The Project Manager's Starter Kit
It's Time for Young and Aspiring Project Professionals to Take Their Shot
BY ASHLEY BISHEL | ILLUSTRATION BY BIN SALIDA
Building Cred Across the Org Chart
Finding Your People
Built to Last
Equipped for the Future
Building Cred Across the Org Chart
Demonstrate skill to earn trust and reduce rookie mistakes.
Rare is the role that puts a fresh-faced graduate in direct contact with senior-level executives within months of starting at an organization, or asks someone with only a year of experience to generate buy-in from team members with decades of tenure. Yet being a project manager often means just that: interacting with team members up and down the org chart, and being able to command respect and stoke collaboration from day one.
Six project professionals share how they hit the ground running and overcame challenges:
Shweta Brahmakshatriya, CAPM, head of client relations, Translate By Humans, Gujarat, India
Martin Kaih Kasanga, PMP, senior electrical engineer, Ghana Grid Co., Tema, Ghana
Thabang Molefe, CAPM, project manager, SHL, Johannesburg, South Africa
Justin Fraser, PMP, project manager and founder, 88 Real Estate Capital, Milltown, New Jersey, USA
Amulya Gupta Makam, CAPM, project manager, PMI Global Executive Council member Microsoft, Hyderabad, India
James Baker, project manager and strategy consultant, Ars Imperatoria Consulting, Tasmania, Australia
Is there an intimidation factor to overcome when you're suddenly working with senior people?
Ms. Brahmakshatriya: Oh, absolutely. My first project was creating an internal tracker that would publish weekly reports for all ongoing projects. I was the youngest team member by far, and I was scared to put forth suggestions. Just a couple of months before, I'd been working under those senior team members as a developer—and suddenly I was the one responsible for this project.
Mr. Kasanga: I think that's a really common experience. I remember when I was first tasked with managing some contracts. At the time, I had just three total years of experience in electrical engineering—and only a year in project management. Some team members had 20 years more experience than me in the field. It was very overwhelming, because I wasn't sure whether my views would be taken seriously, particularly in my country's environment where older generations are so respected.
How do you push past that intimidation and quickly gain credibility?
Ms. Makam: It helps to remember that you're on the team in a particular role—and you have training for that new role. When I first moved into a project management position, I didn't feel as intimidated because I'd focus on my training and the support I had from my superiors at work.
—Amulya Gupta Makam, CAPM
Mr. Kasanga: Gaining credibility starts with the right approach. I quickly found that even the most experienced people were willing to share their knowledge if I showed a willingness to learn. So I didn't hold back when it came to involving senior people in the decision-making process or asking questions they'd be able to answer from institutional memory. And, of course, any time I wanted to present a new idea, I made sure that I had researched the subject thoroughly. It was a bit of a balancing act—doing the research to gather as many facts as I could and then not being afraid to approach senior managers with questions and ideas.
—Martin Kaih Kasanga, PMP
Ms. Makam: When you're starting out, you have to be so meticulous and really take the time to do that research well. I felt like I couldn't afford to make silly mistakes, because that's the quickest way to lose trust and credibility with the team. People get wiser with experience, and before you have that experience you really need to put the extra time into preparation, especially when interacting with senior people.
Mr. Fraser: It also helps to have someone on your team vouch for you, because that person's credibility can extend to you. Early on, I had a situation with a team member who absolutely thought he had the right approach and wanted to do a bunch of work that would have pulled the project out of scope. When I pointed that out, I was dismissed. So I went to another senior team member and asked if I was missing something. That senior person said I was right, and he approached his peer. The next day, the guy giving me a hard time came up to me and changed his mind. So I was able to keep the project in scope by using someone with more credibility.
Ms. Molefe: When I managed a team of extremely seasoned people, there was one particular team member who'd been at the organization for eight years who just did not see the point of dealing with a junior person. So I reached out to him to set up a coffee chat. I asked him, “How can I make it easier for you to do your job?” The relationship changed in that moment. I shared some of my background, and he was excited to hear I was an engineer like him. He told me he appreciated that I had reached out proactively. He was always willing to go the extra mile for me after that.
What early missteps made you wiser?
Mr. Fraser: I remember one project meeting in particular in which I encountered pushback. I thought I had to be super rigid and act more experienced, so I adopted this confidence that came off as aggressive. Someone mentioned it in my first performance review, that I had an attitude. But rather than feel embarrassed, I talked it out with my manager. I tried to adopt a more collaborative approach from then on.
