Be the architect of your career

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It is 1990 and Elton John’s ‘Sacrifice’/‘Healing Hands’ double A-side single gives him his first solo number one. He spends five weeks at the top, being succeeded by Partners in Kryme (who?) with ‘Turtle Power’, and, later that year, by Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’. Apart from being a ‘classic’ year for music, it was also the year I did my first careers questionnaire at school.

I was 16 and wanted to be an architect. I remember answering the questions so that my perfect job was suggested. Of course, the fact I am writing this article means I never made it as an architect. But how many of you reading this filled out a careers questionnaire at school and came out as a project manager? Was project manager even an option at the time?

Recently, I had to renew my two children’s passports. Knowing a lot of project managers as friends, I thought I would ask one of them to countersign the photos – but, alas, project manager is not a ‘recognised profession’ listed on the government’s website. 

So, why isn’t project management seen as a bona fide profession?

Why wasn’t it an option for me as a teenager? In my career as a professional project management trainer and learning consultant, I have taught thousands of people and engaged with many organisations about their project management needs. Based on this experience, I find that project management is often regarded as something that many people undertake on top of their day jobs.

Different routes in

The good news is that, now more than ever, there are options to progress and excel in project management – from apprenticeships through to the APM Registered Project Professional standard. Since 2012, there has been a higher apprenticeship framework in project management at Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) Level 4.

A highly innovative group, led by Sellafield, has now developed an associate project manager Level 4 standard, which provides a professional career option for school leavers. Development is underway for degree trailblazers in project, programme and portfolio management (QCF Levels 6 and 7 – bachelor’s and master’s levels, respectively) that will offer further career progression.

Steps to success

Projects are all around us – professionally and personally. Whether upgrading to a new Windows operating system, creating new organisational processes or building an extension to your house, you are dealing with a project, and all of them require some form of management.

Projects are here to stay. Because industries and organisations are constantly required to adapt – whether to market and competitive forces, new legislation, changing economic conditions or the post-Brexit environment – the need for competent and professional project managers is only likely to increase.

There is a clear business need to encourage more people into the sector – but how should this happen? My own route in was unconventional: I was working as an engineer for an automotive company and someone came up to me and said, “There’s a job going as a project manager. Are you interested?” Not really knowing what a project manager was, I found that my sole criterion was whether the pay was higher. Now, I am not the first person to accept a new position based on the sole principle that it pays better. But, as demand for and recognition of project managers’ skills grow, there are many more factors to consider. Here, I present tips for those entering the profession or moving between project management positions:

  • Understand what a project is
    A project introduces change to an organisation. Therefore, a project manager needs to bring together all of the facets that can influence this change. 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 and often transformational, as opposed to ongoing and repetitive. Are you clear on the difference? If not, your expectation may be misconceived from the outset.
  • Reflect on the skillset required
    Through a series of presentations and seminars, I support the Officers’ Association, a charity that helps officers find employment when they leave the military. Something that I encourage them to do is to think about their skills from the military and reflect on how these map to those of a project manager. Planning, organisational skills, leadership, negotiation, problem solving, risk management, communication and stakeholder engagement, for example, are all key attributes of both military officers and project managers.
  • 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, and be realistic. Over-optimistic goals will be harder to achieve, and may well demotivate you if progress is slower than you would like. Build this into your personal development plan so that you can track progress towards your goal.
  • Gain experience
    Don’t expect to be thrust into a project management 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.
  • Find a good mentor
    Find someone who can mentor you. This is important, because you will need answers, advice and guidance as you learn your trade. A good mentor can inspire, whereas a poor mentor can discourage.
  • Build your competence
    Identify the skills you need to perform as a project manager. Not just skills for project management (eg planning and processes) but also software tools, commercial acumen, strategic insight, communication, leadership and collaborative skills, for example. Training is the obvious route, but don’t neglect traditional literature, the web and social media – they are all content-rich sources of knowledge.
  • Keep your competence levels current
    Project management constantly evolves, and so should you. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a must for any competent project manager. If you are not yet enrolled in a CPD scheme, visit
  • Treat being a project manager as a vocation
    As discussed, the world is changing. From being seen as an add-on to the day job, project management is now seen as a vocation or career choice in its own right. If you want to be a project manager, be serious about it as a vocation.
  • Don't give up!
    If opportunity doesn’t knock straight away, don’t be disheartened. If you apply for a position as a project manager and don’t get it this time, don’t give up. 

So, if in 1990 I knew what I know now about project management, would I have skewed my school careers questionnaire to result in it recommending project management? 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. There’s never been more recognition that project management is a profession in its own right, and I’m optimistic that ‘project manager’ will soon appear on careers questionnaires and as a recognised profession (for more than passport applications). Who knows, I may even see you on one of my courses.


This article first appeared in Project journal, Winter 2016.

Ian Clarkson

Posted by Ian Clarkson on 3rd Feb 2017

About the Author

I am currently Head of Programme and Project Management at QA Ltd, providing business direction and ownership of all of QA Ltd's portfolio, programme, project and risk management curriculum. I am also responsible for recruitment, quality and performance in these areas.

I am an accredited PFQ, PMQ, PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, Programme and Project Sponsorship (PPS) trainer and contributing author to the APM Body of Knowledge. Published author and regular conference speaker.

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