Project Management Institute

Your career

the project of a lifetime

How can you plan a career in a marketplace characterized by near-chaotic change? Sounds like a job for: Project Manager!

Jeannette Cabanis

Once upon a time, way back in the misty, legendary fifties, The Big, Big Chemical Company wooed a Bright Young Engineer at his college Job Fair. He so enchanted The Company with his grades and his work ethic that they promised to wave their magic wand and make his tuition disappear if he would only give them 40 years of life and loyalty. For each year that he labored diligently in the magic laboratories, he would be allowed to move one floor higher in their Shining Tower, until, at last, the Goodies of Life would be laid at his feet in the Penthouse Office. Like a vine on a trellis, the life, the identity, and the well-being of the Bright Young Engineer and his family would become inextricably twined with that of his employer. To make a long story short, he did, and they did, and they all lived happily ever after.

If you still believe in this idyllic fairy tale from a lost era, you haven't been reading the newspapers lately.

The End is Near! (Or Maybe Not)

Career planning has traditionally been linked to job security. After all, in order to make long-range plans, you need to know your employment prospects, right? And who better to tell you than The Company, Big Daddy, the Mother Pie in the Sky?

Let's get real. Today, even the top echelons of management have no idea what their prospects are, never mind yours. Massive shifts in social demographics coupled with breathtaking technological change have left corporate boards and expert analysts guessing about the future, and sometimes guessing wrong.

In recent years, U.S. companies have eliminated millions of jobs annually. Andersen Consulting estimates that, in the banking industry alone, technological and management changes will erase up to 40 percent of existing jobs over the next seven years. And while many of those jobs can easily be computerized, others—in fact, 62 percent of all jobs eliminated in 1994, according to the American Management Association—are management and professional jobs. Eastman Kodak, as an example, has trimmed its levels of management from 13 to four. And then there's AT&T and its recent massive layoffs. The press clamors that the “job” is disappearing; that horrific unemployment lurks in our collective future.

Yet in a recent Olsten Corporation poll, about two-thirds of the North American companies surveyed said that they are understaffed! High-tech, transportation, utilities, health and financial firms all report problems in meeting deadlines, plummeting morale and skyrocketing stress, increased turnover, and impeded business growth due to understaffing. It's not jobs that are missing, the survey concludes—it's skills. About 80 percent of the companies polled say that they can't find the skills they need. What are those skills? Across the board, close to one-third of companies report using “professional temporaries” in managerial, professional, and technical specialties.

Work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread … We have a right to ask of work that it include meaning, recognition, astonishment, and life.

Studs Terkel in Working

If you read between the lines, the words “project management skills” are scrawled all over this poll: these companies need to projectize, they need project managers—in fact, it seems their need for change has outpaced their understanding of how to implement that change. So here's the good news: if you're reading this magazine, you may already be ahead of the game.

Now for the Bad News. While it's true that the number of “knowledge workers” in fields like engineering, science, marketing and media continues to grow and that the ranks of project managers keep swelling, not everyone can be a good project manager. And as more and more companies, educational institutions and individuals jump onto the project management bandwagon, the competition can only intensify. Lists of the characteristics of a good project manager are numerous, but they all have one thing in common: the “human skills,” those easy-to-spot but hard-to-quantify graces that make integration, interface, human resource management and problem solving so much easier and more pleasant for everyone concerned, rank high.

They are also, unfortunately, in short supply. Recent surveys of engineers show that technical types still rely on technical ability as the key factor in getting ahead. But while technical ability is certainly a requirement for most project managers, it's far from being the whole game.

Case in point: Studies carried out at Bell Labs showed that the most valued engineers were not those with the highest IQ or even the best technical skills. Instead, the winners scored high on “EQ” traits. EQ, the “emotional intelligence quotient” recently popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, focuses on “qualities of the heart”: knowing your feelings and using them wisely to make life decisions; managing your emotional life without being paralyzed by worry or swept away by anger; persisting in the face of setbacks; empathy for the unspoken emotions of others; handling relationships with skill and harmony; flexibility in the face of change.

