Building a project management career

Top ten tips in becoming a project manager

Dr Ian Clarkson offers his advice on how to enter the profession and run successful projects.


Ian Clarkson | 27 January 2017

In a previous blog, I discussed how although Project Management isn’t a bona fide profession, it is very clear business need to encourage more people into the sector], how would I recommend new entrants got into project management? My own route into this discipline has been unconventional: 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?”

Now I am probably not the first person (and probably won’t be the last) to accept a new position on the sole premise it was paying more money. But as the skills of Project Managers are becoming more and more in demand, and the recognition grows for the importance of the sector], here are my tips on entering the profession:

Here are my tips on entering the profession:

  1. 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. Be clear on what you are pursuing.

  2. 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?

  3. Reflect on the skill set that’s needed. Through a series of presentations/seminars, I support the Officers Association, a charity that helps officers find employment when they leave the military. Something I encourage them to do is to think about their skills from the military and reflect on how these map to that of a project manager. Planning, organisational skills, leadership, negotiation, problem solving, risk management, communication, stakeholder engagement, for example, are all key attributes of both military officers and project managers.

  4. 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 two 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

  5. Gain experience. Don’t expect to be thrust into a project managerial role from day one. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Build your competence. Identify the skills you need to perform as a project manager. Not just project management 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, yet don’t neglect the literature, and online/social media as content-rich sources of knowledge.

  8. Keep your competence current. Project Management is itself evolving, and so should you. Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is a must for a competent Project Manager. If you are not enrolled in a CPD scheme, visit apm.org.uk/CPD.

  9. Treat being a project manager as a vocation. As discussed above, 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.

  10. 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.

So, if in 1990 I knew then what I know now about project management, would I have skewed my careers questionnaire to come out as a Project Manager? Definitely!

The pace of change will not slow down, and the need for competent project managers will only increase as a result. It is a great time to get into, or further your career, in project management. Never more so has there been recognition that project management is a profession in its own right and I am optimistic that, one day, Project Manager will appear on careers questionnaires, and as a ‘Recognised Profession’ (for more than just passport applications).Who knows, I may even see you on one of my courses.

Related blogs

Be the architect of your Project Management career

Digital Transformation- A Key Role for Project Managers

Benefits of earning a Project Management certification

12 steps to ensure a successful project

How to get into Project Management


QA Training | Ian Clarkson

Ian Clarkson

Head of Project Management

Dr Ian Clarkson is Head of Project and Programme Management at QA, providing business direction and ownership of QA’s portfolio, programme, project and risk management curriculum. Ian is an experienced lecturer, author, speaker and consultant, having delivered programmes and projects in all industry sectors. This extensive hands-on experience coupled with a background in education has made Ian well-known and highly respected in his field. Ian currently works with a team of highly experienced lecturers and consultants helping organisations excel in all aspects of portfolio, programme, project and risk management.
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