Accidental project managers can add valuable experience from other roles — but also need the relevant training in their new careers. We chat to three such project managers for more.
Dale Hughes previously worked with young people and families on the brink of social care. Now he manages transformation projects for the London Borough of Hillingdon. “I was quite scared at first, I must admit,” he says of the career switch. “I was suddenly reporting straight into the corporate director on subjects where I had no expertise.”
He adds that, at 36 years old, this is his first formal project management role. His work now includes, for example, introducing paperless digital systems to the council. “I needed confirmation that things were going right.”
Skilling up the accidental project managers
In the upcoming winter issue of Project journal, we investigate the growing skills gap in project management. It’s a huge issue. The profession needs more people like Hughes, bringing a wealth of experience and expertise from outside. Meanwhile, many of those already in project roles are accidental project managers and lack the skills needed to thrive in a challenging project world.
The question of how to get all these people skilled up is a pressing one.
Hughes says that continuous learning is key. He’s certainly been proactive. He first encountered project management processes when he shadowed a consultant delivering a project with the council. Hughes soon took a job aiming to reduce school exclusions within Hillingdon, figuring he could treat the work as a project and put his project management knowledge to the test.
At the same time, he began pursuing APM qualifications. Once armed with that formal technical expertise, he took the transformation role because he saw a chance to leap beyond his comfort zone in terms of subject matter expertise. “We learn by experience,” he says. “See what you're excited about and build on that.”
Josh Chana arrived in the project profession through a radically different route. He began gaining project management experience aged just 19 while on block release at a construction company. He was also studying a BSc in construction management at Kingston University. He ended up dropping the course early to take a graduate role at Imperial College, while he finished off his studies part time.
“I was working for the college’s estates department, delivering projects of up to £1 million,” he says. “Some things I’d done before, some I definitely hadn’t. There was a lot of pressure.”
Unlike his peers who took a straightforward degree route, Josh emerged from university debt free, with five years’ experience on the career ladder and an arsenal of critical soft skills.
Getting valuable experience early on
But, he says, going from supporting the project team as an undergraduate to shouldering full project management responsibility was a big step. At 23, he was having to report to project boards — learning what information to present and how to present it, how to manage the flow of the meeting and what the biggest risks to the organisation were.
For Chana, this was invaluable experience. But few get chance to gain it so early.
“Learning how to talk to stakeholders is like a muscle,” he says. “The only way to grow it is by doing it. If directors never offer assistant project managers the chance to deliver a project, they will never develop those skills. Yes, it’s going to be scary giving a £200k project to an assistant project manager, but if they don’t, those people may end up leaving because they’re not progressing.”
Starting from ground zero
Academia has a key role to play here too. Precious Nwagboso describes herself as an accidental project manager. She spent a decade managing IT installation projects at NUI Services in Nigeria without any project management methodology. She just figured it out as she went. In January 2023, she graduated from Teesside University with an MSc in IT project management — and is now a part-time lecturer in project management there.
For Nwagboso, theoretical knowledge has a huge part to play in filling the skills gap. But education providers need to standardise which aspects of the profession they teach.
“Someone who studies project management at one university may learn change management, while at another they may not,” she says. But, she concludes, formal classroom learning gives people a critical grounding in project management.
“I believe that anyone can start project management from ground zero,” says Nwagboso. “In my work, I do a lot of bridging between what the students think they want to know and what they should actually know. The truth is the fundamentals are fundamental.”