Mr. Baker: That applies to junior levels too, of course. I once gave a client presentation in which I thought one of the client's engineers—who was roughly the same level as me—was trying to raise his reputation at the expense of my company. So, during the presentation, I outlined all of the ways he was wrong, and in doing so, showed his managers his technical limitations. It was convincing, but what I forgot in the moment is that I'd have to keep working with him after that meeting. It's easy to focus entirely on senior leaders, but often more junior people hold significant power and influence in their specific area. Managing that project was significantly more difficult after that meeting.
Gaining an Edge
Knowledge is power—whether you're trying to break into a first project management gig, figure out if the role is a good fit or simply sharpen skills on the job.
PMI's free, all-in-one platform PM Edge™ offers bite-size videos, actionable reads and handy flashcards to build, flex and demonstrate project management know-how. (An optional exam also provides a chance to earn a badge to impress managers or would-be bosses.) The platform covers:
Project management approaches
Learn from the couch, during a commute or whenever free time allows, at edge.pmi.org.
What dynamics shift when you start managing team members who are similar in age?
Ms. Molefe: I'm personally quite consistent in my approach. You find people my age or generation who are far more mature than those who are older, and those who are less so. I'm all about tailoring my communication style to the individual I'm dealing with at the time.
Mr. Fraser: During the second year of an internship, the company put me in charge of the newer interns, web developers and designers who were essentially my peers. I got less pushback managing my age group than from team members who had been there for 10 or 15 years. When you're 20 years old and you're managing 20-year-olds, there tends to be a natural “we're in this together” mentality.
Mr. Baker: What's striking, though, is that everyone being at the start of his or her career can stoke this sense of competition. More experienced team members are already farther along the career path or know exactly which opportunities they are looking for to advance. When you're managing new peers, there can be this sense that it's a competition to prove yourself. I don't think you have to dramatically change how you approach team management, but I think it's definitely something to be aware of. PM
What Do You Wish You'd Known at the Start of Your Career?
“Be more patient. Like a lot of millennials, I had unrealistic expectations—like being CEO by 30 years old. But developing your network and technical skills and street cred takes time. If you play the long game, you'll avoid a lot of headaches.”
—Akshat Prasad, PMP, president, Capitol Management Consulting Services Inc., Washington, D.C., USA
“The role of project manager is so diverse and varied. It's important to realize early on that you'll have to wear multiple hats and be ready for challenges.”
—Prakriti Singh, digital and innovation lead, GSK, Mumbai, India
“Don't wait to build your network. I wish I'd started sharing my ideas with fellow project managers sooner. It's amazing what you learn and discover, just from hearing other people's stories and ways of working.”
—Thabang Molefe, CAPM, project manager, SHL, Johannesburg, South Africa
Finding Your People
A close professional network means knowing where to look.
What Do You Wish You'd Known at the Start of Your Career?
“Always remember that being the project manager doesn't make you the most important person on the project. You're one member of a team, and each person has an important role to play. That should be reflected in how you interact with your team.”
—James Baker, project manager and strategy consultant, Ars Imperatoria Consulting, Tasmania, Australia
“Delegate and designate. You can't do everything single-handedly, and the success of any project depends on the entire team contributing.”
—Martin Kaih Kasanga, PMP, senior electrical engineer, Ghana Grid Co., Tema, Ghana
“When you seek out someone for career advice, do your homework ahead of time on where they've worked. That way, you can have a solid two-way conversation and really build a relationship.”
—Jaspreet Dol, CAPM, scrum master, DXC Technology, Manila, the Philippines
Built to Last
Balance foundation-building skills with a horizon-scanning mindset.
PORTRAITS BY DANIEL BOUD
Riaan Husselmann, New South Wales Electoral Commission, Sydney, Australia
CEOs can't sleep at night. More than one-third of executives consider a lack of key skills a top business threat, according to PwC's 2019 Annual Global CEO Survey. Yet those worries signal a massive opportunity for new project talent looking to build sought-after skills to get the job done. Project professionals who develop a skill set for the here and now while following trends that might impact the profession will be primed to excel in an ever-changing business environment.
“Project management is a continually evolving profession,” says Barry Draskovich, PMP, vice president of program and contract management, Parker Aerospace, Irvine, California, USA. “And as best practices evolve, we practitioners must evolve too.”
