Project Management Institute

Keep your options open

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Switching sectors may offer a way out for project managers battered by the economy—but they need to be prepared.

BY CLARE CURLEY

Project managers seemed fairly safe when the employment meltdown began. But like everyone else, the layoffs started coming, with certain sectors being hit harder than others. And that prompted many project managers to venture into new territory.

Sure, the competition can be brutal, but project managers can make the jump to another sector—if they learn how to position themselves.

“It’s all about perception,” says Michael Hides, Ph.D., a Manchester, England-based senior consultant at Arras People, a program and project management recruitment agency. “The way people present themselves almost biases employers for or against candidates before they’ve even started.”

And it all begins with the résumé.

Rather than simply listing job duties and descriptions, Dr. Hides urges job hunters to highlight skills and accomplishments. For starters, a top line that reads “IT Project Manager” is not the same as selling yourself as a project manager with IT-specific experience. The first option may be fine for people staying within IT, but for someone interested in swapping sectors, it could prove to be a professional pigeonhole.

At the same time, project managers should also learn to market the skills they possess that an industry insider may lack. “The benefit of this is that companies get a fresh perspective that often far outweighs the learning curve,” Dr. Hides explains.

SHOW AND TELL

Project managers may be tempted to rattle off a list of daily job duties, but they should keep the focus on accomplishments.

“What I would like to know is an example of an achievement,” Dr. Hides says. Discussing how you managed a US$10 million, yearlong project, for instance, proves you can handle a complex, large-scale initiative.

“Employers don’t want to know what you know, they want to know what you’ve done—gross dollars you earned the company with benefits realization and all of the risks you managed, and how you managed them and what was the outcome,” says Stacy Goff, PMP, president of ProjectExperts, a project management consulting company in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.

If possible, the examples should demonstrate a range of projects of increasing size, complexity and authority.

For veterans with many years of experience in the same industry, it may be difficult to choose which projects to highlight. Mr. Goff suggests they align their experience with performance criteria from the Project Management Competency Development Framework— Second Edition [Project Management Institute, 2007].

VIVE LA DIFFÉRENCE

Charles Simpson walked into his interview at animal superstore chain Petco Animal Supplies Inc. with no retail experience. He had been working as a senior project manager at CheckFree Software when the company announced plans to close the office where he worked.

The old position was a far cry from the Petco position, which required the creation of the retailer’s first enterprise project management office, but Mr. Simpson played up his leadership skills.

“Getting people to work together effectively is often half the battle,” says

Mr. Simpson, now business project manager at Petco in San Diego, California, USA. “My boss was looking for those personality types he knew he could send into board meetings.”

To communicate his professional strengths, Mr. Simpson focused his résumé less on individual projects and more on team building, communication and leadership—qualities that transcended the financial sector where he’d been working. And he made sure to discuss his experience managing the multimillion dollar platform installations that were in danger of failure until he stepped in and pulled things back together.

It worked.

“I think it is becoming increasingly understood that project management skills are portable,” he says.

Still, companies can afford to be more selective these days, Dr. Hides says, so they’re taking the time to look for someone whose experience best matches the job requirements.

And that means project managers who want to switch sectors should do their homework.

Vera Gawlick, PMP, project manager at Centris AG in Solothurn, Switzerland, has changed industries four times in a little more than a decade, shifting from software development, engineering and IT outsourcing in the industrial sector until landing her current job in health insurance.

“Every time I decided to change to another industry, I gathered as much information as possible on the industry and company,” she says. “I tried to find out what culture and philosophy they had, their strengths and weaknesses, and what kind of projects they were doing or planning.”

But project managers need to set realistic expectations, too. Because some professional experiences and skill sets are more transferable than others, they should be up front about their limitations.

TIP Don’t be afraid to talk about challenges— as long as you resolved them. In virtually every sector, the ability to mitigate risk is a highly sought-after skill, so project managers should be ready to capitalize on the good as well as the bad. “Examples of how you turned around a project that was struggling—that’s the biggest thing you would highlight,” says Stacy Goff, PMP, ProjectExperts, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.

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TIP Forget the traditional corporate ladder.

It’s long gone. These days, it’s more of a lattice in which professionals often move sideways—or even downward—instead of the steady upward progression, says Peter James Gilliland, PMP, director and principal consultant at ePM Training Services LLP, Singapore.

And smart project managers can even position their hopping from sector to sector as a plus, he argues. People who migrate between different industries often adapt more easily than those who have spent years in the same sector.

“It’s especially hard for IT project managers because they tend not to have the authority and decision-making power over their projects,” Mr. Goff says. That might make it difficult for them to move into construction, for example, where project managers tend to be involved from beginning to end. And a project manager in construction who’s accustomed to a higher level of authority might find a more limited role stifling.

“People need to stay true to who they are and what they are interested in,” says Mr. Simpson. “I had a brief stint in the auto insurance industry. It was a great position and it paid the bills, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t find the passion.”

TAKING THE PLUNGE

Only after securing that golden opportunity do project managers often realize what they’re up against. Not only do they have to learn a whole new set of industry specifics, they’re also dealing with a completely different business culture.

Ms. Gawlick encourages project managers to take a proactive approach. “Do not fear losing authority by asking questions because this is a sign of real interest,” she says.

Project managers should also realize it can take months to get up to speed. And grasping the new culture is as important as understanding the company’s offerings. To streamline the process of assimilation, set up meetings with individual team leads, or find people both within and outside the organization who can deepen your understanding of the industry, products or services.

When Peter Capani, PMP, jumped from IT to chemical and gas manufacturing three years ago, he developed a roadmap to help him get better acquainted with his new field.

“Ensure that you form alliances with people you can trust to help with the difficult people skills,” says Mr. Capani, now principal at his Fort Worth, Texas, USA-based independent consulting firm.

Industry insiders can help you learn the lingo. Service offerings, annual reports and the company’s Intranet site are also good sources of information for newcomers.

No matter how well prepared you are going in, making mistakes is par for the course when starting a new job—especially in a new sector. To safeguard against crippling errors while you’re adapting to your new post, Mr. Capani suggests having a stakeholder do a “sanity check” on timelines, schedules and other milestones before they’re published.

“You may be humbled, even embarrassed, by your lack of knowledge of the new industry,” he says. “As long as your project is moving forward and you’re making every reasonable effort to identify and mitigate risks, you are doing your job.”

And soon enough, you’ll be the grizzled veteran who knows it all. PM

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 SEPTEMBER 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG

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