Development paths of project managers

a research proposal

Peter Storm, PhD, Kennis&Co, The Netherlands**


What are the required competences of an effective project manager? And how does a project manager develop those competences? The first question has been researched extensively (Turner & Müller, 2006). The second question remains largely unanswered from an empirical point of view. In other words, we know very little about the actual development paths followed by project managers in different settings. What do the actual planned, self-guided, and innate development paths of project managers look like and how do they interact? In this paper, we review several issues related to the development of project managers with the aim of arriving at relevant and researchable questions. We end this paper by presenting our preliminary research proposal. The purpose of a preliminary investigation is to describe the actual development paths of project managers and, in addition, explore the possibilities, the difficulties, and the usefulness of a more extensive investigation aimed at gaining insight into the interaction among the three types of development: planned, self-guided, and innate.

Keywords: Development paths; planned development; self-guided development; innate development; project manager career paths


In this brief paper, we review several issues related to the development of project managers, in theory and in practice. We will distinguish between three types of development:

  1. Planned development, which refers to the independent efforts and approaches taken by those who select, hire, and manage project managers and that are aimed at promoting effective and timely development of their project managers.
  2. Self-guided development, which refers to the independent efforts and approaches taken by project managers themselves, without (significant) interference or help by their managers and employers, to promote their own professional development.
  3. Innate development, which refers to the autonomous development of project managers, irrespective of or in the absence of, planned or self-guided development.

Our aim in this review is to arrive at relevant and researchable questions on the nature of these three types of development of project managers. More specifically, we are interested in gaining better insight into the nature and effects of interaction among the three types of development.

The Planned Development of Project Managers

According to Huemann et al. (2004), the planned development of project managers involves:

  1. Determining a project manager's career path
  2. Specifying the minimum required competence levels at each level of the career path
  3. Managing the processes of recruiting, assigning, training, assessing, rewarding, promoting, and retaining project managers.
  4. Supporting and guiding project managers on the job through feedback, mentoring, and coaching and empowering.

From our experience in working with some thirty different companies and government agencies in The Netherlands, we conclude that the standard practice of planned development of project managers contains the following elements:

  • A planned hierarchical career path consisting of four levels: junior project manager, project manager, senior project manager, and project management executive or director
  • A framework of desired competencies, which is most often adopted from a standard, such as A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), IPMA-ICB, or PRINCE2, and which is usually linked to the hierarchical levels of the official career path
  • A project management handbook describing procedures, formats, and tools to be used by project managers
  • A formal project management training program, usually of relatively short duration (from three to fifteen days), focusing on the functional requirements of the project, such as planning, organizing, controlling, and reporting.

The effectiveness—in the sense of effectively helping project managers to develop into mature professionals—of these rather general and uniform views on the planned development of project managers can be questioned.

Hölzle (2010) investigated the planned development of project managers in 20 companies that had already implemented a project manager's career path. These companies probably are in the forefront of the professional development of project management. The results of her study show that even in this small sample of forerunners, quite large variations can be observed. Hölzle distinguishes between four different career frameworks, ranging from ‘traditional,’ ‘heroic,’ ‘scientific,’ to ‘true project manager.’

Huemann et al. (2004) noted that a hierarchical career path—from junior project manager to project executive—is probably not the most appropriate development pattern for project managers. They follow Keegan and Turner (2003) who coined the phrase, “the spiral staircase career” to reflect that project managers will move through a series of varied and wide-ranging jobs. Huemann et al. add that, “It is easy to get lost on the spiral staircase, both to lose your way and for people to stop noticing you” (p. 1070).

The standard project management competency frameworks are based on the assumption that all projects basically require the same project management approach, and hence that the development of project managers can be planned and guided in a standardized one-size-fits-all-manner. However, as Artto and Dietrich (2004) state, based on a number of previous studies, “Different project types have different strategic importance; each type requires different management approaches” (p. 145).

With regard to the use of handbooks and other formal prescriptions regarding how to manage a project, it has been observed in various studies that there is “widely varying usage of different project management practices and differences in use, depending on the context of the project” (Papke-Shields et al., 2010).

Although formal training programs tend to focus on the ‘hard’ or analytical skills of project management, there is a growing demand for project managers with superior soft skills (Stevenson & Starkweather, 2010). Quatro et al. (2007) caution against leadership development activities that may create analytically focused leaders and argue that a more holistic approach is needed, integrating the analytical domain with the conceptual, emotional, and spiritual domains.

The preceding observations and reflections raise two questions:

  1. Is planned development of project management, as it is currently prescribed and practiced, sufficiently aimed at the real needs of project managers?
  2. And, if not, what should be added, improved, or redirected in the planned development of project managers to better serve these needs?