The only security we have is the ability to fly by the seat of our pants.

Brad Blanton in Radical Honesty

The Bell Labs findings parallel those of a study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership, which looked at the reasons why apparently bound-for-success executives derail or plateau in their careers. The answer? Three out of five of the most common factors were people-skill related: problems with interpersonal relationships, the failure to build or lead a team, or the inability to adapt in a transition.

Considering all that, ask yourself this question, taken from the title of an article about EQ that appeared in Fortune a few months ago: Are You Smart Enough to Keep Your Job?

Taking Responsibility for “Me, Inc.” The changing job marketplace also challenges employees by shifting the locus of responsibility. Increasingly, employees must envision their own vision, create their own opportunities, manage their individual careers as though they were entrepreneurs. (Of course, companies don't always allow them the leeway they need to succeed at this—but that's another article). This entrepreneurial mindset is a new concept, and one that most of us are ill-prepared to implement. Many project managers came into the “accidental profession”—well, accidentally. Working quietly along in their area of expertise, they looked up one day in surprise to find that someone had tacked the words “project manager” onto their names. Project managers might be equally surprised to find that they are not alone in this: a recent Gallup poll for the National Career Development Association revealed that two-thirds of Americans never made a conscious choice to pursue their present career.

Many thinkers attribute this vagueness about the direction of our work—an aspect of our lives that accounts for at least half our waking hours—to the “dependency culture” that developed during the heyday of the big corporation. When the Big Company held the hand of the Organization Man, directing his steps, his thoughts, and his style of dress to a satisfying conclusion in a corner office, maybe dependence on one's employer made sense. Now, the marketplace demands that we create our own opportunities, not wait for assignments; it asks much more of the worker than showing up cheerfully on time and meeting deadlines handed down by others. The culture of dependency is one of the most notable casualties of our changing economy. But changing dependence on “Them, upstairs” into entrepreneurial spirit requires us to develop new sets of skills and a new mindset to match.

If a career is now “a series of gigs,” as was noted in the now-famous Fortune article (Planning a Career in a World Without Managers, March 20, 1995), then each of us must become not only a great performer, but his or her own talent agent: making contacts, networking, name-dropping, upbeat, with our fingers on the pulse of our industry at all times. This may seem like adding another item to an already crowded job description, but in the view of management gurus like Tom Peters, it simply puts the responsibility for your life back where it always belonged: in your own hands.

If you feel a little resistant to this idea, Neil Whitten, PMP, understands. “It's a basic human failing: we are willing to give up responsibility for ourselves if someone else will take it,” he says. After all, if we were all responsible for ourselves, we'd have no one to blame when things go wrong. But “corporations have no conscience; downsizing and reorganizing is just what they do,” says Whitten, a software development consultant and the author of Becoming an Indispensable Employee in a Disposable World. “So there's no point in being bitter about what did or didn't happen to your career in any given company. We are still—and always were—responsible for our own lives.”

Linking Project Managers with their Futures: PMI Career Link

If networking is one of the “core competencies” of skilled career planners, then one of the key tools that should be in any project manager's networking kit is PMI's Career Link service.

Established in 1995, the Career Link allows PMI members—and members only—to anonymously post a “Position Wanted” ad in a monthly directory of project management professionals. Employers seeking qualified project managers can contact PMI to have this directory forwarded to them free of charge. They select candidates who meet their qualifications and contact the PMI Career Link Coordinator, Dana Bruno, to receive resumes of their chosen candidates. Since the “blind ads” are identified only by number, the process is entirely confidential up until the point when PMI forwards the resumes of the candidates to the employer for consideration. It's up to the employer to contact the candidates and go from there.

What kind of employers use this resource? “Our company is involved in a large project involving over 50 sites across the country,” says Dave Southworth of Management Technologies in Troy, Mich. “So we needed to identify qualified project management professionals quickly.” Southworth notes that the Career Link provided him, as an employer, with the opportunity to tap a group with professional competencies. He termed the leads he developed from the monthly directory “meaningful,” and noted that he was impressed with the number who were certified as PMPs, or in the process of being certified.

