Project Management Institute

Competency vs. connections



ALL PROJECT MANAGERS need a base of competency to survive. But to get ahead, some say it's your skill set; others say it's your social set. Roland Gareis, Ph.D., the University of Economics and Business Administration in Vienna, Austria, and Josh Nankivel, Citigroup Inc., Sioux Falls, S.D., USA, discuss whether it's knowledge or networks that truly makes the difference.

Dr. Gareis: By definition, project manager is a management job requiring leadership. It's not just about networking. It requires a lot of day-to-day planning and coordinating. This is where competencies come in. You have to put your hands in the mud. That means having the skills, knowledge and experience in what works and what doesn't.

Networking may help you get an attractive job, but then you have to do your work, and that's what you're measured on.

—Roland Gareis, Ph.D., University of Economics and Business Administration, Vienna, Austria

Mr. Nankivel: There's a certain base level of knowledge you need to have about the profession and processes involved, but as far as getting ahead, networking helps you stick out from the crowd. I’d relate this to psychologist Frederick Herzberg's motivation theory. I see knowledge and education as the hygiene or maintenance factor, and networking as the motivating factor that pushes you to get ahead—to not just take work that's given to you but to strive for status where sponsors are actually seeking you out for their projects.

Dr. Gareis: Networking may help you get an attractive job, but then you have to do your work, and that's what you're measured on. If you're just good at selling yourself, but you're not capable of actually performing up to expectations, then you'll have problems. Therefore, I think networking alone doesn't help in project management. Because in projects, we want to achieve results, and there are many challenges. So we need people with the skills to deal with those issues.

Mr. Nankivel: Neither networking nor knowledge can stand alone. In my experience, networking with people who have been in project management for many years has opened up the door as far as job opportunities and has helped me grow my knowledge base. If there's a specific area I’m deficient in, I can go to my network. By building such relationships, I can reach out to people I know and tap into their knowledge and experience.


Dr. Gareis: If you've just graduated from university, contacts are very important. But when you attend networking events, you will be appreciated on two dimensions. One is your networking and social skills—whether you're able to talk to people. And two is your competency—if you can relate to the topics they're talking about. The best contacts will not get you too far without any skills. Associations such as PMI are offering good networking opportunities, but I recommend you'd better be prepared.


Mr. Nankivel: As someone early in his career, what's really worked for me is just going out and joining professional and student organizations. It's a great way to meet people, whether it's locally or virtually. Take blogs, for instance. Start putting together things that you're thinking about and actively take in what's out there on the Internet. Part of my online networking has been just contacting the authors of blog sites and generating discussion around what they're talking about. It has led to some great things for me.

Dr. Gareis: Sure, networking and competency are both important, and one way young people can start gaining both sets of skills is by joining university associations and participating in international projects while abroad. At my university, each student is expected to spend at least one semester abroad, participating in project-like situations where they can gain experience in a somewhat protected, student-friendly environment and not be thrown into a tough business environment right away.


Dr. Gareis: Project management is all about managing complexities. The more experience you have, the more competencies you will have acquired along the way. And you'll gain the potential to take over not only larger projects but also programs, and not only manage a single project but the strategic leadership of a company's entire portfolio. It's more about experience than age, but to gain experience, sometimes, it just takes time.

Mr. Nankivel: I don't believe age has much to do with it, it's more about the career stage you are in. When you're first starting out, which is where I’m at right now, networking can be very helpful in differentiating yourself from the rest of the pack. If you have a referral from someone who knows you're willing to learn and grow with the company, that gives you a track record. On the other end of the spectrum, positions with a high level of responsibility and significance may tend to be filled with people who have referrals and recommendations from people the hiring manager trusts.

If you're somebody who does not have a network connection inside a company, basically your résumé is just another one in the pile.

—Josh Nankivel, Citigroup, Inc., Sioux Falls, S.D., USA


Dr. Gareis: When you work internationally, you can't know everyone right away, so this is where the competency and quality issues come in. People specify in their project requirements what certifications, experiences and knowledge are required.


Mr. Nankivel: The competence Roland is talking about is important. With globalization, you've got quite a bit more competition with people from many different countries who all have that base level of project management knowledge and experience. But networking can take you above and beyond what you'd get with just pure competence.

If you're somebody who does not have a network connection inside a company, basically your résumé is just another one in the pile. You may have really great credentials, but there are probably many people with the same credentials and global experience. And a hiring manager would more likely go with a recommendation from somebody he or she knows and trusts. It's like making a large purchase on a product. Wouldn't you rather talk to a trusted friend who has experience with that product than read the sales brochure?

Dr. Gareis: You talk about getting ahead, but project managers are not trying to get ahead every day. During a project assignment, it's more about doing your job. True, networking and relationships are required during any given project, and especially in selling your project but of course, even project marketing is a competency. PM

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