Project Management Institute

The project manager's quest for professional identity


In the shift to increasingly projectized settings, four broad categories of change have affected the context in which Project managers' careers unfold, having direct implications on the nature of their growth, development and professional identities:

  1. The employer/employee relationship
  2. Technology
  3. Organizational structures
  4. Workforce diversity
  5. PM's career context

The employer/employee relationship

In the last decade, many employees have seen their long-term relationship with their employer change. Historically, this understanding, most often referred to as “the psychological contract”, revolved around mutual trust, the expectation of a long-term mutual agreement and more generally helping or supporting each other. For many employees, it now seems to mean more work, more responsibility, less security and less funded training and development. Arnold (1997) sums up the situation stating that “the old unwritten ‘you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours’ employment relationship can never be reinstated” (Arnold, 1997 p.2). In lieu of such a relationship, we now find explicit negotiation between the individual and the organization with specific expectations from both sides. Ongoing monitoring and renegotiation is necessary to ensure that the deal is kept. As organizations have become downsized, delayered and outsourced, career management and professional identity have become the employee's individual responsibility as the label “self development”, often used to describe them, implies.

Because a project is defined as “…a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” (PMI, 2004 section 1.2.1), project managers, by the “temporary” nature of their work, have found themselves at the forefront of these changes and can require substantial assistance in finding threads of vocational identity in the present fractured and discontinuous organizational context of work. On top of the basic changes to this psychological contract, the present context of work also involves more varied sets of expectations in terms of hours, complexity of tasks, diversity of colleagues and forms of employment relationships which all seem to call for an increased need in education and training. Further complexifying the situation is the fact that ongoing development activities now fall under one's self management responsibilities and are seldom supported by the organization for time limited workers. This combination of factors comes at a time when it is more evident than ever that only those with marketable skills and the resources and know-how to maintain them will survive. Others will find themselves in highly insecure and low-paid work if they find work at all (Arnold, 1997).


As Goldstein & Ford (2001) state: “There is a rush toward more highly technological, sophisticated systems”. Advanced manufacturing techniques now enable us to tailor products to customer needs by simply reprogramming “the machine” and experts agree that automation has had its greatest impact on lower level jobs (Wall & Jackson, 1995). At the same time, these increases in technology have required a highly trained workforce able to design and operate such systems and, again, these changes have placed a great deal more responsibility on the individual worker (Thayer, 1997). This becomes even more demanding in the project setting where jobs require teams of workers to coordinate their activities calling for team members not only to know their own job but also the jobs of other team members and this has contributed to moving many work situations from an “industrial” to a “knowledge” oriented context (Drucker,1995). As this author puts it, in an industrial society, the individual worker does not own his/her own tools. In a knowledge society, the individuals carry knowledge both in their head and in their computer, and they transport it from job to job. However, because of rapid changes, the worker must have a continuous learning philosophy to maintain these skills. Consequently, organizations are progressively coming to rediscover that people constitute a critical resource and that a commitment to training and continuous learning has become an essential ingredient for competitive advantage.

Of course, the issues stemming from rapidly changing technologies are too vast to cover in this paper, but one important recurrent theme is the fact that job descriptions for the future emphasize the need for more complex cognitive skills. Increasingly advanced technology has increased the cognitive complexity needed from humans. The simple predictable tasks of the past have been replaced (Howell, & Cooke, 1989). Most project managers are now responsible for inferences, diagnoses, judgment, and decision making, all of which happen under severe time pressure. It is no longer unusual to see obsolescence of individuals who have very recently received advanced training and recent research has shown that an engineer's education now has a half-life of five years, meaning that half of what is learned in school is obsolete five years after graduation (Goldstein & Ford, 2001). This situation further reinforces the idea that only those with marketable skills and the resources and know-how to maintain them will survive.

Organizational structures

While organizations tend to remain relatively positivist and retain Taylorist systems of management they are progressively changing as employers face the impact of intensified global competition. We are witnessing the emergence of new forms of ‘flat’ organizations where production is based on teamwork, multi-skilled employees, shared knowledge and high performance management practices. Goodwin & al. (1999) see the introduction of foreign (largely Japanese) management practices as having provided an important pressure for such organizational change.