“Our last three hires have come from this resource,” says Southworth. “Your members should be tickled pink.”

One member who definitely is tickled with her Career Link experience is Laura Adams. Adams, who received her master's degree in project management from Western Carolina University last May, spent a “very frustrating” summer pursuing other, more conventional job search methods. “For two months,” she says, “job hunting was my full-time job.” She had some offers, but none of them were strictly project management.

Then, within a month of registering with Career Link, she was offered a position with telecommunications giant USWest in Phoenix, Ariz. “It was really exciting,” says Adams, who now manages cross-functional teams that develop new service products for USWest's Advanced Intelligence Network. “My experience with Career Link was great.”

Career Link Coordinator Dana Bruno encourages members and potential employers to look into this growing service. For more information about Career Link, contact Dana at the PMI Executive Office, 610/734-3330, Ext. 44.

Whitten advises project managers to “take ownership of your career development” by refusing to wait for empowerment to be handed down by management. “Empowerment is an overused word, but an underused concept,” he says, “partly because management is still reluctant to loosen their grip on power.” The proactive, self-empowering project manager, Whitten maintains, “pushes the envelope,” questioning authority, demanding what his or her project needs, challenging assumptions and sometimes overstepping limits. Sound scary? Whitten, who insists he doesn't believe in worry, shrugs philosophically: “Failure is a necessary stepping stone to achievement.” The self-actualized project manager, he contends, must learn not only to take responsibility for his or her own career, but to “transcend the parameters of comfort” by taking risks.

From lifetime job security to risk-taking as a way of life: that's a long jump in just a few decades. Is there any comfort for the faint of heart? Yes, and it lies in redefining “competency.”

Skills = Security

In The Intelligent Enterprise (Free Press, 1992), James Brian Quinn described a new organizational paradigm. Virtual and devoid of hierarchy, the intelligent enterprise focuses on the deployment of intellectual resources, not on the management of physical assets. It focuses a laser beam of attention on a few “core competencies,” paring activities down to those things at which it can truly excel. An article in the November 1995 Academy of Management Executive takes Quinn's theory one step further, applying his notion of core competencies to individual careers. In the “intelligent career,” the authors say, the emphasis shifts from pleasing an employer to occupational excellence. The planner of an intelligent career focuses on three core competencies: knowing why, knowing whom, and knowing how.

Knowing Why. Sociologists have called a career “a project of the self.” Like any other project, your career must begin with an idea, a concept, a vision of what could be. Without this defining vision, no specific details can be worked out; no value judgments about the worth of activities can be made. The “knowing why” competency asks you to both look within and understand the larger context of your career. What is your motivation to do the work you do? What value does it have, not just in the current project, but in the organization, the industry, your community, the world?

Knowing why means you understand, not just your own tasks, but how your work adds value, how the company makes money, what the larger business environment consists of. It is a holistic way of viewing yourself in relation to your work, your industry, and your world.

“When you merge the professional and the personal,” says Whitten, “you bring who you are to what you do, and that can only make you more productive.” When your professional goals are congruent with your vision of yourself as a person, you know why you go to work each day—and what's more, you can't wait to get there.

The knowing-why coin has a flip side: a vision of the big picture. As Tom Peters advises, “Take your nose out of your engineering journal and be aware of the world, politics, social trends.” An entrepreneur has to understand how his or her work fits into the ecology of the business world. If the ground shakes in another industry or country, how will it affect your daily life?

Peters, in his book The Pursuit of Wow!, notes that being “provincial” can be a death sentence in a global economy. What are your borders (national, regional, industry-defined, demographic)? Why do they exist? How can you transcend them?

