How To Advance Your Project Management Career

How To Advance Your Project Management Career

Getting into Project Management is a dream for many young professionals. But, once you’re there, what next? How can you advance your Project Management career in a structured and fulfilling way?

In this article, we’ll take a look at all of the elements of developing a successful Project Management career. With these ideas and tips, you can start to take control of your future and plan one, two, or as many steps ahead as you choose.

I’ve divided my advice to you into five sections. The first four look at the principle levers for Project Management career advancement. The final section gives my general advice, which I have again divided into five themes.

So, our agenda is this:

  1. Moving through roles: Project Management Career Progression
  2. Memberships of Professional Associations
  3. Advance Your Project Management Career with Qualifications and Certifications
  4. Essential and Valuable Non-technical Project Management Career Skills
  5. General Advice to Help you Advance Your Project Management Career

Thank you to Lindsay Scott

We also asked Project management recruitment and PMO expert, Lindsay Scott, to add a few of her observations to this article. You’ll see her informed opinion at three places below. You can find her online at www.arraspeople.co.uk and www.pmolearning.co.uk.

Project Management Career Progression

How To Advance Your Project Management Career

As your Project Management Career progresses, you will move through a series of roles. For some people, they will follow a pretty standard career line from support roles to leadership roles, and then onto senior leadership roles. This line may sit within one context or business domain. Or it may span multiple domains.

Others will choose to jump off the familiar career line and move (within Project Management) to another Project Management career role. Or maybe, they will be pushed off the line! I’ll ignore, for this article, the infinite number of routes that take you so far from the line that you are no-longer significantly engaged in the discipline of Project Management.

But don’t ignore that possibility. While you may love Project management today, it may not be the right career for you at some time in the future. Too many people fall for the ‘sunk cost trap’. They feel they have invested so much in one career, that they should not abandon it and swap. This is a mistake. We all change. And never, ever, think that time spent learning and practising Project Management is time wasted. It is one of the most valuable skill sets you can acquire; no matter what you end up doing with your life.

The Project Management Career Line

We recently republished an updated and enlarged version of our hugely popular article, ‘Can you Get a Project Management Job? (Here’s How)‘.

But what comes next, when you are successful. The most typical career progression is through a series of ever more demanding and more senior Project Management career roles. So, let’s look at some examples.

Project Management Support Roles

Within a Project Structure

The first support roles for many people are as a resource within a project team. As you progress through this early part of your career, you might expect bigger and more important team roles:

  • Project Team Member
  • Work Package Manager – leading the delivery of one or more defined project work packages, leading to the delivery of specific project deliverables or outcomes.
  • Team or Work Stream Leader – later, you may take the lead of a whole team, delivering a substantial chunk of a project.

Across a Project Structure

There are other PM entry roles within a project. These sit across the project structure and support the Project Manager in their management, control, and leadership roles. There are many names for these roles with varying and overlapping job descriptions. I suggest there are two principle levels.

  • Project Assistant / Project Management Support – this is a role-type where you will be working directly with the PM to support them day-to-day. You’ll pick up specific tasks and will work with increasing autonomy, as you grow your experience and demonstrate your reliability.
  • Project Co-ordinator of Controller – this is a specific role that provides the PM with a set of services, lifting those obligations from their day-to-day responsibility. You’ll be fairly autonomous in your role, but still report to the PM as your manager.

Outside Project Structure

Another standard route into a Project Management career is via a PMO.

You’ll find more about PMOs from experts Peter Taylor and Nicole Reilly in their free articles:

PMO roles kind of mirror the main Project Management career roles. You’ll move from part of a support team, to leading a team delivering one or more aspects of the PMO’s services, to a PMO leadership role.

Lindsay Scott Comments…

What’s interesting about getting into PMO work is the different types of PMOs you can work within too. Project, program, portfolio, enterprise-level – all of these give different opportunities for career progression from the supporting work to Project Managers through to the strategic alignment of an organization’s entire portfolio of projects and programs.

Indeed. And Lindsay has picked up on an increasing focus, in most professional membership organizations like PMI and APM, on the strategic and business context of projects. Take a look at Lindsay Scott’s PMO Learning site: www.pmolearning.co.uk.

Leadership Roles

The principal leadership role in a Project Management career is that of Project Manager. But this role title covers a multitude of levels. You may be leading a small project of one or two people as part of a general management or supervisory role.

Or you may be a full time Project Manager. But here too, your project could be anything from a few months and a handful of team members to a few years and a sizeable team.

