The master's journey

developing the project manager from within

Principal, Duende Project Management Services


As a project manager, your success is dependent on your mastery of many skills—both hard skills as well as soft skills. Are you as effective as you need to be in these skills? Leading your teams to the successful completion of a project vision requires an understanding of the many best practices and processes as proposed by Project Management Institute (PMI)®. Additionally, the soft skills (communications, leadership skills, and relationship building skills) are also critical to your success as a project manager.

Where are you on your project management development path? Are you a novice or an expert, a student or a teacher, an expert or a master? Raise the effectiveness of your projects to another level by continuing to improve yourself as a project manager. The good news is that learning is both a process that can be learned and a journey that can be taken and should be taken.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the learning path of a project manager, to learn lessons in personal development by better understanding project mastery, and to develop a unique voice, which accompanies mastery.

This paper will explore the journey of personal development in project management from novice to master. The lessons presented are those lessons learned from studying project masters. The following topics will be covered:

  •   The definition of the project master – learn the characteristics and traits of project masters.
  •   The cycle of growth – understand the components of the cycle of personal growth in the field of project management.
  •   The master within – tap into your capacity to learn by understanding the role of your brain in the learning process.
  •   Goal setting – learn techniques to develop more powerful and effective goals to aid in your personal development.
  •   The project manager as teacher – learn to develop as a project manager by serving in the role as teacher.
  •   Voice – learn to develop your own unique voice in your journey toward mastery.


According to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Fourth edition, “Effective project managers acquire a balance of technical, interpersonal, and conceptual skills that help them analyze situations and interact appropriately.” (p. 417). To be effective as a project manager in today's rapidly changing environment requires the mastery of many separate skills. The demand is high for those individuals who have mastered both the science and art of project management. The “Project Management Professional (PMP)® Examination Content Outline September 2010” identifies that a project manager should be competent in the following 20 knowledge areas and skills (p.12):

  •   Active listening
  •   Brainstorming techniques
  •   Conflict resolution techniques
  •   Cultural sensitivity and diversity
  •   Data gathering techniques
  •   Decision making techniques
  •   Facilitation
  •   Information management tools, techniques, and methods
  •   Leadership tools and techniques
  •   Negotiating
  •   Oral and written communication techniques, channels, and applications
  •   PMI's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
  •   Presentation tools and techniques
  •   Prioritization/time management
  •   Problem solving tools and techniques
  •   Project management software
  •   Relationship management
  •   Stakeholder impact analysis
  •   Targeting communications to intended audiences
  •   Team motivation methods

Project stakeholders and project owners/sponsors also set certain expectations of project managers. Stakeholders expect the project manager to be the “champion” for the project owner/sponsor or both, if they happen to be separate. Stakeholders expect that the project manager not only understand the owner/sponsor's perspective but also represent the owner/sponsor for decision-making purposes. Stakeholders also usually expect that the project manager's primary responsibility is to get things done by applying processes and techniques to execute the tasks of the project and to manage organizational hurdles and politics in order to achieve the project goals. Another common expectation of the project manager is to have an expert knowledge of the application or industry of the sponsoring organization. The project manager is also usually tasked with building relationships that extend beyond the project's borders.

With all of these expectations and demands of a project manager, the journey from novice project manager to “project master” can be difficult and challenging. Although the journey will differ for each individual, the destination is the “project master,” an individual highly competent in the science and art of project management.

The Definition of a Project Master

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” - Albert Einstein (, 2010)

“If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things.” – Vincent Van Gogh (, 2010)

A project master, much like masters in other fields, is characterized by a level of competency, creativity, and control over the working environment. The following are some characteristics of the project master:

  • Masters the skills of the trade – for a project manager, the skills of the trade include not only the technical aspects of managing a project but also the interpersonal, communications, and leadership skills required to navigate the project environment.
  • Challenges the conventional – a project master pursues perfection and continued improvement in the project management professional. In doing so, the project master constantly challenges the traditional and conventional methods and techniques. Project managers on the development path toward mastery often have to adapt to new methods and techniques. What differentiates the project master from the project manager is not only adaptability but the pursuit of alternative and creative methods and techniques, which may oppose the traditional approaches. Project masters have embraced agile project management approaches, which challenge the traditional product development methodologies.
  • Begins at the center – a project master is centered in the core competencies and, while the master starts with these core competencies in approaching a project challenge, the master is able to deviate as necessary or return “back to the basics” when the situation requires it. A project master approaches a project by working from the basics first before moving on to the meticulous details of the project.
  • Understands the “essence” – a project master understands the “essence” of project management and draws on experience, knowledge, and wisdom that only come through self-actualization as a professional project manager.
  • Perpetually learns and teaches – the project master seeks continuous personal development through learning and teaching. As Gary Zukav notes in his book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, “Every lesson that he teaches (or learns) is a first lesson.” (Zukav, 2001, p. 10)
  • Creates – the project master understands the craft of project management well enough to create new techniques, methods, and approaches in solving the project challenges.
  • Finds “voice” – the project master develops a unique “voice” and uses that voice to lead from within with confidence and power. Project masters who have discovered their unique voices are considered by others to be authentic.