PMI Fellow and PM Network contributing editor Paul Dinsmore advises that “to make it in a global economy, the project manager of the Third Millennium needs to be able to think multiculturally.” Dinsmore, a native of Texas, operates his international project management consulting business from Rio de Janiero, Brazil, where he first traveled as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s. He recommends that aspiring project managers “take advantage of overseas exchange programs in college; become fluent in at least one other language; spend at least a year overseas in a conventional job, in the Peace Corps, at an environmental volunteer center, or just hanging out.”

For the established project manager, diversity training, education in other languages, personal travel experiences, and foreign work assignments can augment their “ability to understand and cope with this whirly, topsy-turvy world,” says Dinsmore.

Knowing Whom. “Stability is … a fabulous reputation,” Peters writes. Reputation, which is nothing more than other people's perceptions of you and your work, has its foundation in good people skills. Thus, basic interpersonal skills like clarity of communication and simple courtesy cannot be underestimated as career building tools. And genuine interest in other human beings, like you and different from you, naturally develops into a network—something a growing reputation thrives on. The ability to network fluidly—across company, industry, and cultural boundaries—belongs to the communicator, the good listener, the open mind and heart.

The “Project Career” Bookshelf

  • 1996 What Color is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press) by Richard Bolles is full of tips on rethinking careers.
  • *Becoming an Indispensable Employee in a Disposable World (Pfeiffer & Co., 1995). Neil Whitten gives advice to the “intrapreneur.”
  • Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 1995). Good human skills begin within. Daniel Goleman helps identify strengths and weaknesses in the way we deal with others and cope with life's ups and downs.
  • *Jobshift (Addison-Wesley, 1994). William Bridges analyzes the paradigm shift in society. A must for understanding your place in the workforce of tomorrow.
  • The Pursuit of Wow! (Vintage, 1994) by Tom Peters. Wow! Inspiration dispensed in punchy one-liners, with Peters' unique twist on life, business, the universe, and everything.
  • Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life (Berrett-Koehler, 1995). Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro use metaphors of travel to explore some heavyweight issues with a light touch. A knowing why resource.
  • *The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic (Simon & Schuster, 1989) by Stephen R. Covey, has become a business classic. Its self-organizing skills and insights into how character impacts performance are essential for anyone in any field.
  • We are All Self-Employed (Berrett-Koehler, 1995) by Cliff Hakim reveals the keys to adopting an entrepreneurial attitude.
  • Your Erroneous Zones (Avon, 1977) by Wayne Dyer is Neil Whitten's top pick for tapping into the knowing why competency.

*These books available through PMI. See “Booknook” on page 51. For other books, contact the publisher or your local bookstore.

Thanks to the Internet, it also belongs to anyone with a modem and a computer. This networking tool par excellence places countless contracts, resources and opportunities quite literally at your fingertips. One search on just “career planning and managers” yields 293 matches, ranging from the wildly general JobHunt Online Meta-List (http://rescomp.stanford.edu/jobs) to the very particular, like Systers (http://www.well.com), a career resource for women in information systems. A search on “project management” yields over 6,000 matches, ranging over continents, disciplines, industries and academia. Some, like PMI's website, are familiar; others are intriguing. Have you been to the Project Management Exchange (http://www.webcom.com/~denysm/pmexchg.html)? Visited the Risk Management Home Page (http://www.uwsa.edu)? How about Career Mosaic (http://www.careermosaic.com)? If you've been avoiding cyberspace because you thought there was nothing useful out there, you just lost you last excuse.

Knowing How. Ah! Here at last is the area of career development that we are most comfortable with: the portfolio of demonstrable skills, the list of projects on the resume, of tools mastered and certifications won. Yet even the development of know-how has changed its focus. The intelligent career demands that you decide what you need to know and go after it, instead of waiting for your company to underwrite those skills.

Try to get fired.

Career advice from Tom Peters in The Pursuit of Wow!

“From the skills menu,” asks Whitten, “what will you choose to develop?” He recommends making a “skill enrichment plan,” and sticking to it, even if it means investing time and money of your own in areas that don't necessarily apply to your current employment. Knowing why keeps you on track when deciding which skills to sharpen, replace, or learn from scratch. It also prevents wasting time struggling with things you hate, but think you “ought” to learn, Whitten adds. “I believe in following your bliss. Strengthen what you're good at, rather than trying to fix what you're bad at.”

