Simply being a serviceable project manager isn't enough for those hoping to move forward in their careers. Faced with growing talent gaps, companies are looking inward to shore up their rosters with rising stars: 67 percent of respondents to PwC's 2012 Global CEO Survey said they plan to develop and promote most of their talent from within the company.
As organizations turn to their existing ranks for leaders, project managers need to up their game to separate themselves from the pack and remain marketable.
Here are four areas good project managers can strengthen to improve their career prospects at their current organizations and beyond.
“By having knowledge of the subject matter, project managers are able to think of better solutions.”
—Martin Bauer, Kaliop, London, England
Project management methodologies exist to ensure the effective and timely execution of projects. But structured planning is only one part of a successful project, according to Martin Bauer, principal consultant at web engineering firm Kaliop in London, England. Strong skills in business analysis can be a significant factor in a winning strategy, he says.
“Business analysis skills can help you better understand what it is you're implementing,” says Mr. Bauer. “By having knowledge of the subject matter, project managers are able to think of better solutions. It's also easier to find ways to meet clients’ needs, rather than find yourself limited by what a particular business analyst or developer recommends.”
Mr. Bauer says many of the online content-management projects he oversees entail adding features, such as a reporting functionality, to websites. A project manager would typically have to wait for a business analyst or web developer to offer details on any cost considerations and a realistic time frame to roll out a reporting function. However, by honing business analysis skills through course-work or on-the-job training, Mr. Bauer says project managers can develop their own strategy, whether it's creating a new report-generating dashboard or exporting data into another tool.
As a project manager, I can now present these options to the client and get a sense of what will work best for them, rather than simply meeting requirements,” says Mr. Bauer. The project manager who can make that kind of leap is one who will have no shortage of career advancement opportunities.
Change Management Expertise
Michelle Vargas, PMP, knows all about the importance of adapting to shifting priorities. “We're in a global economy where things are speeding up at such a fast rate that change management is a necessary skill,” says Ms. Vargas, a project manager and founder of consultancy Global-PM.com in Miami, Florida, USA.
Exceptional change management can be the difference between an expensive failed initiative and an organizational victory. Recently, Ms. Vargas served as change management lead implementing an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The organization had been through a series of mergers and acquisitions, as well as a previous failed ERP attempt, so the task was a tall one.
Trying to prepare her team for the changes ahead, Ms. Vargas introduced “gamification” using a project management simulation tool. “The game throws teams into various scenarios where they have to work through project management using real data and situations,” she says. “It really helped maximize things like ROI, quality, stakeholder engagement, risk management and team collaboration. The result was a collaborative culture, so that when we had to execute our ERP project, we were already unified as a team.”
Ms. Vargas also helped develop a game in which a certain business- or IT-related challenge would be presented to a variety of key project leadership, stakeholder and customer groups across the company. When a negative risk was triggered, senior leadership would immediately implement a plan to address the change.
“Some of the most important project sponsors, leaders, stakeholders and customers became highly engaged and couldn't wait to see who was winner of the day,” she recalls. “We even had the project's executives, vice presidents, and steering and operating committees actively involved in the project rewards and recognition processes that drove actionable human-factor management and behaviors to support project success.”
“Project managers should provide an easy-to-follow structure and guidelines that enable the project team to manage all documents that are being produced.”
—Sue Tu, PMP, Cisco Systems, Sydney, Australia
Requirements Management Prowess
Whether it's through simple spreadsheets or automated tools, reliable software is at the core of any modern requirements-management process. Project managers must harness these tools’ ability to track and analyze changes to project requirements, as well as ensure ongoing compliance.
There are many steps project managers can take to enhance their requirements management expertise. “While a good document-management system is required, project managers should provide an easy-to-follow structure and guidelines that enable the project team to manage all documents that are being produced,” says Sue Tu, PMP, program manager for partner talent at Cisco Systems, Sydney, Australia. By granting project team members greater visibility into the requirements management pipeline, project managers are better equipped to respond to last-minute changes. They can also work toward continuous alignment with the project's strategic goals and objectives.
“A requirements-management system should also include a process that regularly reviews the documents against initial requirements, and a communication plan to ensure stakeholders are regularly engaged and expectations are met,” Ms. Tu says.
“We wanted our sponsors to model and reinforce positive behaviors and walk the talk so that these behaviors would cascade down from senior leadership to all organization levels.”
—Michelle Vargas, PMP, Global-PM.com, Miami, Florida, USA
Sponsor Engagement Skills
Having an engaged sponsor is a key driver of project success, and one difference between a good project manager and a great one is the proactive way the latter keeps sponsors actively engaged. Involving sponsors for a particular project should be treated no differently than if you were recruiting highly qualified employees, says Ms. Vargas. “We found that in order to maintain and reinforce sponsors, we had to adopt a sort of recruiting process where we interviewed various sponsors, and then quantified the benefits of engaging from the potential sponsor's point of view,” she says. “The quantified sponsor benefits include financial benefits such as ROI, in addition to other benefits related to the people side of change, which directly impact bottom-line results.”
By adopting a recruitment approach to identifying sponsors, she was able to create a sophisticated sponsor-engagement hierarchy, with an authorizing sponsor at the very top of the pyramid, followed by reinforcing sponsors at each subsequent level.
“An ineffective sponsor shows up at the kickoff, endorses a few project emails and then you never see him or her again. That's not going to result in any actionable behavior that drives sustained project results and positive outcomes,” says Ms. Vargas. “We wanted our sponsors to model and reinforce positive behaviors and walk the talk so that these behaviors would cascade down from senior leadership to all organization levels.”
As project managers face significant challenges, from stiff competition in the marketplace to mounting pressure to juggle multiple projects, making the leap from good to great isn't optional. Polishing these key skills can set project managers apart, helping their projects— and their careers. PM
The Highs and Lows of Emotional Intelligence
Technical and administrative skills are only part of the package; effective project managers must have solid emotional intelligence (EI) to connect with team members, sponsors and stakeholders. Alas, the intangible nature of EI means there's plenty of debate surrounding whether a project leader can actually inflate his or her EI, or whether it's simply an innate capability.
“In project management, you have to care about your people. You have to be real in order to approach them, to see how they work, react and perform within your project,” says Olivier Meier, PMP, project manager, aeronautical information management business development for air navigation system provider NAV Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. “But I‘m not sure you can learn that. You can certainly gain experience in EI and observe how other people exhibit it, but, inherently, it has to be in your stock.”
However, Sue Tu of Cisco Systems, Sydney, Australia says there are some steps project managers can practice to enhance their EI. “Project managers with a natural ability to engage and empathize with people, communicate at the right Level, and develop good working relationships wiLL be at an advantage,” she says. “But if this is not a naturaL trait, then project managers can deveLop a cLient-focused mentaLity that reminds them to think about the needs of the person they are interacting with.”