The Cycle of Growth

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo (, 2010)

The true project master never stops growing professionally. Although the initial learning curve can be short or long, once mastery has been achieved, the project master continues to learn in a never-ending cycle of novice, student, practitioner, expert, and master (Exhibit 1).

Growth Cycle

Exhibit 1 - Growth Cycle

The following is a summary of the different competency levels in project management (Exhibit 2):

The novice - In the profession of project management, the novice is the beginner, the individual faced with managing a project for the first time or managing projects either on a part-time or even full-time basis, without the benefit of formal training. This individual is working in the zone of the “unconsciously incompetent.” Successes may happen by accident and failures may not be known to be failures until project completion. A novice does not know enough to evaluate whether competence has been achieved.

The student – In project management, the student has either received formal training or perhaps informal training from a mentor. As the student takes on project assignments, the student understands project principles but does not yet have the experience required to be effective. An individual working as a student in project management is working in the zone of the “consciously incompetent.” The student understands what is required to be successful but is not yet competent enough to ensure consistent success. As an example, a student may know that to be successful with a politically sensitive project will require targeted communications with certain executive stakeholders but is consciously aware that he or she has not yet developed that skill.

The practitioner – The project management practitioner has received formal or informal training and mentoring and has had experience managing projects, stakeholders, and project teams. The work efforts of a practitioner are consciously directed toward success. The practitioner draws on knowledge obtained through mentoring or training and understands success and failure. A practitioner works in the zone of the “consciously competent.”

The expert – The expert project manager not only has the knowledge and experience but has the confidence of knowing what works and what doesn't work. An expert unconsciously knows what needs to be done to achieve success. An expert works in the zone of the “unconsciously competent.”

The master – The master in project management is the individual who is the expert's expert. This is the individual who approaches every new project with energy, optimism, and a fresh perspective. The project master has self-actualized as a project manager. The master is spontaneous in his or her actions, not necessarily bound by the conventional aspects of project management. By virtue of their actions, they also “teach” others without having to teach. As noted in the article, “Hierarchy of Needs,” by Kendra Cherry, “Self-actualized individuals are concerned with solving problems outside of themselves, including helping others and finding solutions to problems in the external world. These people are often motivated by a sense of personal responsibility and ethics.” (Cherry, 2011, ¶17) The master in project management works in the zone of the “unconsciously creative” and is often perceived by others as individuals who consistently “think outside the box.” The master also unconsciously renews the cycle of learning.

Competency Levels

Exhibit 2 - Competency Levels

The Master Within

“The mind is everything. What you think, you become.” – Buddha (, 2010)

The human brain is designed to allow for continued growth and development. Pierce Howard states that “over half of the human brain is uncommitted and thus available for forming new synapses and networks in the service of creativity, problem solving, analysis, memory…” (Howard, 2006, p. 33) Project masters are continually provided with opportunities to learn and to develop. Pierce Howard, in referencing the work of Seymour Epstein, has identified two modes of processing information: experiential and rational. (Howard, 2006, p. 485) The table below, adapted from a summary by Pierce Howard (Howard, 2006, p. 487) summarizes the two modes and the learning strategies associated with each:

Learning Strategies

Exhibit 3- Learning Strategies

The project master as both student and teacher employs all of these learning strategies but leans toward the experiential strategies. As a teacher, a mix of these strategies works best in engaging students or mentees.

Goal Setting

“Goals are the fuel in the furnace of achievement.” – Brian Tracy (, 2011)

This section focuses on the value of goal setting for project masters in training. No matter the level of competence, novice or master, or somewhere in between, effective goal setting is the key for development and advancement to a higher level of competency. The following are some effective strategies used in goal setting to ensure that goals are actually pursued and realized:

  1. Write them down. Successful project managers on the track to project mastery write down their goals. Writing down goals provides clarity to the goal and reinforces commitment to the goals. Goals that are written down are harder to forget than goals that are not written down.
  2. Make the goals “SMARTER:”

    •   Specific – the more specific, the better; details make the goal tangible

    •   Measurable – measurable enough to determine clearly whether the goal has been met

    •   Achievable – is it an achievable goal? Can it really be accomplished?

    •   Realistic – it may be achievable but is it realistic, given any known constraints?

    •   Time-bound – every goal should have a target date in mind

    •   Explosive – make it big and make it worth the effort

    •   Responsive – make it responsive to your individual needs; the goals for a novice will be different than goals for a master

  3. Difficult goals are better than simple ones. Difficult goals force you to stretch your talents.
  4. Break down goals into steps and actionable plans.
  5. Enroll others in your goals. This can take the form of making your goals visible to others or actually enlisting others on your goal-making team.
  6. Get feedback. Ask others to provide feedback along the path to your goals and adjust accordingly.
  7. Tie emotion to your goal. Become passionate about making your goals.
  8. Reward achievement. Specify a reward for achieving your goal and follow through if you make it.