“Continuous learning” is the watchword of skills development, according to Whitten and just about everyone else in the world with an opinion on careers. “You need the basic project management skills, of course: planning, tracking, managing priorities. But keep in mind also that today's project manager will change fields seven times in a lifetime,” Whitten cautions. When you realize that you will need to slide into jobs that don't even exist yet, it becomes obvious that your continuous learning had better be something besides industry-specific or tool-based. Take a course that stretches your abilities or imagination; investigate a different industry; learn more about finance, marketing, or writing; make your learning not only continuous, but global—and always remember: It's the soft skills.

Okay, I Get It. How Do I Start?

As a kickoff point, self-help books (see sidebar) can help you understand your strengths and weaknesses. Whitten's book, for example, provides 14 checklists for self-discovery and evaluation, covering topics from risk taking to problem solving to “Obstacles to Happiness.”

For others, working away in isolation with checklists and self-help books isn't enough. Luckily for these folks, one job that's in no danger of disappearing is the career counselor's. Through values clarification and assessment of skills, personality traits and goals, the career counselor can help with all three competency areas. Unfortunately, most people don't think of using such a service until after the ax has fallen; and while career counselors are certainly needed when you're desperate for a new direction, the time to start pondering your career options is before you actually get in a crisis.

Drive, She Said. For those who like the idea of being project manager of your own career, but who feel iffy about the whole notion of counseling, a project management-based career counseling program might be just the ticket. Joan Vincent, principal of Vincent Group Workplace Consulting of Vancouver, British Columbia, uses project management tools in “Career Drive,” a three-week program that allows unemployed or underemployed professional and technical workers to build new careers by “projectizing” not only their counseling experience, but their concepts of career development.

Her diverse, self-managed Career Drive “teams” apply the magic of synergy to brainstorming options, helping each other overcome barriers, and revealing hidden or underutilized personal resources, strategizing, and analyzing opportunities in the business environment. Together, they develop action plans that meld personal requirements and values with existing career skills and the evolving job market.

Though her program currently serves the unemployed, Vincent stresses that career management should be a “wellness” program, not just crisis intervention. “Keep your tools sharpened and well-oiled,” she advises. “Don't be taken by surprise. Your company doesn't know what's going to happen in the world.” Besides, she notes, “your current job is the one with the most potential. What can you make of it?”

Many people, says Vincent, still believe that, as educated, skilled, experienced, competent employees, they have a built-in career guarantee. For them, the reality of job loss can be especially hard to handle. Yet, as a career counselor, Vincent believes that “people don't need ‘fixing’—they need resources, methods, techniques, and reliable information.” She also points out that while technological change has closed some doors, implicit in that change are “unknown but powerful options.”

One area project managers should be alert to in keeping their career options open and fluid, Vincent says, is resistance to change. Historical project management—tools-based and limited to a few disciplines—created in some project managers a mindset that “some projects are projects, and all the rest of the world is Mickey Mouse stuff.” This can be a barrier for project managers, preventing them from recognizing the burgeoning opportunities in nontraditional industries and fields. “You only build yourself a box,” Vincent warns, “when you don't regard new opportunities as serious or real.”

Perhaps, after all, “planning” is a misnomer for the style of career management advocated by career counselors and management gurus these days. After all, planning, as Tom Peters points out, suppresses flexibility rather than encouraging it. What the experts seem to be recommending is a combination of introspection, visioning, brainstorming, attitude restructuring, change management, process reengineering, new product development, and market research—the process being your daily worklife, and the product your career.

Sounds like project management territory for sure. It's a big project, too, and you were already pretty busy. But, as some wit once remarked, “Life is hard—until you consider the alternative.” ▄

Jeannette Cabanis is a PM Network staff writer and the editor of the Marketplace and Project Briefs features. She knows why and how, but she's still working on whom, so fan mail (positive or negative) is welcomed.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • April 1996

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