Project Management Institute

Finding the theme in your work skills



As organizations get flatter and work assignments become more “projectized,” the traditional career path is becoming increasingly self-defined. When projects finish, the team often disbands and members either return to old jobs (if they remain) or find new ones. That means finding the next assignment is an important part of your current project, and it means you will have a larger and larger role in planning your career.

A key to sustaining employment and professional growth is finding ways to use the same skills in different jobs—and that requires seeing your skills in a broader way. Experience and credentials still count, but you can supplement them by recognizing the themes in your work assignments.

A theme is a term or phrase that uniquely defines you and brings together your skills, past jobs and major accomplishments. A theme can help you sell yourself for the next assignment by setting you apart from other candidates who may follow the traditional approach of presenting only experience and credentials.

Themes provide insight—insight for you as to what you're good at and insights to any prospective employer as to what the job is really about. Employers know job descriptions and credentials fall short of qualifying candidates or else they would never ask the question, “What would your ideal job be?” Next time you get that question, don't say “project manager;” instead use your theme to frame the answer.

To identify the theme (or themes) in your experience, don't look at your job descriptions or accomplishments. Look between the assignment and the result and examine what you did to bridge that gap.

Discovering a Theme

Terry Sheridan graduated from college with a biology degree and started his career in a hospital as a genetics technician but soon became the person that “handled the customer.” His lab co-workers were good at dealing with patients but not so good at dealing with the doctors and nurses that used the lab. “I found myself helping out quite a bit,” he says, because “[the customers] did not understand what we did.”

Doing the same thing repeatedly won't help you grow, and many flatter organizations no longer have a career ladder to direct you.

Sheridan started explaining things. “I told them what we did and why,” he says, explaining the variety of genetic tests available. “A lot of times, we gave them what they asked for—not what they needed.” By probing a bit, he was able to provide more meaningful results in less time. He soon found himself handling the business operations of the lab, spending more time using the computer to prepare financial forecasts and management presentations that explained the benefits of purchasing advanced equipment to expand services and speed results.

Sheridan realized he was no longer a genetics technician. But he was more than the lab manager. He recognized the theme of “translator” in his work and knew that he could succeed where there was a need to move information between two groups. “The hospital found it better for me to be talking to vice presidents and nurses than looking through a microscope,” he says. A few jobs and an MBA later, he has moved from health care to business, where he “translates” system requirements between users and developers of software.

Another Place to Look

Project folks often use the term “managing the white space” to describe the less obvious skills required to get things done. Look there for themes. Negotiating with vendors to get needed equipment or selling a stakeholder on funding additional work are two examples of “white space” skills that could be themes. If you've negotiated some good deals, can you turn that into an assignment with purchasing?

Themes can help you qualify for a job that may exceed your level of education or experience. More companies are adapting a career development model similar to those used by consulting firms, and they want employees to rotate through different assignments and to constantly increase their value to the company. A theme can help you identify positions that favor your success and help you make the case that you can do the job even though the description says it is not a perfect fit.

Success in past jobs is probably the best indicator of what you'll do well in the future. But doing the same thing repeatedly won't help you grow, and many flatter organizations no longer have a career ladder to direct you. These days, you're more likely to move around an organization before moving up. Knowing your theme can help you make the journey easier and more successful. PM


John Sullivan, PMP, is employed with automotive retailing information services provider Reynolds & Reynolds, Dayton, Ohio, USA.

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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