What should the planned development of project managers be aimed at?

The current standards of professional project management specify a large number of different competencies. Many of these competencies overlap strongly with the competencies expected of other types of management. For instance, competencies like planning, organizing, delegating, reporting, negotiating, motivating, and solving conflicts are most certainly not unique to project management. However, if we intend to improve the effectiveness of the planned development of project managers, then it makes sense to aim our limited resources at those competences that are unique and essential to the nature of the job. What are these unique and essential competences?

Several attempts have been made to derive the essential competences on the basis of empirical investigation. The leading question in these investigations, generally speaking, is “which competencies distinguish the successful project manager from the less successful or unsuccessful project manager? For example, Hauschildt et al. (2000) arrived at three competencies that distinguish the truly successful project managers from the moderately successful and unsuccessful ones. These three competencies are: organizing under conflict, leadership, and systems view. Cheng et al. (2005), using a different research method, arrived at two competencies that predict project manager success: self-control and leadership. The extensive empirical investigation performed by Turner and Müller (2006) led them to conclude that the emotional dimensions of leadership are making the most significant contribution to project performance.

Turner and Müller (2006) also observed that similar competencies are not equally essential for different types of projects. This observation is in line with more theoretical ideas about the relationship between type of project manager and type of project (Jaafari, 2003; Storm & Vuijk, 2008). Both Jaafari and Storm and Vuijk arrive at a typology of four different categories of projects.

In the preceding text, the focus has been on the most effective competences of the project manager. But are these also unique competences? Thoms and Pinto (1999) argue that “one key skill that successful project leaders need to master is the ability to attune their temporal skills—dealing with the past, the present, and the future—to the nature of the work they are called upon to perform”(p.19). According to them, the need for highly developed temporal skills is more or less unique to the job of a project manager.

While working with many different project managers in training programs, research, and in consulting, we gradually became aware that a unique aspect of their work is that they must exert leadership in four different directions:

  1. Lead their own team
  2. Lead the interaction with higher management
  3. Lead the cooperation among different partners or suppliers within the project
  4. Lead the communication with users

Although other types of managers may also be called to exert leadership in some of these directions, we believe that it is unique that effective project management calls for effective leadership in all four directions, from the beginning to the end of the project.

Finally, we believe it is almost a universal and unique challenge for project managers that they must lead and manage with limited formal authority relative to their responsibilities.

The preceding leads to the following questions:

  1. Which competencies are actually central in the current planned development of project management?
  2. Why, and on what basis, have they been selected?
  3. Which visible or measurable effects have been gained by putting these competencies at the core of the planned development efforts?

The Self-guided Development of Project Managers

If we are to understand the way in which project managers guide themselves in their development toward success and high professional standards, we must know what they experience in practice. Unfortunately, it is hard to find descriptions of the real experiences of project managers in the literature.

To make a start in this direction, we have asked project managers participating in our project management training program, called PMLab (Storm et al., 2007), to record their experiences in a logbook. These logbooks contain valuable descriptions of the issues and dilemmas that have troubled these project managers and have caused them to reflect about their own development. Here are some of these dilemmas:

Do they recognize the project leader in me?

Fresh from the university, educated as a civil engineer, Judy (a fictitious name) dove into the world of infrastructure projects. She started as a project leader of small projects. At least five times she changed her working context by switching to other parts of the company. Now, in her 38th, she is managing the contractual side of large infrastructural projects, supervised by her project manager. Still, she has the ambition to become a project manager herself, and have final responsibility and decision power. However, feedback from previous project owners within her company—implicitly suggesting that she lacks organisational sensitivity—made her decide to bury her wish to ever becoming project leader.

Do I want to be a project manager or a line manager?

As a self-made man, with a medium-level education in technology, Bob is doing well in his company, which installs heating installations for building projects. He saw his responsibilities for projects and resources in his company grow and became a line manager of one of the business establishments of his company. He never realized he had to choose between career paths, because managing projects was gradually fading away and the optimal use of budgets and resources had replaced that. At the start of his participation in our project leadership development trajectory, he first realized he had to ask himself: Who am I now and who do I want to become?

Dare I let go of being ‘the strong one’ in order to evoke responsibility with others?

Joey has always been the strong one. He knows every detail in his projects and has a solution for every problem. It brought him to where he is right now: project director on the contractor's side of a large and unique infrastructural project. Many parties are involved, technical dilemmas have to be solved and the project organisation has grown. People are used to knocking on his door, but now that the organisation has grown, they are with many more people and he cannot oversee every detail anymore. He realized that being ‘the strong one knowing everything’ is not possible anymore. He has to start managing and facilitate problem solving by others to increase his added value as a project leader. He realizes this requires a mindset shift in his own head and in the heads of his project organisation, which will take some time.