Arnold (1997) also reinforces the fact that self-employment, limited-term contracts and part-time work are all symptoms of increasing global competition and as also responsible for an increase in labor flexibility. This author concludes with the fact that people are on average less secure in their jobs and certainly feel more insecure than used to be the case. Many organizations have simply reduced their proportion of people who can be considered core employees (full time on medium or long term contracts) and we have seen an increase of time limited positions such as those in project management. Similarly, project managers have moved from more permanent work settings to time limited contract work.

The last ten years of management literature reflect these changes generally promoting a shift from shareholder to stakeholder approaches. The implications of a flatter organizational structure for the project management discipline have led to the recent developments in portfolio management, programme management, Organizational Project Management Maturity Model Knowledge Foundation (OPM3®), PMOs and PBOs (Thiry & Deguire, 2006) all calling for project managers to expand the scope of their communication skills to upper organizational levels with whom they increasingly need to interact. Projects are more readily linked to strategic organizational goals and this involves ongoing exchange and knowledge of the wider management field. This overall situation does seem to create an ongoing dichotomy as individuals are asked to both further engage with strategic values and goals and are being encouraged to weaken their ‘relational’ ties with organizations and develop careers based on more ‘transactional’ short-term exchanges (Rousseau, 1996). Again, because of the nature of their work, project managers are finding themselves at the crossroads of divergent organizational expectations and again only those with marketable skills and the resources and know-how to expand and maintain them will survive.

Workforce Diversity

It has become common knowledge that the composition of the work-force is changing. The number of men and women are becoming progressively more equal and the average age of the work-force is increasing, furthermore, this workforce is becoming more culturally and ethnically varied. Projections for the future indicate that the impact on human resource management will be greater than ever experienced before (Cascio & Zammuto, 1987). Goldstein and Ford (2001) provide a good summary of these changes, in brief:

  1. Slower growth of the workforce because the number of individuals between 16 and 24 are decreasing. Data further indicates that many newcomers are entering the workforce with inadequate basic skills.
  2. The proportion of white is declining as minority populations increase because of vastly different ages and fertility rates for people of different racial and ethnic groups (Cox & Blake, 1994).
  3. The composition of the workforce now includes a growing number of older workers. Data shows that individuals between 45 and 64 could increase by at least 25% in the coming decades, in the US, it has been estimated that the 50 to 59 year old group could jump from about 15% of the workforce in 2000 to 21% of the workforce in 2010 as social security benefits are delayed and compulsory retirement at certain ages is being declared illegal.
  4. There are also expectations that women will continue to enter the workforce in increasing numbers and that already they are filling approximately two-thirds of the new jobs created.

Generally, for western societies, statistics indicates that women, non-white males, and new immigrants will account for a large part of the growth of the labor force.

PM Professional Identity

Career Choice

Since the beginning of formalized PM in the 50's much emphasis has been put on the Project Manager's ability to plan. From the start, there seems to have been the underlying implicit belief that this basic ability to plan was almost synonymous and essential to the general expectation of competence as a project manager although planning is traditionally considered to be only one of the four major functions of management, along with organizing, leading and coordinating /controlling. In the case of project management however, its importance seems to have been somewhat overemphasized in both literature and practice having considerable spill-over effects on the project manager's overall sense of identity.

With the popularity of the person-environment fit theories of career development since the early 50's which also mark the early days of PM development, seeing oneself as having good planning skills would have been a determinant factor in PM career choice. Being perceived as a good planner would have also determined external recommendations to pursue this career avenue.

The idea of the person-environment fit (or the degree of ‘congruence’ or ‘correspondence’ between workers and their work environments) has been the main framework for understanding occupational choice and decision making over the last century. It was first developed by Frank Parsons, who, in 1908, established his vocational guidance agency in Boston, US. The theory which guided his work consisted of three propositions (Parsons, 1909):

  1. People are different from each other.
  2. So are jobs.
  3. It should be possible, by a study of both, to achieve a match between person and job.

Adding to Parson's existing theories and still widely in use today is Holland's (1997) occupational interest theory. This theory proposes that people seek occupational environments that are congruent with their occupational interests or personalities and this initial thought has further been expanded to include skills and abilities.

The consequences of the popularity of these “content” focused career theories has been an overemphasis on assessing individuals' interests and abilities with the requirements of occupations. Although there has not been convincing supporting evidence from research for content theories, the industrial age was heavily marked with this thought process about career choice and some of the most commonly used instruments in career counselling are occupational interest inventories.

