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How do I become a project manager?

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.

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  1. Mark Jackson
    Mark Jackson 18 June 2015, 02:38 PM

    I have recently been made redundant and I am looking to change careers into full time project management.I have many years experience as a project lead for a finance organisation of IT roll outs, building relocations, refurbishments and small office changes. My main focus was on the user and IT infrastructure requirements. Whilst this is not a full time PM job, the role did require many elements of project management.I am a qualified PRINCE2 practitioner, but was unable to use these skills as we did not operate in a PRINCE environment.I have been looking for an ideal job to start out on the road to becoming a full time PM but seem to be having real difficulties in locating role at a "trainee" or equivelent level. Do PM jobs at this level exist or I am barking up the wrong tree?I noted with interest your comments above regarding Project co-ordination roles but a lot of these require experience in the relevant field (e.g. construction).If you have any tips that would be very well received.   

  2. Vince Hines
    Vince Hines 22 June 2015, 10:47 PM

    Hi Mark,Thanks for your comments and question.  I think a "Junior" PM role should be your target but lets be clear - most organisations use the job title "Project Manager" when they mean someone earning £25k or £100k.  You won't find many jobs that specificially say "Junior PM" so look for roles in an appropriate salary bracket.  The average PM salary is approx £45k. Your PRINCE2 experience will resonate with alot of other people - most organisations don't follow the prescribed PRINCE2 methodololgy but many do take elements (which is recommended).  I have lots of clients who talk about Briefs and PIDs but would not class themselves as PRINCE2 at all and know lots of people who have the PRINCE2 qualification but don't feel they use it. You sound as if you have a good range of project experience which is definitely an asset.  Of course many PM jobs are looking for a specialist; an Intrastructure PM, a Facilities PM, and you should tailor your CV to each application to ensure the most relevant parts of your experience are included for each job type.  In summary, PRINCE2 is a tick, experience looks good so focus on "PM" jobs in the right salary bracket. Feel free to send your CV over to us at Wellingtone if you want any further guidance.Good luck!Cheers,Vince.

  3. Sharon Rushworth
    Sharon Rushworth 17 June 2015, 09:04 PM

    Hi Vince,I have no project management experience, would the APM introductory Certificate be sufficient to get my CV shortlisted if I apply for a project administration role.Due to internal re-organisation, i was able to change career from a Finance support to Business Improvement Officer, learning how to do As-Is, To-Be process mapping, finding and recommendations.  Unfortunately I was left in a situation where I was supporting a contracted Business Analyst on a project as I had good subject matter knowledge.  When the project ended in May I moved to the central office to integrate into my new team.  Basically I was left with no formal development plan for approx. 12 mths.  I was put on an informal 3 mth development plan with soft targets within a safe environment.  At the end of the 3 mths, I did not perform now I am on a formal 3 mths review.  With the upcoming programmes of work required by the business, it has been identified that there is not enough time or resource to support my development. Now I am no spring chicken and 45 is fast approaching!  What is my the best strategy, with little personal training budget, for moving out of Public Sector employment into Private with skills that will add value to my new employer.  I can use Visio, my Excel skills including Vlookups and Pivot Tables.Your advice will be greatly appreciated.Best RegardsSharon

  4. Vince Hines
    Vince Hines 22 June 2015, 10:38 PM

    Hi Sharon,You have years ahead of you!  Excel skills are a real bonus for Project Administrator roles so this is a good start (as is Visio).  There are lots of people who move into a ProjAdmin role without any formal PM qualifications but the APM Introductory Certificate is very well placed to (a) differentiate you from other candidates, and (b) give you an excellent grounding in PM tools and techniques.I would still look to the public sector, not just the private sector for your next challenge.  Ensure your CV brings out your project management related experience and is as generic as possible; for example try and avoid industry jargon.  The fact that you supported a BA is also a good plus.  In general it does sound as if you "tick a lot of boxes" already so I'd say go for the APM exam! Feel free to send your CV over to me and I'll get one of my recruitment colleagues to give you some further advice if that's useful.Good luck!Cheers,Vince

  5. Aslinda Ramely
    Aslinda Ramely 15 June 2015, 09:46 AM

    Hi! My name is Aslinda Ramely, part 3 of Executive Masters of Administrative Science from one of local university in Malaysi. I am quite interested to work as project mgr but Some ppl claim that they dont have much time for family or sort like no work life balance, is that? Tq

  6. Vince Hines
    Vince Hines 16 June 2015, 03:40 PM

    Hi Aslinda,Thanks for your comment.  Work life balance is a factor in many occupations and is very much driven by the culture of the organisation that you work for so I wouldn't want to mark this as something unique or specific to project management.  A common characteristic of projects is that work often rises to a crescendo near the end / go live / launch and this can result in longer hours for a period of time - usually followed by Formula 1 style champagne and plently of rest (ok, maybe not).  Don't be put off from project management by this concern however.