—Barry Draskovich, PMP, Parker Aerospace, Irvine, California, USA
PROJECT MANAGEMENT PROWESS
Budget control. Schedule management. Risk management. Work breakdown structures. There's a reason newbie talent should start with the basic tenets of project management—they work, says Riaan Husselmann, director, enterprise portfolio management office, New South Wales Electoral Commission, Sydney, Australia. “Quite often, new project managers don't take the time to establish solid foundations in all of the project management disciplines,” he says. “But then when they move onto larger projects, they quickly run into issues that could have been avoided with a stronger foundation—say, scope management or scheduling.”
My undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering, and when I applied to Microsoft, I thought I would work as an engineer. But one of my interviewers happened to be a project manager, and she shared her work experience and the different aspects she loved about project management. It sounded exciting, fun and challenging. And when I found out they were looking to hire for this project management role, I was ecstatic.
Once I was in the role, I was really drawn into the team-centric nature of the work. I realized I loved seeing how the individual strengths of our team members can come together to create a superstar team.
—Jackie Shao, CAPM, Microsoft, Chicago, Illinois, USA
I've probably learned the most supporting a senior project manager, who happened to be my mentor. It was an intense project. We managed the team through meetings and tasks during the day, and then sent a daily status update to the 50-plus stakeholders each night, often just before 1 a.m. I did everything and anything the senior project manager requested from me, and I was able to observe and learn from her strong communication and project management style.
I've learned that your role can be what you make of it. Having a mentor who inspires you—and teammates who are willing to share feedback—makes all the difference. Lean in, take initiative and always be willing to learn from those around you. —Jackie Shao, CAPM, project manager, PMI Global Executive Council member Microsoft, Chicago, Illinois, USA
How to Build It: Taking a comprehensive project management course or sitting for a certification exam, such as PMI's Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® or Project Management Professional (PMP)®, are proven ways to build a skills arsenal.
But even lesser time commitments can make a difference. PMI recently rolled out PM Edge™, a free, all-in-one platform to learn project management. Users can watch how-to videos, read actionable articles and quiz themselves to ensure comprehension—on topics ranging from meetings to risk management. (Visit edge.pmi.org for more info.)
What Do You Wish You'd Known at the Start of Your Career?
“Youth shouldn't deter you from stepping up or advocating for yourself. Early on, I would wait for people to let me take the reins. But I quickly learned that I'd get more responsibility only by advocating for it. I didn't have to wait to get a certain job title in order to get valuable experience.”
—Grace Young, CAPM, PMP, software project manager, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
“I think there's a natural tendency to want to focus purely on the project work and neglect interpersonal relations. But it's important to understand that every team member—including the project manager—brings their own ideas and experiences and background to the project. Sometimes that can create tension—and ignoring it makes leading a team very difficult.”
—Rethabile Thaba, PMP, project manager, Black Tower Consulting Group, Pretoria, South Africa
One of the hardest things to master initially, Mr. Husselmann says, is pairing a particular skill with the current context and situation. Having a broad and firm foundation helps. “If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem will look like a nail,” he says. “But with a variety of basic tools, it's easier to understand when it's best to apply each.”
—Riaan Husselmann, New South Wales Electoral Commission, Sydney, Australia
During university, I applied for an internship at an IT company, which ended up in a full-time job after three months. I was initially aiming for a developer position, but my boss told me my skills were more aligned to be a project manager.
I was also drawn to the role: When you're a project manager, you see the results of your work on clients and the business firsthand. You have the chance to serve in a leadership role, motivating the team and helping them achieve more than they thought possible. Finally, visibility into both the business and tech side of things gives you a chance to see how they function together, and I appreciated that big-picture view.
In the beginning, I took a lot of project management courses online. I studied for the CAPM® exam, and I got my certification. I also joined local project management communities to stay on top of trends and practices in other companies. Getting involved in the community proved invaluable, because it really opened my eyes to what's in demand in the job market. By changing companies, I learned more in shorter time periods and was able to really accelerate my career growth from the start. Now, I tell younger project managers: Set personal career goals, regularly assess them and knock them down. If you feel like you're not growing at your company, feel free to look outside the organization. —Jaspreet Dol, CAPM, scrum master, DXC Technology, Manila, the Philippines
—Jaspreet Dol, CAPM, DXC Technology, Manila, the Philippines
The project finished on time, on budget and within scope? Don't celebrate just yet. Project managers today must be able to connect the dots between why a project is happening (its strategic value to the organization) and whether its intended value was delivered (whether benefits were realized). “Execution is still at the core, of course, but this role increasingly demands business acumen and a sense of strategy,” says Mr. Draskovich.
