems to be silenced, then you should seek a position elsewhere,” says Pullak Mohapatra, PMP, manager of IT strategy and the project management office, PNB MetLife, Mumbai, India.

The Boss Is Absent

Signals: The organization has no clear reporting structure for project professionals. Project and program managers are somewhat adrift, possibly even reporting to someone who doesn't understand project management.

Solution: Rely on project peers and company mentors.

Early in her project management career, Ms. Simonsen reported to successive bosses who were seldom available. The first was a person from whom she learned a lot but who was always on the road and unable to provide boots-on-the-ground support. Her next manager seemed to brush off questions about Ms. Simonsen's career development entirely.

So for questions about what a future career in project management could look like, Ms. Simonsen turned to her more seasoned project management peers. “Because my boss wasn't around, I had the opportunity to work with more senior project managers and just hear their experiences and really understand what it looks like to grow in this profession,” she says. “At any company, there are project or program managers who are wiser than you and who have a wealth of knowledge that they're not doling out because no one has asked.”

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—Amber Simonsen, PMP, Alaska Airlines, Seattle, Washington, USA

As her career has progressed, Ms. Simonsen also has learned to lean on the wisdom and advice of her project sponsors when bosses haven't been around. For instance, it was during an informal chat with a project sponsor that Ms. Simonsen realized she was most interested in a more marketing-focused project track. That conversation eventually inspired her to earn a role overseeing projects that shape Alaska Airlines' guest experience.

“Even if you don't have an attentive boss, you have someone who is very vested in the success of the project and who is directly overseeing the work that you're doing,” she says. “So if you can perform and they feel good about the sponsor-project manager relationship, it's going to help your career.” PM

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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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