Project Management Institute

The next step

looking to make a big career change? Here's what it will take

By Lindsay Scott

One day I'd like to move from being a project manager to a program manager. What development steps should I be thinking about to make that happen?

I see program management as one step removed from hands-on project control and delivery. Program managers need a greater understanding of business strategy and execution in order to achieve the desired benefits of the program while ensuring the associated projects remain aligned to the evolving business needs.

All of the communication, relationship building and people management of project management are augmented in program management. There are relationships with executives, peers, project managers, program management offices, stakeholders and so on. The transition can be interesting in the early days. Being able to step back from the day-to-day details of projects and learn how to manage project managers is a master class in all those soft skills—asking the right questions, building trust, adjusting to the dynamics of a new role, etc.—you've acquired over the years.

The transition to program manager needs to include time spent as a senior project manager. It is imperative that you gain experience on large, risky or complex projects, because this experience will be crucial when managing a program of work. Working as a senior project manager should also expose you to a wide range of projects, and having this breadth of experience is what really counts when you're overseeing the delivery of a program.

As you plan your transition, you must also include technical program management training to ensure you understand current best practices. Specific training should center on, for example, how to set up the program infrastructure (including governance arrangements), how benefits management works and how to manage interdependencies and resource management across the program.


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Finally, becoming a program manager largely will depend on your current organization. It is very rare to leave one organization as a project manager and start somewhere else as a program manager. Organizations tend to promote from within; program management requires insight to that particular organization, so who better to take the role than an existing employee? If your organization does not currently run programs, now might be the time to seek out a more senior project manager role with an organization that does.

I've been away from the working world for two years with a serious illness. I'm recovered now, but I'm finding it difficult to get back into a project manager role. Any advice?

It's about finding the right match for where you are in your life. You might want to immediately get back into a role like the one you used to have. That will happen eventually, but the first step back into the working world doesn't have to be at that level. You might find it easier to start slow in a position where you know you can excel. For example, consider supporting roles in project management like assistant to the project manager. Find a role that you're comfortable with and in six months to a year, re-evaluate if you're ready for a bigger challenge. It's always easier to find a new job when you have one, so you'll be in a much better position to go for the roles you think you should be doing. You also could consider short-term roles rather than holding out for a permanent position.


Make it clear on your résumé about your period of illness. Being upfront and transparent is better than being vague about your period of unemployment. There are organizations out there that won't see that gap as a barrier. Many people have career gaps in their working life for all sorts of reasons. You're looking for the kind of organizations that understand that. It can sometimes take longer to find one, but it will be worth the wait.

I've come to a point in my career when I think it's time to try working for myself. Any advice for making the transition?

First, be clear about what you can offer to the marketplace and how you can bring that to future clients. This tends to be based on your experience and what business challenges you can solve. Being able to decisively communicate the value you offer as a project manager is crucial to making it on your own.

Second, you need to decide whether you should contract or consult. Pursuing the consultant route will mean you have to build and maintain your intellectual property—your toolkit of tried and tested documents, templates, tools, processes and techniques—because it's what organizations are paying you for. This position is much more visible within an organization, and you could be working multiple assignments at once, as consulting engagements rarely require full-time commitment. Compensation can vary—some engagements pay based on results, others pay a day rate. Consulting may be more difficult, but the rewards can be great as you build a sustainable business.

It is imperative that you gain experience on large, risky or complex projects, because this experience will be crucial when managing a program of work.

On the other hand, contracting is much easier to get started in. Contract project manager roles are widely advertised, so if you have experience in an area that is popular with lots of organizations, it will be easier to get things up and running. You'll be working five days a week, charging a day rate, concentrating on delivering a single assignment and then moving on to the next job.

Whatever method you choose, you will still need to attend to small business matters. It can be easy to neglect the actual running of your business—getting invoices paid, marketing for future opportunities, paying taxes, setting up insurances, etc.—when you are out there delivering your services. And you need time to start your new venture, which will mean no income for a while. This can make people hesitant to start out on their own, so it's worth thinking about what nest egg (three to six months’ salary) you may need to make you feel comfortable and confident in getting started. PM

img Lindsay Scott is the director of program and project management recruitment at Arras People in London, England.

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