To whom should I listen: my client or my boss?

Mike started his career five years ago as a junior project leader in an engineering consultancy firm and does his work with huge ambition. He has grown in observing how things are managed and has developed his own idea of what is well managed and what is incorrectly managed. He wrestles with the management style of his supervisor, especially because it threatens the success of his project. What choices does he have? And which of these options might influence his career development path in a positive sense? He decides to opt for a supportive role and proposes taking over some responsibilities that could help his supervisor and thereby his client. And hopefully they will learn from it and see how he puts his abilities into place in a positive manner. He realizes that climbing up the career ladder like this will probably be much more convenient and effective than pulling his supervisor down or letting him fail consciously.

Do I have to act or do I have to coach others to act?

Peter is appreciated as a successful project leader and has been hired by several companies in the past. Now, he has been asked to help the freshly appointed leader of a new project department set up this department. This leader, who we call Jim, is not acquainted with the world of projects and heavily leans on Peter, who he highly appreciates for coming up with ideas and putting them into practice. Although Peter likes being appreciated, some of his colleagues’ questions make him wonder if what he is doing will help Jim's company in the long run. He takes the actions and responsibility and develops ideas. This is nothing new to him. But, in doing so, Jim as well as he himself, learn very little, while Jim remains heavily dependent on him. At that moment, he started to wonder about the value of this project for his own development: How should I focus my role such that it stimulates my own development?

Do different types of projects fit in with my leadership style and personality?

Monique has been the project leader of various construction projects, building highways, bridges, and viaducts. Now it is her job to implement the new contracting principles and procedures into one of the maintenance departments of her company. This department is still used to the old and outdated contracting procedures, focused at ordering and evaluating the results. The new procedures being used now in other parts of the company are based on more collaboration with contractors. The move to working according to these new procedures requires a change in the organisational culture. This kind of project is new to Monique. She wrestles with resistance and emotions and the vagueness of the result she has to deliver. She wonders: How she can make use of her strengths in this project, what can she learn from it, and should she continue working on these kinds of projects?

Knowing some of the development concerns of project managers, the next questions are: How do they deal with these concerns? What do project managers learn from their experiences? How do they apply their lessons learned to make essential choices regarding their own professional development?

Yorks et al. (1998) distinguish among four levels of learning from experience:

  1. “Response learning: a change in how one is prepared to respond to a situation, either through the addition or substitution of a new response to one's set of responses”
  2. “Situation learning: a change in how one interprets a situation, either through altering one's values or through judgment of how things work in a particular situation”
  3. “Trans-situation learning: learning how to change one's interpretations of a situation through interpreting one's acts of interpretation”
  4. “Transcendent learning: the modification of or creation of new concepts to open up new kinds of interpretation.” (Yorks et al., 1998, p. 61).

Transcendent learning involves a much broader and deeper reflection on one's own experiences than Response learning or Situation learning. Hence, we expect that Transcendent learning contributes more to and has a stronger impact on, self-guided development.

The preceding leads us to the following questions:

  1. Which concerns do project managers have regarding their own professional development?
  2. How do project managers deal with these concerns? What kinds of choices do they make and why?
  3. What kinds of experiences and what kinds of learning processes influence project managers in making these choices?

The Innate Development of Project Managers

The innate development of project managers, irrespective of or in the absence of planned or self-guided development, has hardly been investigated; it is of interest in this context because this type of development represents what evolves naturally despite all the good intentions or ambitions we have about the development of ourselves or others. The main ingredients of innate development are time, experience, and the ability and drive to learn from experience. To gather more insight in this area, we must address ourselves to research about the innate development of leaders in general.

Popper and Amit (2009) propose that the levels of trait anxiety and openness to experience carry the greatest weight in predicting leadership potential and leadership development. Both are personal characteristics, which are strongly related to the style of attachment that people search for in their relationships with others. Three styles of attachment are distinguished: secure, ambivalent, and avoidant. Secure individuals have a basic trust that others, from whom they seek help, will be available, responsive, and helpful. Avoidant individuals, at the other extreme, have no confidence that they will receive care when they seek it. Research shows that attachment style is formed during early childhood.

Ligon et al. (2008) analyzed 120 biographies of outstanding leaders and concluded that different leadership types are triggered by different leadership experiences. They distinguish among three leadership styles: charismatic, ideological, and pragmatic. These styles are combined with two different orientations—socialized and personalized—to form twelve different leadership types. They distinguish among six different experiences or events: originating events, turning point events, anchoring events, analogous events, redemption events, and contaminating events. For example, socialized leaders experienced more anchoring events than personalized leaders.

