All the details
by Karen J. Bannan
photography by Scott Gries
It's a chicken-and-egg conundrum.
Industry specialization opens doors and creates new project management opportunities, but common sense says that unless you have experience in a particular field—even if you've moved into managerial roles in the past—doors shut. It is possible, however, to move from industry to industry or make the switch from generalist to expert with ease—as long as you plan ahead.
Heico Wesselius, Assistant Professor, Parsons School of Design and Management, New York, N.Y., USA
The first step in choosing a niche is taking inventory of each industry in which you're interested, says Kathy Mosgrove, president of HRPM Consulting Inc., based in Ottawa, Canada. This includes market trends, the level of industry jargon and vernacular, its growth rate and any specialized skills that may be required.
Industry associations and special interest groups are useful for gauging interest in a specific vertical.
As with any project management position, experience is the best teacher.
Networking can help open doors—even without the requisite experience.
Marketing is key, especially high visibility opportunities such as speaking engagements and teaching.
Dave Prior, a manager of project services for Plano, Texas., USA-based Crossmark, followed a path similar to the one Ms. Mosgrove suggests; he transitioned to his current job with the packaged goods manufacturer after handling online chat boards for U.S. television network Nickelodeon in New York, N.Y., USA.
“I spent one year studying trends in the market. I read everything I could about the backbone of technology—what was implemented then and what was coming over the next five to 10 years,” Mr. Prior says. “If you don't do research by the time you get to the table, people are going to know you don't know what you're talking about.”
Analyst reports, news releases and press articles can help illuminate trends, as can government job growth projections. Even the want ads can provide insight into the growth of an industry.
Apple for the Student
Background research aside, there will be some sector- or even company-specific education that can make your transition smoother. Experienced project managers build this in to every new engagement. For example, Brian R. Doby, senior project manager, MedPlus, Mason, Ohio, USA, and president of the PMI Healthcare Project Management Specific Interest Group, says he allocates 25 percent of his time to training.
“A consulting firm is generally going to give you four weeks of training each year, especially if you're moving between industries. But if you're working for yourself, that number has to be higher,” Mr. Doby says. “A quarter of my time goes into R&D—education and practicing and improving my skill set.”
The first step in choosing a niche is taking inventory of each industry in which you're interested.
Kathy Mosgrove, President, HRPM Consulting Inc., Ottawa, Canada
In fact, training makes any project manager more valuable, according to a survey by the Center for Business Practices, the research arm of PM Solutions, a West Chester, Pa., USA-based consulting and training firm. The survey, which was designed to assess the value of project management training initiatives, found that more than 90 percent of the organizations surveyed showed moderate to extreme improvement in training participants' on-the-job performance. Surveyed organizations spent an average of $142,305 on project management training last year ($1,734 per employee), a goal that should be in reach for most project managers and consultants.
The best training often comes from jumping right into a project. This may not be possible immediately; however, mentors can bridge the knowledge gap for experienced project managers by readily providing answers or showing consultants where they'll find the information they need.
You can gain similar experience as an individual contractor through collaboration, says Mr. Doby, who stresses you can make inroads into a new industry by putting yourself out there as a project management expert first and a specialist second. He suggests playing up your skills in a particular project management competency such as risk management or scheduling.
“We're not talking partnership, but when someone is in the requirement stage and they understand what their needs are, you can get in on a project and gain that experience,” Mr. Doby says. “No one wants to reinvent the wheel, and if they can drop you in, even if you don't know the particular industry, it's easier for them in the long run.”
And then there's always the option of formal education. Peter Race, lead tutor at Henley Management College, Oxfordshire, U.K., says an MBA can open nearly any door in the business world. “The MBA is often seen as the classic leveler of project management experience,” he says. “Education helps you bridge industries.”
However, there's no substitute for wisdom—some of the most important education has nothing to do with hard skills, says Robert K. Wysocki, Ph.D., author of Effective Project Management: Traditional, Adaptive, Extreme. “If you look at why projects fail, it's mostly soft skills—interpersonal skills that every project manager should have,” he says.