Given its importance, the rational career choice thought process has remained an important trend and has marked people's self assessment when evaluating their own career choice since the early 50s'. This trend would have been an important influence on project managers' self assessment in terms of feeling suitable for the job they needed to accomplish. It can be easily imagined that project managers would have needed to see themselves as “good planners” and have felt a compelling pressure to also be perceived as such by their superiors. Given the evolution of the work context in the last few decades, many project managers may have had growing feelings of dissonance and incompetence when confronted with the difficulty of being able to plan their own careers.

Simply put, one of planning's first steps is “identifying where you want to go” which is also an important theme for career development and most definitions further add: “being concerned with defining goals for the future”. Given these considerations, one can readily imagine that most project managers would have had some idea of the eventual progression of their career through time with considerable discrepancies with what has in fact been the evolution of their career. Although the last decade has put much emphasis on continuing education and development activities for project managers through such educational programs as Professional Development Units, few studies to date have looked at the effects of recent changes in the overall work setting and the evolution of project managers' career paths and professional identities.

The first part of this paper has looked at the rapid changes in the project management context of work that may have created relative discrepancies between where one is and where one wants or wanted to go, we can now ask ourselves: “How are project managers coping with such changes and what have been the consequences in terms of project managers' career paths and professional identities? Although the project management profession is growing rapidly, are project managers feeling on track or derailed?”

Career Path

At the organizational level, Kanter (1989) presents three principal career forms:

  1. Bureaucratic careers – company advancement and progress through a hierarchy
  2. Professional careers – specialization in a particular occupation and increasing knowledge and reputation
  3. Entrepreneurial careers – the capacity to create outputs that are valued by society.

Historically, many project management leaders, now in their late 40's and 50's would have started their careers in the more traditional “bureaucratic” context, some of which were also associated to specific “professional” careers by training. In this more traditional model there is the assumption that an internal labor market typically exists in organizations. Hence, in this model, careers have characteristically been represented as predictable movements up a hierarchy within organizations (Herriot & Pemberton, 1996) and this would have been one of their initial expectations. Although the definition of a project as a “time limited endeavors” was always present, many project managers could have pictured themselves going from project to project within an organization and still following the determined step ladder of a “bureaucratic” career path. It is interesting to note that until recent developments in Portfolio and Program management, this career path would not have been obvious in most organizational settings and the normal progression would have most probably indicated some form of higher management position within different organizational settings. However, past and current literature and practice do not demonstrate such an ongoing dialogue between project managers and the larger management community. A review of the general management literature demonstrates that Project, Project Management (PM) and Project Based Organisation (PBO) do not appear as keywords or in the titles of the Management Consulting or Strategic Management literature and Project management papers are often confined to either the Project Management Journal or the International Project Management Journal which are not usually read by the larger management community (Thiry & al, 2006). Similarly, when questioned, few project managers seem to see themselves as “Managers” and often tend to focus on the difficulties of communicating with upper management levels. An ‘identity’ is communicated to others in our interactions with them, but this is not a fixed status within a person. It is a shifting, temporary construction (Gutting, G., 1994) partially determined by language and vocabulary. Keegan and Turner (2001) also state that language itself would appear to be a strong barrier to communication for managers at large and more particularly for project managers.

Referring back to Kanter's three career modes, given the present context of work combined with the time-limited nature of their work, project managers would have moved more rapidly to an “entrepreneurial” mode than was the case for most of the workforce and this rapid change may have created high levels of dissonance between their initial expectations and where they are presently on the career ladder. All things being equal, with workers between 45 and 64 increasing by at least 25% in the coming decades, this would have been a determinant factor influencing the professional identity of those who are presently mid to late career project managers. This effect would most probably have an important carry over to the professional identities of the newer generation of project managers as these more mature professionals often serve as role models and are looked upon as “leaders” in their profession.

Although career counseling often focuses mainly on newcomers to the workforce, adaptation to the newer circumstances of work would be relatively straightforward for this group as general expectations toward career management is changing over time. Similarly, the discrepancies in identity and ability and skills have been relatively continuous for project managers who started their own businesses relatively early on in their career path. It is mainly for mid and late career project managers with strong organizational alliance in their earlier career paths that the problematic issue of transition from medium and long term employment to ‘portfolio’ working would be the most difficult. This transitional career issue has been investigated by Cohen and Mallon (1999) who have shown in a recent study that portfolio workers seem to have difficulty' rewriting' their views about work. Because of the newness of their self-employed status, many reverted to judging themselves by the norms of organizational careers. Given this, mid-career project managers may perceive themselves more negatively if they are judging themselves with traditional norms that do not correspond to the newer context of their work situation.