And, at the top of our profession, are an elite group of Project Managers capable of delivering the kind of Mega-Projects that make the evening news when they go live (or when they fail!). These are often civil engineering and military hardware projects, but they can increasingly be in the IT or entertainments sectors, for example.

Senior Leadership Roles

Those Mega-project Managers are senior leadership roles in any way that really counts. But most contexts don’t have that scale of project to offer you when you reach the top of your game. So, when you feel there is no longer enough challenge in the kinds of projects you can take on, where next? Or, possibly, you just want a different style of work-life.

The senior leadership roles for project managers, while still exercising your technical professional skills are many. And, yet again, the labels betray a bewildering array of different interpretations. I’ll try to use and describe them in the way that will be familiar to most readers. But do check what they mean in your own industry and organization.

Single Project Senior Leadership Roles

  • Project Director – This is a leadership role that can sit above the day-to-day project manager but is not a true governance role, like that of the Project Sponsor. Project Directors tend to have a more strategic oversight of their project and operate at the top political levels, sometimes in lieu of the sponsor. Why would the sponsor not do this? Because the project is big enough and important enough to merit a sponsor at the very top level of the organization. So they do not have the capacity to deal with some of the transactional sponsorship responsibilities.
  • Project Sponsor – Your Project Sponsor is a governance role, who will oversee the work of the Project Manager and make decisions that are outside the authority of the PM. Many sponsors do not have a Project Management background. But as a Project Management career move, stepping into sponsorship is a way to spread your expertise more widely, at a more senior level of the organization. But beware: it can be tempting to dive in too deep and try to fix the PM’s problems for them, or meddle in the day-to-day. Those are not the roles of a sponsor.

Multiple Project Senior Leadership Roles

  • PMO Leader – I talked about PMO roles above. The most senior PMO role – especially in a large organization – is very much a senior leadership role. Often PMO leaders will have the ear of C-Suite managers.
  • Program Leadership – What’s bigger than a big project? A whole bunch of projects that need to work in concert with one another. This is a program. And although some of the requirements of program management differ from those of project management, this is an obvious senior leadership role for an experienced project manager.
  • Portfolio Leadership – The next step up from program leadership on the project management career ladder is portfolio management. A portfolio consists of a whole load of projects, programs, and other initiatives.
  • Projects Director – Here’s one to be careful with. I spoke at the start of this list about a Project Director. So what is a Projects Director? This is a very senior role in some organizations. A top-tier manager at director level, responsible for all projects and project-like activity across the enterprise. In some organizations, this may even be a Board-level role.

Project Management Career Contexts

Another way to move your Project Management career onwards is to change context and work in a different industry or domain. Here is a quick list of the major domains and industries where project managers can build or enhance your career.

Lindsay Scott Comments…

Making a move to a different industry is possible, with some industries being easier to move between than others. For example, it’ll be harder to move between the Financial Services sector into the Rail sector because specialist project management expertise and education would be needed.

You can also consider moving into a different domain. With domains it’s about the different types of projects you can expect to find within an organisation. For example, you can be working on HR related projects and make a move into the IT department and work on wider business related projects.

Lindsay Scott, Arras People: www.arraspeople.co.uk

Examples of Industries

  • Construction
  • Financial Services
  • Transportation
  • Consultancy
  • Heavy Engineering
  • Healthcare

Examples of Domains

  • Human Resources
  • IT
  • Marketing
  • Events
  • Business Change
  • Logistics and Supply Chain

Off the Line: Alternative Project Management Career Paths

Of course, you don’t have to work in an organization as a project manager, to develop your Project Management career. Indeed, you don’t even have to ‘do’ Project Management day-to-day. I don’t!

Here are some alternate Project Management career options:

Doing Project Management, as a:

  • Interim
  • Contractor
  • Consultant

Advise Organizations or Project Managers as a:

  • Consultant
  • Trainer
  • Coach or Mentor

Communicate Your Project Management Expertise as a:

  • Writer
  • Speaker
  • YouTuber

Portfolio Careers

Of course, what a lot of people (like me) do, is mix and match to balance our preferences, to build a fulfilling career, that can evolve. This is called a portfolio career.

