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Six tips to work your way up the project career ladder

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Once you have a decent amount of project experience under your belt, it’s natural to train your sights on the next step in your career. To many, the role of senior project or programme manager marks the perfect gateway to greater responsibility, challenge, prestige – and pay. But advancing your own career is a project in itself. As any industry pro knows, that takes real planning. You can’t just bowl along, your fingers crossed, and expect things to pan out as you’d hoped.

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So here are six tips on how to be deliberate about climbing the project career ladder:

1. Make sure your current projects are perfect

Well, perhaps not perfect… But it makes sense that the project professionals who get promoted tend to be those with a record of delivering successful projects. So, make sure you’re getting the fundamentals right: deliver yours on time and on budget, employing the right methodology and communicating well with your stakeholders. Still, it’s not all about you, and it’s worth remembering the role context plays here. Some projects are doomed from the start, so be canny about the ones you pick. If it has a clear scope, a compelling business case and solid partners, you’ll be more likely to succeed.

2. Understand what a senior project or programme manager does

It can be easy to want to jump up the ladder in theory, without truly understanding what that actually entails and whether you’d enjoy it. What tasks can you expect? What knowledge, skills and expertise will you be expected to show?

3. Plan ahead

Think about the industry you want to become senior in. Is it in your current field, or are you going to have to make a transition? That can be a tricky thing to pin down, so start by identifying what you’re really about: what are your values, your beliefs, your natural strengths? What difference do you want to make in the world? Once you’ve sorted all that, look for job descriptions in the desired industry, and assess how well suited you are already, as well as where the gaps are.

4. Put the work in

While you’re unlikely to conjure the perfect career, it’s perfectly feasible to earn it. That means boosting your skills in communications, planning, analytics, leadership and project management methodology. By the time you add in sector-specific skills, that’s a huge workload, but it needn’t feel like a slog or a second job. Designing your career is an art. It can be fun and inspiring. So carve out time beyond your day-to-day to enjoy dreaming big. Just be sure to marry the sense of freedom that brings with the discipline – and the time – to tackle the nuts-and-bolts that will get you there.

It’s also good to identify opportunities for further study, whether to address gaps in your project management expertise, or sector-specific knowledge and experience. There’s plenty to choose from these days, from online courses and conferences to a wealth of project management accreditation.

5. Get people on side

While career progression is a personal matter, it certainly shouldn’t be a lonely road. Project management is a people business, and the more friends you have in your corner, the stronger your chance of moving up. It is, of course, handy to have people in management ready to speak up for you. But even before that, this can be such a minefield that it’s well worth having the support of a mentor, someone who can shape the above steps into a practical course of training and development.

A mentor should be an experienced hand with whom you feel comfortable, and who is willing to guide and support you through your ups and downs. They’ll have been through it all before, so will know the skills, behaviours and traits you need, and will help tease out the strengths you already have. There’s no better teaching resource than the real-world experience of someone who’s already navigated a similar path successfully.

6. Make yourself visible

It’s no use gathering all those skills, experience and knowledge if no one knows that you have it. Or worse, that you even exist. So we’re back to career advice 101: keep your CV sharp and up-to-date, and make sure you highlight some truly great project management and leadership achievements. But it’s not just about the CV. Sharing your unique take on project management via LinkedIn articles and chatting to people at conferences will help people get to know who you are. So, when that senior opportunity arises, they know exactly who to come to.

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