Project managers now need to develop new models of organizational careers as a sequence of renegotiations of psychological contracts based both on a perceived match between one's own wants and what the other has to offer; and on an exchange of promised offers. Herriot and Pemberton (1996) argued that a model of organizational careers now needs to be contextualized, interactive, subjective, process-based, tolerant and cyclical. These authors propose a set of excellent guidelines for project managers to refer to. Equally interesting is Handy's (1994) idea of the portfolio career, seeing the benefit of thinking of life, not as a twofold work and leisure process, but as an integrated portfolio of activities some done for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, and some for a cause. He states that preparing workers for the independence and interdependence that this new work ethic requires is a challenge for adult, career, and vocational educators, an area that is still under researched and misunderstood in the project management field.

The concept of reciprocity is definitely a key concept to understanding how careers develop and can best be understood in interactive terms, taking into account the relationship of the individual with the social and organizational context. Each job experience can be viewed in terms of processes of social exchange – with the organization, with managers, and with co-workers. Kanter's work even suggests that we can go one step further and that individual careers influence not only employing organizations but that they also influence the broader social and institutional context, which in turn influence individual careers.

Applications & Conclusions

To date, research has concentrated mainly on the career issues of younger adults and adolescents often ignoring the career difficulties of more mature adults. However, as stated by Simon & Osipow (1996), the features of our employed lives, roles, status, relationships, compensation, and security seem to have been redefined and no group will need to respond more fully, with less preparation, than the large cohort of white-collar, professional and managerial workers entering their late 40s and early 50s (an important sub group of our project management professionals). These mature adults, who are generally aware of their interests and abilities as a result of a lifetime of living with them (or without them), do not usually need the confirmation of aptitudes and interests, however, in the present work situation, finding threads of vocational identity in the seemingly fractured and discontinuous work they may find themselves doing in lieu of what they may have imagined can be problematic.

One such important point is the potential continuity that can be found in major career changes occurring in midlife. For these project managers, becoming aware of their personal vocational script can be enfranchising as it can describe how they have responded to work activities and routines, varying levels of status, role complexity, and compensation and how they have functioned in work relationships (Simon, & Osipow, 1996). Establishing a “sense of vocation” (Cochran, 1990), that is, an adaptability to define a vocational identity within one's history of life events and work pursuits, could help them address these issues. A vocational script is a person's unique characterization of vocational identity independent of specific jobs, positions, and careers.

For both the more mature and younger generations of project managers, one of the more important development tools that could also be lost in the recent shuffle of organizational and societal change is the role of mentoring that was common in more traditional settings. This could have more particular effects on the newcomers to the profession as mentoring was traditionally seen as the “developmental assistance provided by a more senior individual within a protégé's organization…” (Higgins & al., 2001). However, this researcher has now begun to revisit the proposition, and suggests that individuals rely upon, not just one, but multiple individuals for developmental support in their careers and more recently, the concept of “relationship constellations” has been gaining territory. This new outlook on the overall mentoring process seems better adapted to new work situations in which relationships are varied and not frequently determined by a top-down internal organizational model. This could partly explain the recent growth of such professional organizations such as PMI that foster networking situations that are no longer attached to one specific organizational context. Further, research has started pointing out the developmental benefits to the mentor of the mentoring relationship (Kram, 1985), but until very recently, much of the research had focused mainly on the benefits to the protégé. A mentor is perhaps one of the most complex and developmentally important relationships and in most cases, the mentor is still expected to be several years older, a person of greater experience and seniority, a teacher, adviser or sponsor” (Levinson & al., 1978). To this date, only a few studies have been devoted to such subjects as the importance of peer relationships or alternate routes to mentoring such as lateral relationships and mentoring circles (Kram & al., 1985; Kram & al., 1996).

In conclusion, many authors now put a great deal of emphasis on the fact that practitioners need to clarify the value of relational skills and address the issue of work-life integration. This aspect involves the management of both self and career since the new career is a continuous learning process, the person must learn how to develop self-knowledge and adaptability. As clearly stated by Hall (1996), adaptability and identity learning cannot be performed alone, they require connection and interactions with other people: “By enlisting the help of others, a person is essentially leveraging his own personal resources, and in the process is probably also helping the others, as well”.


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©2007 Manon Deguire
Originally published as part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Budapest, Hungary



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