Since I left full time Project Management, as a consultant, I have blended:

  • Training
  • Coaching
  • Project Delivery
  • Consulting
  • Trusted Advisor work
  • Writing (books, articles, blogs)
  • Video training
  • Speaking
  • YouTubing

Memberships of Professional Associations

There are plenty of good reasons why joining a professional membership body will enhance your Project Management career. It will, for example:

  • Be a badge of professionalism, enhancing your status and demonstrating your commitment to your profession
  • Offer fellowship and networking opportunities
  • Provide CPD resources to extend your knowledge
  • Give you a channel to demonstrate your thought leadership and commitment

The Principle Project Management Professional Associations

This isn’t the place to go through all the options available to you. But I do want to point you in the right direction.

PMI

The Project Management Institute (PMI) is this is the single largest Project Management membership organization in the world. It’s US-based but global in reach. If you work for a US company anywhere in the world, this could well be your default choice.

Learn more about the PMI:

APM

In many countries, the Association for Project Management (APM) is the second international player after the PMI. And, in the UK, it is the dominant body. They take a different approach to their certifications and membership levels, so if employers in your region and sector recognize the APM, please do check them out.

Learn more about the APM:

IPMA

Pretty much every country has its own Project Membership organization. And most of them are, in turn, members of the International Project Management Association (IPMA). It is a federation of Project Management organizations, and the most obvious exception is PMI, which is not a member. In the Unites States, you can join IPMA-USA.

The UK’s APM is a member, and if you live anywhere else, the first port of call for finding a local professional membership body to join is the IPMA list of member associations.

Learn more about the IPMA:

IAPM

The International Association of Project Managers (IAPM) is a global association and certification body for project managers.. Yet it is perhaps not as well-known as it should be. 

It is dedicated to learning, certification, and networking for Project Managers. Unlike many other project management organizations, the IAPM is not a membership association. It has no paying members, but only voluntary ‘members’ or certificate holders. They have no duties towards the organization.

Instead, the IAPM is all about learning. It produces documents for Project Managers to use in their own self-study programs. And they also offer certifications for certain project manager degrees. In addition, their networking opportunities put project managers in touch with like‑minded professionals. And all these benefits come without having to pay a membership fee.

Learn more about the IAPM:

Alternative Professional Associations

Just because you are a Project Manager, you don’t have to confine yourself to Project Management membership organizations. Two other career-enhancing options are worth your consideration:

Management and Leadership professional bodies, like the American Management Association (AMA) in the US, and the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) or Chartered Management Institute (CMI) in the UK.

You may also deliver your projects in one particular domain or another, like: marketing, engineering, IT, or healthcare. There will almost certainly be professional membership bodies for whatever your domain, in your country, and with a membership level suited to you.

Advance Your Project Management Career with Qualifications and Certifications

Gaining a qualification, particularly a difficult one, says something about your character. It speaks to your:

  • commitment
  • intellect
  • knowledge-base
  • and sometimes, experience

As well as giving you a knowledge boost, as you prepare, qualifications can further your career with some seriously positive resumé juice. But always research the job market in the domain and place where you want to work. You may find some qualifications carry more credit with recruiters and employers than others.

Project Management Qualifications and Certifications

I won’t spend time here rehearsing all of the qualifications and certifications you may want to consider. Instead, I’ll point you to some articles that cover these in detail;

Other Qualifications that can Enhance Your Project Management Career

Just as with membership organizations, it can serve you well to look outside of your profession for additional valuable qualifications. And again, I’d recommend you consider two specific routes:

  1. General Management and Leadership qualifications
  2. Specialist qualifications in areas like: marketing, engineering, IT

For example, ITIL is a very popular qualification for Project Managers whose work involves IT.

A Project Management Degree… or Further Degree

We also cover the topic of academic Project Management qualifications in our article: ‘Project Management Qualification: Should I or Shouldn’t I?‘ It’s a complex topic. My view is that:

  • Degree-level qualifications can be handy as a first degree that will get you started at te beginning of your career. But don’t expect them to give you a big boost versus other candidates with good degrees in otherwise relevant topics like technical, engineering, or business topics. I certainly wouldn’t expect them to give you an advantage over candidates with real experience. So look for options with internships or other forms of work experience as part of the degree course
  • Higher-degree qualifications, like Masters or even Doctoral degrees, can enhance a senior career, but may not pay for themselves in terms of added career salary offset against the time and fees. They may – especially if your research element has a particular value to your potential employers. The best reason to do these is for the love of learning and passion for your subject.

Lindsay Scott Comments…

Project management as a first degree is gaining popularity and is especially essential if you’re looking to enter the construction field (a lot of the project management degree courses major on construction). If you’re looking to enter the workplace as part of a graduate program, a degree in Project Management could be worth your while and give you a head start amongst other graduates with the more generic degrees. It is the larger blue-chip employers that see project-management-as-a-first-degree graduates as a good addition to their teams and have the resources to continue developing you in your career.