That doesn't mean defining the organization's strategy, of course—that happens in the C-suite, often with input from department leaders. But project managers must develop a keen sense of how a particular initiative aligns with that strategic goal, so when misalignment takes place they can flag it swiftly.
“What I've seen change dramatically in the last five to 10 years has been the project manager's proximity to the identification and development of the correct projects to achieve strategic objectives,” says Emmanuel Tackie, PMP, PgMP, managing partner, Impact Tactics, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “That means project managers who want to thrive in their roles and in their careers must possess increased business acumen, be able to engage earlier in strategy discussions, and have a solid understanding of the role innovation and technology play in advancing the organization.”
—Emmanuel Tackie, PMP, PgMP, Impact Tactics, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
How to Build It: As tempting as it is to sprint out of the gate with a new project, slow down at the start, says Mr. Husselmann. It's imperative that the newer project manager truly understand the project charter, including how the project's success will drive the organization's larger goals. If that's not spelled out in the charter, meet with the project sponsor or project management office to make sure that question is covered.
And, in terms of success, make it a habit now to look beyond schedule, budget and scope to the larger business value that will fully define an initiative's success. “Organizations are challenged to find A-player project managers who can actively take part in strategic conversations and act as trusted advisers,” says Mr. Tackie. Being proactive—in both asking business and strategic questions and establishing metrics to ensure those outcomes are tracked—can set someone apart from the pack.
“Most people think leadership skills cannot be taught, but they can be taught, and leadership is one of the most important core skills for a project manager,” says Deepa Kalangi, PMP, senior program manager, TollPlus, Portland, Oregon, USA. Consider the delicate tension that many project managers find themselves in: tasked with motivating, engaging and holding a team accountable yet often not having any direct authority over those same team members. Leadership is the make-or-break skill that can bridge the gap.
What Do You Wish You'd Known at the Start of Your Career?
“Realize that project management is both an art and a science. I initially thought project management was simply following processes and applying a lot of rules. But it's also how you deal with people and work creatively and collaboratively to get things done.”
—Amulya Gupta Makam, CAPM, project manager, Microsoft, Hyderabad, India
“Chase the experience, not the title. Especially if you're at an organization that's not project-centric, you might be using project management day in and day out and not have the title. It's the work that matters.”
—Ariel Fromstein, PMP, bids and proposals manager, North America, Hays, Tampa, Florida, USA
“Take a pause before responding to senior stakeholders. It's tempting, sometimes, to jump directly to conclusions, but that pause gives you time to really understand their perspective and consider your response.”
—Shweta Brahmakshatriya, CAPM, head of client relations, Translate By Humans, Gujarat, India
“And because leadership skills can feel more elusive, a project manager who has leadership skills is often in higher demand than one who possesses only technical skills,” says Ms. Kalangi.
How to Build It: Being a leader means more than simply being in charge of the meeting agenda or the project's work breakdown structure, says Luis Llaque, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, project management office business improvement specialist, Newmont Goldcorp Co., Lima, Peru. That's a very transactional take on the leadership role—essentially monitoring or waiting on subordinates to complete tasks.
“To build true leadership skills, you need to move from a transactional mindset to one that's more transformational,” he says. “That means carving out the time to look at the big picture, to tackle complexity head-on, to be agile when necessary.”
—Luis Llaque, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, Newmont Goldcorp Co., Lima, Peru
Both finding a mentor and working on a wider variety of projects can be effective ways to stretch this skill, he says. But also pay close attention to effective leadership in action. Whether it's escalating a project issue or rallying a team, take the time to understand what forethought and approach another leader used to fuel the intended outcome, and see if those same muscles can be flexed in future work.
Mr. Draskovich is also a fan of prioritizing team cohesion early in the project. Knowing the team and how members interact, in short, make it easier to lead the team. “I don't think any of us—no matter how much experience we have—can overlook how important team communication is,” he says. “Without it, you can't know which tools the team prefers, how they best operate, where their skills and interests lie.” Build that team-building time into the project's earliest days, and leading will likely become easier as the project unfolds.
Eighty-five percent of CEOs report that artificial intelligence (AI) will significantly change the way they do business in the next five years, and close to two-thirds see it as bigger than the internet.
