Project Management Institute

Fast track to the top

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CAREERTRACK

BY CHAUNCEY HOLLINGSWORTH - ILLUSTRATION BY IAN WHADCOCK       

A golden ticket
to career acceleration—everyone wants it. But unless you're one of the rare superstars whose dazzling combination of business acumen, technical savvy and disarming charisma propels you straight into a corner office, your key to the executive suite won't be waiting for you by the water cooler. You're going to have to work for it.

Some of the very qualities that make you a good project manager could be inadvertently steering you off the path to senior management. That legendary scheduling prowess may mean you hit your deadline, but that won't matter much if the project isn't aligned with the organizational strategy to start with.

“You need that focus on execution—obviously that's the key of any project. But it's imperative that project managers also be aware of what's going on in their corporate surroundings,” says Ed Slavin, Dallas, Texas, USA-based senior vice president of Mosaic, a marketing products, programs and services provider.

Project management can be a solid training ground for “somebody who's looking to be more of a generalist and go higher up in the organization,” says Randy Englund, executive consultant, Englund Project Management Consultancy, Burlingame, California, USA.

Unfortunately, though, some project managers have a specialist mentality, he says, taking a rigid and literal approach to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

“That's not going to fast-track them,” Mr. Englund says. “You have to use these things as guidelines and really think business—not just what deliverables and what outputs you have to get down to.”

A NEW WAY OF THINKING

All of this is not to say that a project manager can't make the leap into upper management.

But “it's unrealistic to think that there will or should be a direct progression,” says Jerry Ball, PMP, chairman of Entity Group Ltd., a Wellington, New Zealand-based program and project management consultancy. “Experience in project management alone is generally insufficient to progress to upper-level management.”

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Experience in project management alone is generally insufficient to progress to upper-level management.

—Jerry Ball, PMP, Entity Group Ltd., Wellington, New Zealand

Ideally, Mr. Ball says, project managers should have experience in real-world strategy development, new process development, product development, organizational development, marketing, financial management, process improvement, human resources, IT and communication skills.

Project managers also need to know how to “make nice” with the upper echelon.

“As project managers, we need to work our sponsorship and get optimum management support,” Mr. Englund says. “You're going to have to manage up the organization and mentor the people above you. A lot of people don't think that's their job. But the upper managers are our audience, and those are the things that are going to move you up because it's demonstrating interest in the business and the organization.”

It may be a jarring transition. Project managers are known for pinning down specifics—“Did you mean to say a day and a half or 36 hours? And can we get it in 30?” But those kinds of discussions are best saved for team members who actually need to know such information. Among upper management, it creates an impression that you're counting beans while missing the fallow fields just over the horizon.

Instead, link the progress of projects to the organization's larger interests and focus on furthering those interests when you interact with stakeholders and superiors. Bonus: Unlike many other layers of the corporate food chain, project managers can use facts and figures from their projects to show quantifiable results.

img TIP Ask your stakeholders probing questions like, “What keeps you up at night?” suggests Ed Slavin, Mosaic, Dallas, Texas, USA. “I just got off the phone with Dell, and what keeps them up at night? It's Apple and HP,” he says. “The change in the organization at Dell has gone from the world of clicks and calls to now including retail, where people get on their site or phone in. You're only going to find out those clients' specific needs if you probe and ask and listen.”

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Captivate upper management, but do so with the notion that your contributions are boosting the organization and all those around you—not just your own career aspirations. Don't ignore colleagues or underlings in your quest for upward mobility.

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COURT ATTENTION

To show you've got your eyes on something outside your own critical path, create a name for yourself and your projects.

This is the time to leverage your VIP access.

“More than people involved in line operations, project managers have a chance to show on a widespread basis that they create professional value,” says Matteo M. Coscia, partner and senior project management consultant at Pro-jectize, a project, program and portfolio management consultancy and training firm in Collegno, Italy. “Especially when they work on projects with stakeholders who are at fairly high levels, they have a chance to show they are actually doing a good job, that they're good at problem-solving and executing tasks.”

In many instances, project managers can maneuver between departments and disciplines internally in ways that other personnel cannot. That exposure enables them to familiarize themselves with every part of the company—a prerequisite for getting a Google Earth view of the organization and its best interests.

“Not that many people can see the organization as a whole,” Mr. Coscia adds. “Lateral exposure is not just about the group of people you see. You actually learn a little bit about the whole organization. One thing about the project managers I've met who progress: They are able to speak the language and know about the problems of each single department.”

Take advantage of that fluidity to connect with others across the organization and spread word of your abilities. If you're winning an uphill battle in a project rife with unexpected pitfalls, use that to build your reputation as a flexible problem-solver.

“Regardless of how well you plan something out, how detailed your Gantt chart looks, there's always going to be something that comes up that could potentially derail a project,” says Brian Cotton, PhD, vice president for information and communications technologies at consulting giant Frost & Sullivan, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “So when you've got something that is a challenge and you've succeeded in bringing this project to the desired results, it's certainly legitimate to make sure people don't forget that.”

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You're going to have to manage up the organization and mentor the people above you. A lot of people don't think that's their job. But the upper managers are our audience, and those are the things that are going to move you up because it's demonstrating interest in the business and the organization.

—Randy Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy, Burlingame, California, USA

ME, ME, ME

Captivate upper management, but do so with the notion that your contributions are boosting the organization and all those around you—not just your own career aspirations. Don't ignore colleagues or underlings in your quest for upward mobility.

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»See how Raymond Wong, PMP, made his way to senior program manager at The Hong Kong Jockey Club. Check out “An Advanced Project Manager's Career Path” on PMI's Career Central at PMI.org.

People who advance fast “are transparent in their motives,” Mr. Englund says. “It's not just for personal gain. They pay attention to the people working for them, with them, above them—and people tend to appreciate that.”

The team instinct can even help you land a promotion.

“Trust is the main driver in achievement,” Mr. Coscia says. “You tend to belong to a sort of tribe and progress with the tribe. I've seen a lot of people progressing internally in organizations where they gave them a big project and they did well, and they gave them an even bigger project, and eventually they became the head of a program office that reports to the CEO.”

In the end, it's your reputation in project management that's going to dictate whether you end up in the executive cadre.

“You usually remember project managers for the really good successes and the really spectacular failures,” Dr. Cotton says. “The failures are hopefully a minimum of projects that anyone ever manages, just as really spectacular successes are the minimum. As a project manager, most people are good when they're trying to strive for that middle.” PM

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imgREAD MORE ABOUT THE FAST TRACK TO THE TOP IN VOICES ON PROJECT MANAGEMENT ON PAGE 72.

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.

PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2010 WWW.PMI.ORG
OCTOBER 2010 PM NETWORK

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