Lindsay Scott, Arras People: www.arraspeople.co.uk

I would, however, emphasize that these are personal views and not rooted in current recruitment experience.

Apprenticeships

This only applies if you are in the UK, or somewhere that has funded apprenticeships, but Lindsay Scott comments…

Choosing the apprenticeship route in the UK is also a great place to start your career in project management. These opportunities come in different shapes and sizes – but all of them come with learning and training. With some organizations, there is the opportunity to take the apprenticeship into a permanent role and even onto the Level 6 of the apprenticeship program with is the degree level. See https://www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk/apprenticeshipsearch.

Essential and Valuable Non-technical Project Management Career Skills

For any professional, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is imperative. We need to stay on top of our game, keep abreast of changes, and get better every day. And, for some certifications and memberships, CPD is mandatory. The PMI, for example, has a very tight specification on the number of hours of CPD (which it calls Professional Development Units, or PDUs) to maintain each of its qualifications.

Breadth and Depth

There is no point in going deep into your technical skills without a wider awareness of other issue. If you dig a deep hole that is too narrow, the sides will collapse. You do need depth, but you also need breadth.

So, where can you get all of this knowledge. Here are some of my favourite routes:

  • Reading – books, magazines, blogs
  • Videos
  • Podcasts – especially PM Prepcast’s PDU Podcast
  • Communities and forums
  • Training – live and online
  • Conferences and events
  • Discussion with peers
  • Mentoring – give and receive

Assuming you have the depth of technical PM knoweldge covered, here are my four areas for broadening out your continuing professional development.

Personal and Professional Effectiveness

Topics like:

  • communication skills
  • stress management
  • time management and personal productivity
  • political acumen
  • giving feedback

Leadership Skills for Your Project Management Career

Topics like:

  • leadership
  • management
  • coaching
  • delegation
  • motivation

Context Specific Skills

Topics like:

  • marketing
  • sales
  • IT
  • process management
  • financial management

Business, Professional, and Commercial Acumen

Topics like:

  • business strategy and business planning
  • negotiation skills
  • budgetary control
  • value chain
  • decision-making

General Advice to Help you Advance Your Project Management Career

I have an awful lot of tips to suggest. So, I have started by dividing them into five themes; a sort of TBS: Tips Breakdown Structure*, if you like:

  1. Keep Learning
  2. Relationship Building
  3. Prioritize People Skills
  4. Always Forward
  5. Career Focus

* If TBS makes no sense, take a look at our short video on WBS: Work Breakdown Structure.

Theme 1: Keep Learning

Number one for any profession: keep learning. If you don’t, others will. And they wil get the great gigs, while you founder on the rocks of same-old same-old. Formal learning is vital, as I alluded to above, under Continuing Professional Development. And I’ve also covered the value of qualifications and certifications

But, informal learning is equally important. Suck-up knowledge and ideas like an industrial vacuum pump. Here are the three things you should bee seeking:

  1. Depth of Technical Knowledge
  2. Breadth of Professional Development
  3. Robustness of Project Management Experience – both breadth and depth

Two active processes will allow you to make the best of your learning and your practical experiences:

1. Active Reflection

Reflect on and learn from all of your experiences; both your:

  • successes, and
  • failures

2. Seek-out Feedback

And treat it as the gold-dust it is. Listen hard and reflect on it. Determine what to do as a result of what your feedback tells you and be sure to take action. Then you can apply the active reflection step.

Theme 2: Relationship Building

Your Project Management is all about people: those you work for and with. The more you prioritize this aspect of your career, the better it will go. So this theme and the next build on those relationships.

Professional Network

Actively build and maintain a professional network of contacts. Do your best to stay in touch with people after you or they leave a project. And try hard to avoid souring relationships. If you need to disagree or fire a team member, or even walk out of a bad situation, do it in such a way that you:

  1. Retain your integrity
  2. Minimize the damage to the relationships you’ve built

By the way, you may like our article: ‘The Essential Guide to Handling a Team Member Leaving Your Project‘.

Political Acumen

Most Project Managers would really rather keep out of the organizational politics around their project. But you cannot. And therefore, to try to do so, is:

  • at best, an exercise in futility
  • at worst, dangerously deluded, and courting problems.

Do take a look at our article, ‘The Game of Projects: How to Win at Project Politics‘, and our podcast interview: ‘Podcast: Politics and Stakeholders‘.