McCauley et al. (2006) propose that how leaders interpret their experiences and what they learn from them, are dependent on the personal development stage they are in. This proposition is derived from constructive-developmental theory, which focuses on two primary aspects of development:

  • The organizing principles that regulate how people make sense of themselves and the world.
  • How these regulative principles are constructed and re-constructed over time.

According to this theory, development is driven by new challenges that reveal the limitations of the current organizing principle.

What these and other perspectives suggest is that development of leadership, whether it is about the magnitude of leadership or about the style of leadership, is strongly influenced by the interaction between life orientation of a person and the actual experiences that he or she encounters over time.

The preceding leads us to the following questions:

  1. Which leadership experiences do project managers encounter during the courses of their careers?
  2. How do they interpret the meanings of these experiences in relation to their own development? How and to what extent are these interpretations influenced by personality factors such as self-esteem, self-control, and conscientiousness?
  3. How do these experiences and their interpretations influence their subsequent development as a leader and a manager?

A Preliminary Research Proposal

The primary aim of our intended research is to gain insight into the interaction among the three types of development: planned, self-guided, and innate.

The theoretical relevance of such an investigation is that current research efforts have largely ignored this interaction. Each is a stream of research by itself. We propose that the actual development of project managers is driven by all three together. Also, in the field of project management, compared with the field of general management, there is a lack of empirical research describing objectively how project managers make progress in their professional development and what the driving forces of that development are.

From a practical point of view, such an investigation is needed to find out how the professional development of project managers can be improved. Areas in which improvement is conceivable are, for example:

  • Selection of project managers, specifically with regard to their potential for future growth.
  • Training of project managers, which is more specifically aimed at the actual development stage of a project manager and, more specifically, targets the type of project he or she has to manage.
  • Assignment to a project, which presents the highest learning potential to the project manager concerned.
  • Support for self-guided development of project managers; for example, through action learning, coaching, mentoring, career counseling or, even, patience.

The purpose of a preliminary investigation is to describe the actual development paths of project managers, and in addition, explore the possibilities, difficulties, and the usefulness of a more extensive investigation aimed at finding answers on how to improve and integrate these development paths. Some of the potential difficulties are:

  • This investigation requires that we gather data from at least three different perspectives: the project manager, the human resource manager, and the functional manager. The difficulty might be that these perspectives cannot be aligned with each other to a sufficient degree.
  • It also requires gathering of data about the development of project managers over a longer period of time. The difficulty here lies in the capacity of the respondents in the investigation to recall expectations, intentions, and experiences that happened years ago.
  • Another difficulty lies in the scope of the investigation, which should cover different types of projects and different types of organizational settings. The preliminary investigation should give us insight into the limitations of gathering a sufficient number of cases to be able to generalize across these different situations.

We propose the following approach for our preliminary investigation:

1. A series of semi-structured interviews with project managers, functional managers, and human resource managers (approximately twenty in each category). Leading questions in these interviews are:

  • Which competencies are actually put central in the current planned development of project management?
  • Why, and on what basis, have they been selected? How have these been related to the planned career paths of project managers (if such planned career paths are in use in the particular organization)?
  • Which visible or measurable effects have been gained by putting these competencies at the core of the planned development efforts?
  • Which concerns do project managers have regarding their own professional development?
  • How do project managers deal with these concerns? What kinds of choices do they make and why?
  • What kinds of experiences and what kinds of learning processes influence project managers in making these choices?

The results of these interviews should give concrete indications about the possibility of aligning the three different perspectives and about the nature of the developmental concerns and experiences of project managers.

2. A series of in-depth interviews with approximately ten project managers focusing on the historic development of their careers as project managers. In these interviews, we will probe which experiences were most influential during the course of their careers, when these experiences took place, how they interpreted these experiences at the time they took place, how they dealt with these experiences, and how they interpret these experiences at the time of the interview. To prepare these interviews, we will use insights gained from previous research based on constructive-developmental theory.

Additionally, the results of these interviews should give us concrete indication about the capacity of the respondents to recall expectations, intentions, and experiences that happened years ago.

3. The interviews mentioned in steps 1 and 2 will be content analyzed to arrive at a common list of development stages, experiences, competences, interpretations, and learning effects.

This list will be used to design and conduct a survey among a much larger sample of project managers, functional managers, and human resource managers. This survey is intended to validate the list, to describe different development paths of project managers, and to explore the effectiveness of these different development paths with regard to type and degree of competences gained in each path. This final step in the preliminary investigation should give us insight into the requirements of a possible longitudinal investigation on the career development of project managers. Additionally, we expect that the outcome of step 3 will be helpful to practitioners looking for the improvements mentioned at the beginning of this section.


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©2012 Project Management Institute



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