The Project Manager as Teacher

“They call it coaching but it is teaching.” – Vince Lombardi (, 2010).

The journey to project manager requires taking the teaching role throughout the process. All organizations can benefit from the continuous improvement and the learning opportunities provided by every project. The project manager is instrumental in developing the organizational knowledge base. The project master contributes to the development of other project managers in the organization. A formal mentoring program, if feasible, is recommended. The benefits of such a program most often outweigh the investment of time required.

The following are strategies used to help enhance mentoring for project managers in an organization:

  • Enroll project stakeholders in the process. Let them know the program exists and involve them in providing feedback to the process and the individual development of project managers.
  • Seek learning opportunities. All project managers, regardless of level of competency, should seek the learning opportunities that will arise from new projects. Record the stories behind each opportunity so that the stories can be retold and analyzed for personal and process improvement.
  • Learn by teaching and teach by learning. Encourage project managers, regardless of competency, to teach others by learning a new skill or competency and passing on that knowledge either formally or informally.
  • Catch people doing things right. Find other team members and stakeholders doing things right, record these instances, and share with the other team members and stakeholders.
  • Seek the lessons in root cause analysis. Use root cause analysis to discover opportunities for improvement and teaching. Learn from failures both large and small.
  • Capture lessons learned. Capturing lessons learned is a continuous process. Don't wait until the project is over to record these lessons. Use these lessons to improve the processes of project management. Update training and mentoring programs with lessons learned.


“Deep within each of us there is an inner longing to live a life of greatness and contribution – to really matter, to really make a difference.” (Covey, 2004, p. 28)

“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.” - Stephen Covey (Covey, 2004, p. 98)

The true project master will discover a unique voice that evolves through self-actualization as an individual or project master. Stephen Covey describes voice as “unique personal significance—significance that is revealed as we face our greatest challenges and which makes us equal to them.” (Covey, 2004, p. 5) According to Covey, “voice lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and strengths), passion (those things that naturally energize, excite, motivate, and inspire you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for), and conscience (that still, small voice within that assures you of what is right and that prompts you to actually do it).” (Covey, 2004, p.5)

The project master is uniquely positioned to develop voice through the talents that are developed through the application of project management practices. Project masters often find themselves at the helm of challenging projects that invoke their passion and remind them that they are doing what they were meant to be doing. Great and significant projects need great project managers, individuals who have found their voices or are on the journey to finding their voices.

The project master who has developed a unique voice will make a difference in other people's lives, whether they are stakeholders or not. The project master's passion for the craft of project management will inspire others to achieve more than they are capable of achieving. A project master's voice can be employed to manage great complexity and adversity. The project master's voice creates a unique magic that connects what the project manager does with who they are.

The project master's voice is also used to help others on the journey to project mastery. This is an ongoing process of continuous improvement, which the project master can help facilitate. The following are actions that project masters and project masters in training can take to help their team members find their voices:

  • Become the model for your team by finding your own voice.
  • Provide or build an environment that encourages open communication and individual growth.
  • Encourage individual personal development and growth.
  • Recognize individual strengths and talents
  • Leave room for acceptable failure.
  • Encourage experimentation.
  • Provide constant and relevant feedback.
  • Focus on strengths as a means to minimizing weaknesses.
  • Proactively provide opportunities for growth and development.
  • Help others self-actualize by aligning their passions to their work.


In today's challenging work environments, the project master is in high demand but in short supply. The good news for those with a passion for project management is that the journey to project master is doable and rewarding. Project masters can become the “linchpins” of an organization, as described by Seth Godin in his book, Linchpin: Are You indispensable? According to Godin, linchpins become indispensable by contributing the following (Godin, 2010, p. 218):

  • Provide a unique interface between members of the organization
  • Deliver unique creativity
  • Manage situations of great complexity
  • Lead customers (stakeholders)
  • Inspire staff (team members)
  • Provide deep domain knowledge
  • Possess a unique talent

Project masters provide the above contributions to the organization and to projects and do become indispensable to the organization. Become indispensable and make the journey from novice to project maste!.


Cherry, K. (2011). Hierarchy of needs. Retrieved from

Covey, S. (2004). The 8th habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York, NY: Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Einstein quotes (2010). Retrieved from website:

Godin, S. (2010). Linchpin: Are you indispensable? New York, NY: The Penguin Group.

Howard, P. (2006). The owner's manual for the brain – 3rd edition. Austin, TX: Bard Press.

Mastery quotes (2010). Retrieved from website:

Mind quotes (2010). Retrieved from website:

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2010). Project anagement Professional (PMP)® Examination Content Outline September 2010. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Quotes (2011). Retrieved from website:

Tracy, B. (2008). Speak to win: How to present with power in any situation. New York, NY: AMACOM.

Vincent Van Gogh quotes (2010). Retrieved from website:

Vince Lombardi quotes (2010). Retrieved from the family of Vince Lombardi, c/o Luminary Group. LLC website:

Zukav, G. (2001). The dancing Wu Li masters. New York, NY: Perennial, an imprint of HarpersCollins Publishers

© 2011, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2011 North American Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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