Mentorship: Receiving and Offering

Nothing builds a strong professional relationship like mentorship. At the start of your Project Management career, look out for mentors to help you progress it. See our article: ‘How to Get Yourself a Project Management Mentor‘.

Later, you can look for opportunities to act as a mentor. This can be both personally rewarding and professionally developmental for you. See our article: ‘Mentoring Skills: How to Mentor a More Junior Project Manager‘.

Theme 3: Prioritize People Skills

Sharpen up your people skills, because that’s really what projects are about. The more technical they get: the more you rely on a diverse group of people to deliver them.

Project Management is 80 per cent Communication

I really believe this is true. So, developing your ability to engage people, listen to them, respond mindfully, and influence them is key.

Management to Leadership

Another important theme is the transition:

  • From… Managing a project – getting everything done in a co-ordinated manner
  • To… Leading a project – inspiring people to follow you and support you to make the project their own

We’ve written many articles on this subject, starting with: Project Manager or Project Leader? What’s the Difference? Then, take your pick from:

Learn to Delegate as well as Do

We love doing. But that’s not your role as a leader – nor even as a manager. Learning to delegate effectively is crucial, because it’s your efficiency multiplier.

Know the Jargon – and Put it Aside

Know all of the PM jargon and how to use it properly. But also understand that it can be as much a barrier to communication as an enabler. Be able to describe and explain any aspect of your project and your expertise in plain language. I like the seven-year-old test’. Would an intelligent seven-year-old understand what you are saying? If not, re-think how you explain your ideas.

Develop Gravitas and Professional Presence

How do people respond to you when you make a suggestion?

  • At one extreme, they may immediately sit up, shut up, and listen
  • At the other, they may carry on talking and barely notice your presence

If you want people to take you seriously and weigh every word you say, you need to develop Gravitas – weight.

Theme 4: Always Forward

Maintain a positive, optimistic attitude. A vital part of your demeanour for a successful Project Management career is a grounded self-confidence. This is not the same as arrogant self-belief. Rather, it is about knowing your capabilities, and a willingness to accept the challenges that arise, and to tackle then calmly and professionally.

Optimism is not the same as blind faith. It is a forward-looking determination to seek out and harness the opportunities to achieve what you need to do. In the face of set-backs, an optimistic mindset will allow you to be more resilient and resourceful.

Take on Challenges

Taking your Project Management career forward, means taking on more demanding and more responsible roles. Look for the opportunities and put yourself forward. Then seek out the knowledge and guidance that will help you succeed.

Offer Help

Volunteer and give your time freely. Not only does it build relationships and create reciprocal obligations. It is also a fabulous way to learn, and to get experiences you may not otherwise gain.

Accept Responsibility

If you get asked to do something that will help your career, take it on. And always accept responsibility for things you can influence. It shows character.

Theme 5: Career Focus

Don’t forget that it is okay to want a good career and to aspire to success. Ambition is fine, as long as you exercise it ethically and don’t let it consume you to the extent that it will damage other aspects of your life.

Periodic Reassessment

From time-to-time, reassess your career. Ask the three fundamental questions:

  1. Where are you?
  2. What do you want?
  3. And what next?

Keep your Resumé / CV up-to-date

In the light of your periodic reflection, keep your resumé up-to-date.

Lindsay Scott Comments…

Get into the habit of keeping your Linkedin profile also up-to-date with accomplishments too. If you’re working in a long-term permanent position you may not think updating a resume or profile from time-to-time is important. Wrong! We often forget about key achievements or skills we have picked up when we’re sitting down to update a profile two years later. Drop a reminder into your calendar to make some quick notes every couple of months and when you need your resume later down the line you’ll be well prepared to knock it into shape.

Lindsay Scott, Arras People: www.arraspeople.co.uk

Sensible Self-Promotion

No-one likes an arrogant or boring self-promoter. But if you don’t put yourself forward, then nobody else is obliged to do so. You need to find a fair style of letting people know of your accomplishments and capabilities. And to also plant in their mind the sort of next steps you’d like.

Let People Know Your Career Aspirations and Ambitions

Finally, it won’t hurt to let others know what you want for your career. People want to help. And if they don’t know what help looks like, how can they do it. If you don’t ask; you won’t get. Make it easy for people to help you move your project management career forward.

Do You Have Any Tips for Advancing a Project Management Career?

Please do share them in the comments below. I look forward to responding to every contribution.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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