“For project managers, there are two types of structures on the AI front: organizations that are running their businesses through AI technology, and organizations that are using AI-enhanced robust project management tools for cost estimations, scheduling and reporting,” says Ms. Kalangi. Even a field that might seem AI-resistant at first could find its project talent using AI tools in the not-so-distant future.
Yet AI is hardly the only technology poised to reshape how work gets done. Additive manufacturing, robotics and the internet of things are other examples of emerging tech that are steadily infiltrating every sector and industry, Mr. Draskovich says. “It's critical to stay on top of the latest trends and lean into acquiring those new skills, because without them it's easy to get left behind,” he says.
—Barry Draskovich, PMP
How to Build It: There was a time when emotional intelligence among leaders was a novel concept at organizations. Now it's table stakes. The same may soon be true of what PMI has identified as PMTQ, or the Project Management Technology Quotient. The Future of Work: Leading the Way With PMTQ identifies “always-on curiosity”—such as regularly trying out new delivery approaches and new technologies—as one of the defining factors separating those with high PMTQ from those without.
It's hard to know exactly which technical skills to focus on, but that matters less than an interest and willingness to try to learn them, says Mr. Draskovich. “And the great thing about the future is that training and access to information are evolving just as rapidly as the need for these skills,” he says.
Organizations might host workshops and trainings or offer stipends to send project talent to relevant technology conferences and development trainings. But even without organizational support, staying curious and invested in emerging technologies is easier than it's ever been before. Two available options: online courses or combing LinkedIn to find an interest group that's specific to the sought-after tech skill. “There really is no excuse,” Mr. Draskovich says. “The information is at your fingertips, if you look for it.” PM
I was a junior in college when I first started out in the corporate world, working as an implementation specialist. About three months into the job, I received a call from the company's director of project management and client implementation. She told me she had to nominate a candidate from every office to be part of the project management office team, and she wanted to nominate me. I was really honored, and I started to research what exactly a project manager does.
Not long after, I ran into a former customer, and he casually asked what I wanted to do in the future. I realized it was my opportunity to speak up, that I wanted to be a project manager. I followed up by sending him my résumé, and he helped set me up with an interview at Virtusa. They offered me a project coordinator position, which meant working with project managers, sitting in financial meetings, creating status reports. I loved the work.
A year later, a recruiter reached out through LinkedIn about an open project coordinator position at United Technologies, one of the largest in the aerospace field. When I interviewed, they offered me a contract position in the project management office-cybersecurity department. With cybersecurity being such a tough field to get into, the opportunity felt like a no-brainer. Even in a contract role, it was a chance for me to get my foot in the door. Two months in, I was hired as a junior project manager, and now this is my career. —Wendy Yang, United Technologies Corp., Farmington, Connecticut, USA
—Wendy Yang, United Technologies Corp., Farmington, Connecticut, USA
My first career-defining job was as a systems engineer at a large IT company. When there was an issue that needed to be resolved, I would be assigned service requests. I started receiving regular requests from the project manager, who told me that she was impressed by my ability to communicate. Engineers sometimes want to move through their tasks and can assume it's someone else's job to communicate progress on the tasks they have been assigned. She pointed out that, as a good communicator, I would thrive in project management.
When a project coordinator position opened up, I was looking for a change in environment, so I accepted. To be honest I wasn't really sold at first, from my research on what project managers do. It took working on a project firsthand for my love of the profession to take root, and I have not looked back since.
On the first big project where I reported to a project manager, I watched this lady work her magic and move mountains every day, and I thought, “This is what I want to do; I want to make things happen.” It was a huge turning point in my career.
—Thabang Molefe, CAPM, SHL, Johannesburg, South Africa
I started researching the career path and reaching out to other project professionals to see what their experience was. I even shadowed a few people to see what they did in a day. If you're passionate and dedicated, people will want to help you. I've learned to reach out and create my network and hold on to those connections. —Thabang Molefe, CAPM, project manager, SHL, Johannesburg, South Africa
Equipped for the Future
New project professionals must understand which knowledge and skills will help their careers thrive.
What factors are driving unique requirements for global business leaders?
The skills that leaders will need in order to deal with those challenges, according to those who see a demand for new leadership skills:
Millennials believe these people skills are most essential for the future:
To attract, retain and manage next-gen talent, employers will need to adapt to millennials and Gen Z. The portion of workers from those generations who say the following factors are “very important” when they evaluate a potential employer:
Sources: Global Human Capital Trends, Deloitte, 2019; 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, Deloitte, 2018