Ian Clarkson | 3 August 2015
A popular topic I get asked is how does someone start a career in project management? I think back to my own career and how I started. I was working as an engineer for an automotive company and someone came up to me and said “there is a job going as a project manager, are you interested?” Not really knowing what a project manager was or did, my sole criterion for pursuing this opportunity was “is it more money?” I am probably not the first person (and probably won’t be the last) to accept a new position on the sole premise it is was paying more money, and to be honest, this decision has turned out to be the right one, yet if I could give my younger self some advice on how to get into project management, this is what I would have said…
- Understand what a project is. A project introduces change to an organisation, so a project manager needs to bring together all of the facets that can influence this. For example, stakeholders, technical requirements, risks. Be clear on what you are pursuing.
- Understand what a project is not. A project is not everyday operations (termed ‘business-as-usual’) – it is finite, often transformational, as opposed to on-going and repetitive. Are you clear on the difference, as your expectation may be misinformed from the outset?
- Set a goal. Set a goal of becoming a project manager – and work towards it. For example, ‘I want to have full responsibility for a project within the next 2 years’. Have a focus, be realistic. Over optimistic goals will only make your achievement of them harder, and demotivate you if progress is slower than you would like. Build this into your personal development plan so you can track progress towards your goal
- Gain experience. Don’t expect to be thrust into a project managerial role from day 1. Gain experience of operating as part of a project team to see how projects are run, and learn from more experienced colleagues. Would you expect to be the first violinist in the orchestra straight away? Get plenty of variety on different types of projects. All experiences are opportunities to learn – treat them as such.
- Find a good mentor. Find someone who can mentor you. This is important as you will need answers, advice, and guidance as you ‘learn your trade’. A good mentor can inspire, a poor mentor can discourage.
- Build your capability. Identify the skills you need to perform as a project manager. Not just project manager skills (e.g. planning, processes) but also software tools, commercial acumen, strategic insight, communication, leadership and collaborative skills, for example. Training is the obvious route here to give you a platform to evolve, yet don’t neglect the literature, and online/social media as content-rich sources of knowledge.
- Treat becoming a project manager as a vocation. The world is changing from seeing project management as an ‘add on to the day job’ to being seen as ‘a vocation or career choice’. If you want to be a project manager, be serious about it as a vocation.
- Don’t give up. If ‘opportunity doesn’t knock’ straightaway, don’t give up. If you applied for a position as a project manager and didn’t get it this time, don’t give up.
For more guidance browse our project management training courses.