Great Careers for Great PMs
by Cinda Voegtli
In my previous posts, I've provided my ideas about what constitutes a great PM. This time, I would like to bridge to what these ideas can mean for someone's overall career. Of course, it seems obvious that if you're a great PM, you'll get more opportunities. Certainly you'd seem like the person to call for bigger and hairier and more complex projects. But I bring this up because of the unexpected career paths I've seen people take based on a foundation of PM ability. Examples of what I mean:
My own career path: Engineer - to functional group lead - to line Director and release manager - to multi-site PM - to contract project manager - to PM and development methodology creator and project coach - to head of project management support group - to Interim manager for SQA and regulatory groups - to consulting business owner - to consultant/acting VP of product development - to web business owner.
A colleague named Barbara: Software configuration management coordinator - to project manager for small vendor RFP effort - to software program release manager for post-development product integration - to program manager for major corporate software initiative - to development manager for new software installation product.
Colleague named Pete: Software developer - to software group manager - to software project manager plus member of development process improvement committee - to head of new PMO/project support group - to director of projects.
Colleague named Warren: hardware engineer - to software developer - to software quality assurance consultant - to project management consultant - to project methodology consultant - to consultant / acting Director of projects for a product group - to program manager for medical products - to Director at a web start-up - to VP of engineering at a medical startup.
Neil: Development engineer - to customer support engineer - to project manager for multiple projects in a small services company - to GE corporate consulting on projects - to manager of organizational effectiveness including PM coaching, development processes, executive assistance - to member of organizational development group for major computer company supporting projects and processes.
Each person above had a really interesting mix of career experience—a series of positions that was not planned out for any of them, but evolved based on their performance, abilities, etc. From what I know of each of them, their opportunities came about because of their PM Greatness in particular areas that fit their environments and led to excellent performance of the job at hand, and the opportunity for the next great challenge.
So to summarize some key Great PM Opportunities distilled from these career paths:
Roles in PMOs: One great opportunity is to get a role helping support project managers. What Great PM traits matter? Process savvy and flexibility, the ability to understand different project environments and advise new PMs on the nuances of becoming a great PM in every situation, rapport with management...
Functional management roles: As noted above, there are savvy PMs who have moved from functional roles, to project management roles, and eventually back to the functional world, but in elevated positions. The same qualities that made them great PMs led directly to them being trusted and desired in more responsible functional/business positions—qualities such as their understanding of the business, rapport with cross-functional groups, and the ability to make or influence tough trade-off decisions.
Consulting and contracting, whether to run or coach specific projects or help with overall improvement goals. In my experience, our past performance, credibility, and demonstrated ability to learn trump whether you've managed a specific project type before. Courageous and can-do attitudes, building a get-it-done track record in the new client, and the rapport great PMs build inside clients often leads to a stream of additional opportunities—clients asking "Hey, can (your name here) do that for us too?"
So what is it about Great PMs that gets them these opportunities? I think it's the aspects I've tried to cover in these posts. By way of a summary, here are key building blocks of the great PM (my opinion!):
Performance and expertise: – The foundation for credibility, trust, relationships, opportunities
- Results on past efforts
- Known for doing a good and thorough job
- Increasing judgment, maturity
Business understanding – Understand the key drivers
- What customers need and related priorities
- Business strategy, project drivers
- Able to make tough tradeoffs
Communication Skills and Savvy – Communicate the right info at the right time, with courage and with appropriate detail and style
- To Executives – bottom line, hard truths
- To Functional Groups – sensitive to their issues
- To Team – providing context and motivation
Rapport with Executives and Functional groups – Interactions of mutual understanding and respect, non-victim attitude
- Understand their perspective and issues
- Therefore your assessments are believed
- Change is easier - you have influence
Process Understanding and flexibility – Apply PM effectively and been seen as effective yourself
- PM techniques are valuable, not overhead
- Adjust for different types of projects
- Improvements happen faster
Relevant background, continuous learning – Foundation for guiding projects
- Understand risks, make sound judgments
- Competent management of largest, most complex, riskiest projects
- Learn more areas, expand opportunities
I'll leave you with the thought that great things are possible in the careers of great PMs. Perfection is not required; fit and flexibility for your environment are; and finally, in my experience Great PM-ness is not born, it's made. The accumulation of experiences, the willingness to learn and grow, and taking on the consistent attitude of speaking up, making a difference, adjusting for your customers, and being the one who's known as helping and driving in a value-add way to get it all done... That's a great PM and one who can have a great career!
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Improving Project Management & Increasing Its Perceived Value
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