Education and diversification, says Stylianos Kavadias, Ph.D., an assistant professor of operations management at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Ga., USA, is something that every project manager should make an immediate priority. “You should think about diversifying your knowledge from the beginning. It's really important to hedge across different specializations,” he says. “Someone who gets locked into managing simple scheduling projects is going to find it difficult to get into contingency planning.”
I'll Scratch Your Back
When you are ready to advance your consulting career, networking is one of the best ways you can break into a new industry segment. Ms. Mosgrove garnered her new project—working at Canada's Department of National Defense—a year ago by putting out feelers to everyone she knew.
“When I decided to go out on my own, I talked to all the people in my life—personal friends, professional colleagues and neighbors,” Ms. Mosgrove says. “A former colleague helped me. We both worked at the same company and she connected me. The power of personal networking is incredible.”
And don't rule out a single person in your Rolodex, says Heico Wesselius, an assistant professor at Parsons School of Design and Management, New York, N.Y., USA. That includes professors, fellow students and specific interest group members.
“If you have years of experience, you've met scores of people while on projects,” he says. “I advise people to go back to every project they did and write down all the names of people they worked with, including secretaries. Then call and e-mail those people and say, ‘A couple of years ago we worked together. Since then I've done this—do you know anyone on your projects, academic background or personal life that might need someone like me?’ If they like you and remember you, they will forward your e-mail.”
There are informal methods of networking that may work just as well. Ms. Mosgrove, who worked at Bell Canada, Stentor and the Nortel Networks before taking her current position, joined human resources associations and was a founding member of PMI's Human Resources SIG.
“I also started a [Microsoft] Excel spreadsheet where I keep track of names, how I got connected with them and what their expertise is,” she says. “Having that group gives me support and people to bounce ideas off of. It's a sanity check and a way to get validation on a particular problem or issue.”
Toot Your Own Horn
Most project management skills are universal. Once you convince someone you've mastered what matters, they're more likely to hire you, Mr. Race says.
“If you want to move sectors, your unique selling point is [that] different types of project have similarities,” he says. “You have to play on the fact that you are a professional project manager. It can be argued that not having sector experience actually makes you a better [project manager] because you're not dragged in the details. Your bottom line has to be your track record.”
To that end, try securing speaking engagements at conferences and industry meetings; don't be afraid to share both successes and failures, Mr. Race says. Also, document your successes with metrics that executives respect.
“Showing off projects shows competency and makes a name for yourself,” he says. “You may not have the track record in the industry you aspire to [work within] but your experience will speak for itself.”
Getting published—whether books, magazine articles, journals, white papers or Web newsletters—also can help you garner interest, Mr. Wesselius says, especially if you're targeting a consulting firm.
“The consulting market is much more difficult to come into now than it ever was before—there's a tendency for the high-end firms to hire people with high-end education and credentials,” Mr. Wesselius says. “If you haven't published something in a respectable journal, it's harder now than ever before.”
He adds that it often is easier moving cross-sector when you're on staff. If you've tried breaking in for more than six months or a year, you may want to consider taking a job that utilizes the skills you already possess, and then ask for a lateral move in a future project.
“If you've proven yourself, tell your boss, ‘I would like to be more exposed to a different type of project.’ In most cases, an employer will be very receptive to that factor,” Mr. Wesselius says. “If you are a good employee most firms are excited when people migrate. People who exceed their capacity are always the most respected employees.”
No matter what industry specialization you choose, Mr. Prior says it's important to remember one thing: “If my goal is getting better at managing field projects, then every time I get knocked down I am better for the next time.” PM
Karen J. Bannan is a freelance journalist. Based in New York, N.Y., USA, she writes about business and technology for more than 20 publications including The New York Times, Crain's Chicago Business, My Business, CFO and Robb Report.
PM NETWORK | NOVEMBER 2004 | WWW.PMI.ORG