Project Management Institute

Executive material


You have the skills and potential to take a senior management position, but executives may be unable—or unwilling—to look past your technical expertise. Aspiring managers must learn how to present themselves as effective leaders.


When Petri Sakkinen received his executive appointment as director of Solution Marketing at SSH Communications Security Corp. last year, he brought with him a wealth of project management experience. Having joined the Helsinki, Finland-based global provider of encryption technologies in 1999 as a project manager in research and development, his ascent through the company tracked the development, marketing and implementation of a major new product for the company: “Because I had a specialist interest in the product, the opportunity to grow and change my role was a natural process,” Mr. Sakkinen says.

While the opportunities to rise through the company were there, Mr. Sakkinen still required training to fulfill his executive role. “I needed to learn professional sales methodologies and greater leadership skills,” he says. “As a project manager, you are concerned with managing resources—leadership is important, but you are mainly concerned with the hands-on job of making things happen. When you take on a higher level position, other people must take care of that and you have to be much more of a leader.”


Project managers must seek training that widens their career choices and broadens their perspectives.

Mr. Sakkinen gained the required skills through international training and support provided by his employer, but some project managers believe the job itself is evolving to develop these senior-level skills. “The role of project manager has moved from being one of technical expertise, to a management role,” says Samantha Rex, senior project manager at global design and engineering firm Arup, headquartered in London, U.K. “Now it’s becoming a leadership role. If you’re leading a project, you’re leading change, and therefore you must have a longer-term strategic outlook.”

Indeed, some project managers believe they already have responsibilities comparable to those of senior executives. “I’m running four projects in different time zones around the world,” says Hessel Friedlander, a project manager in Johannesburg, South Africa, with multinational IT company Computer Sciences Corp., headquartered in El Segundo, Calif., USA. “I have to multitask, dealing with external customers and internal staff— everything you would imagine is part of a senior executive’s job.” However, when it comes to achieving roles at the top of the organizational hierarchy, project managers tend to be overlooked in favor of applicants with a finance or sales background. These disciplines are seen as making a more direct contribution to the performance of a business, but there is no denying their focus is specialist and narrow in comparison to that of project managers.

A Problem of Perception

The biggest misconception is that project management is merely a technical role. Anyone who has run a project realizes the job is as much about leading people. Unfortunately, project managers can find themselves perpetuating this view, micromanaging the projects they work on. To gain recognition at board level, therefore, project managers must clearly demonstrate skills and abilities beyond technical proficiency, leaving behind the nitty-gritty hands-on work to take a wider more strategic view of the work they do for their employers.

“It’s about people skills and increased business awareness,” Ms. Rex says. “MBA programs in project management help to develop that awareness. They are known to combine the knowledge of how to execute and implement initiatives with a higher strategic overview. That’s a fantastic combination.”

Project managers must seek training that widens their career choices and broadens their perspectives. However, gaining the necessary experience is no mean feat. “Project managers, almost by definition, have a limited career path,” Mr. Friedlander says. “Once you’ve become a project manager, it can seem you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career. Once you’ve started managing projects there is no easy way out of that comfort zone.”

Getting the right experience can be determined as much by your immediate employer and the industry in which you work as it can be by individual determination, says Michael Wörösch, project manager at Ericsson, Lund, Sweden. Business is currently good in IT, telecoms, pharmaceuticals and finance, so organizations in these sectors are more likely to finance appropriate management training. However, management training is among the first cutbacks made when business starts to decline.

At the same time, project managers will find it difficult to receive training opportunities if the company finds them invaluable in their current position, either because they are too specialized or because replacement will cause delays to an on-going project. “If a company is going to lose a one-man working week to training, it will want to make sure it’s going to get a return on that investment,” Mr. Wörösch says.

The Road Ahead

Networking can help you gain valuable career advice and present opportunities to move up the organizational hierarchy. “With middle management positions, a lot can depend on your network,” Mr. Wörösch says. “Once you reach program management level it’s not as important; you just have to prove you can deliver.”

Because Mr. Wörösch estimates only one-third of all jobs actually are advertised, leaving the vast majority filled through word-of-mouth, getting the job you want is not a question of what you know, but of who knows you. “This is also why training is a good idea,” he says. “You have qualifications but your education also gives you a bigger network and greater access to the industry.”

Armed with the right skills and opportunities, the high-flying project manager must demonstrate the ability to stand back from a project and to assess and review the relevance of that project in the context of changing business needs. “You need to be able to demonstrate an understanding of what you’re doing in the context of the business—what impact your work has on a divisional, market or functional basis,” says Anthony Payne, a London, U.K.-based managing consultant with international career transition and organizational firm RightCoutts.


As a project manager ... leadership is important, but you are mainly concerned with the hands-on job of making things happen. When you take on a higher-level position, other people must take care of that and you have to be much more of a leader.

—Petri Sakkinen, Director of Solution Marketing, SSH Communications Security Corp., Helsinki, Finland

 Eyes Wide Open

“Project managers are the metaphor for the new career,” says Barbara Moses, “It means short-term assignments, moving in and out of different work situations, being able to hit the ground running and always responding with adeptness and poise. You’re performing for the present but also marketing for the future.”

Ms. Moses, author of many books, including What Next? The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your Life [Dorling Kindersley, 2003], depicts today’s workplace as one of short-term work, where everyone needs the mindset of a self-employed free agent: performing 100 percent in his or her current role while also looking for the next role and maintaining a fall-back position in case that role does not immediately appear.

Ms. Moses argues the only way to success is to carry out in-depth self-analysis to discover exactly what motivates the individual to work, thereby keying into that motivation to achieve success. “There is pressure on people to move up a career ladder, to say a job is worth more money or is better for your career rather than thinking about what you care about and what gives your life meaning,” she says.

Project managers may be well equipped to take executive roles, but psychologically these roles will not suit everyone. “In senior roles you’re asked to step back—to be more reflective and take a long-term vision,” Ms. Moses says. “You have to ask yourself if you’re going to be happy to be there rather than getting hands-on and getting the job done.”

In What Next?, Ms. Moses profiles eight motivational types according to what inspires the individual:

  • autonomy seekers
  • novelty seekers
  • stability seekers
  • career builders
  • authenticity seekers (work reflects personal values)
  • sociability seekers (work brings contact with other people)
  • lifestylers (those who work to live rather than living to work)
  • personal developers (who regard each new job as a way of mastering a new skill).

“If you’re motivated by novelty, then you want to get your head around something different every six months or so,” she says. “As an executive, that’s not going to happen.”

First, you must take an objective view—Mr. Payne terms it a “retrospective helicopter” perspective—whereby you can use experience to identify the full effect of your projects on the organizational strategy. “In hindsight, it may be that the project you worked on was actually a pilot scheme which was then deployed across the company,” he says. “It may not have been intended as such at the time, but that was the ultimate effect.”

Next, give senior management exactly what they want to read about you in the order they want to read it. “It’s not just about superior performance, but how that superior performance fits with the buying criteria of your future decision maker. You need to show you know your quarry,” Mr. Payne says.

Presentation skills sometimes seem a far cry from—and even irrelevant to—the professional management of projects, but they are crucial for effective management at the senior level. “The way you demonstrate your attitudes and the way you write about yourself is important,” says Mr. Payne, “Because that in itself demonstrates a mindset. It shows you already are capable of applying your ability and skills at an executive level.”images

Simon Kent is a freelance journalist and writer based in London, U.K. He specializes in human resources, training and IT. He has written several career books on a variety of occupations, published in the U.K. by Kogan Page.

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.

<< << MAY 2005



Related Content