How do I become a project manager?

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We are frequently asked this question, often with the added comment “I organised my wedding brilliantly…I’d be a great project manager”, or “I’m really organised so I must be a good project manager”

Organising yourself or an event certainly sounds like good foundations. Being a project manager however requires a very broad range of skills, not just being able to put together a “to do” list.

It’s been said that a good senior project manager has the same personality traits of an entrepreneur; they recognise the goal and drive to it bringing people along with them, having the personality to get people bought into this goal whilst at the same time being able to accept risk and ownership. Strong shoulders and a steely eyed focus is the order of the day…or project.

So at the core of any successful project manager has to be the right personality. You have to be able to take ownership and get people to do work, bearing in mind these people often don’t report to you. If I think about some of the best project managers I’ve worked with a key personal characteristic could be described as a “calm focus”. Shouting and jumping up and down does not work.

So, maybe you have the personality to become a project manager. What next? Every organisation runs projects all the time. There are the big sexy projects that are visible on the corporate radar but the majority of projects just take place as part of day to day work. 

At its simplest a project manager role means taking responsibility for a piece of work. The larger the piece of work (an IT installation, a building, an aircraft carrier) the more senior you are. You might not have the job title “project manager” but you can certainly own a task. 

Take responsibility for this piece of work. Ask if you can own it. Initially this will just involve you; you are the project manager for that work and the resource doing the work. Can you develop this responsibility? Can you take responsibility for a bigger task that maybe involved you and someone else?  Now you have a project team! 

Tasks and very small projects are run informally, i.e. they pay no attention to project management best practice. Your goal is to understand best practice and (much more importantly) be able to apply the right level to suit the size, complexity, benefit, risk, impact of you project.

The level of project management that needs to be applied will vary. Do you need a risk log for a 3 day task, probably not, but a 1 pager that outlines the scope of the task and the effort required might be useful.

So you need to learn best practice. The APM provides a well-rounded foundation qualification in project management, typically delivered as a 2 day course with a 60 minute multiple choice exam at the end. Engage with the industry; the APM runs hundreds of events every year so go along and meet some project managers and compare notes.

If you are able to build your responsibility into running tasks or small projects then maybe you can develop this into a junior project manager role. A more likely first step would be to seek a role as a project coordinator or even project administrator. This introduces you to the language and work environment of projects; RAID logs, baselines, schedules, progress, planning and so on. 

You might even move away from projects and work in a project management office as an analyst. This provides much quicker exposure to a variety of projects and project managers and is to be recommended. You might then move back into a project role that carries more responsibility.  At this point your career is driven by the level of project responsibility you can get. This might mean moving organisations, maybe once every couple of years.

Finally, treat your career like a project. Have clear, realistically timed goals (not just salary targets). Your goals should include qualifications & experience. Developing these together with a calm focus will bring project management opportunities.

Vince Hines

Posted by Vince Hines on 11th Jun 2015

About the Author

Vince is the Managing Director of Wellingtone, the project management recruitment, training and consulting company based in Windsor, Berkshire. The Association for Project Management and Wellingtone have formed a unique alliance to provide a career development service to the project management profession. Wellingtone is also an APM accredited training company and a Microsoft Gold Partner for Project and Portfolio Management. Vince is an expert Project Management Consultant, having worked with clients across the UK, US and Europe. He retains a number of professional qualifications including MAPM and has extensive real world experience of developing client project management maturity. As Managing Director of Wellingtone Vince has a particular insight into career development and recruitment of project management professionals and is a judge for the Annual APM Awards.

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