For Those Pursuing Project Management Careers

I am passionate about project management in general, and helping people new to the field more specifically.

But let’s be honest. We’re all nuts.

Not Everyone is Crazy Enough to be a Project Manager

project management careers by StarMama via Flickr
project management careers by StarMama via Flickr

There is a specific form of gluttony for punishment that comes with the territory (some consider it a clinical condition). The decision to head down the project manager career path should not be taken lightly.

When I started out, there was a specific resonance I felt as I learned more about the role of a project manager. Everything I had really enjoyed about my previous positions seemed to be a part of this crazy thing called project management.

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya punk?” – Dirty Harry (1971)

Hmmmm….actually I’m going to ask 2 questions instead. And maybe some sub-questions…what the heck. Being a contrarian is just part of my personality… though, it’s not a “desired skill” for project managers. Especially not when you are contradicting a quote you picked yourself like I just did.

See what project manager employment does to you after awhile? Koo Koo…Koo Koo

Is This a Fit?

Those shiny, flashy careers in project management may seem inviting, but do you really have a passion for this kind of work? Does your personality lend itself to the type of work?

Do you like working with people? I don’t mean like social work, (although I might have something there) I mean being able to relay technical concepts to business people and get geeks excited about what upper management wants. You need to understand “Projects are about humans,” as the Project Shrink says. The importance of communication in project management has become a cliché, but nonetheless, it’s true. You need to do it effectively and fearlessly.

Do you seek attention and praise? Well….this might not work out then.  Part of being a great project manager is crediting your team with every success and shouting it from the rooftops, while taking full responsibility for any failures.  The best project managers I have worked with did this well, and their teams would go to hell and back for them.  People were fighting to work on their projects, and sponsors/customers requested them by name.

Never promote yourself.  Instead, create trust and earn respect from the people around you.  The best self-promotion is no self-promotion.  Seek to be truly awesome and others will sing your praise.

Are you passionate about this stuff? I really enjoy the process of creating something that never existed before. Even if it is not a tangible, physical product it is very rewarding for me to be able to think about what we did as a team. I love process improvement and change. That’s one rreason why out of the various project management careers out there (project manager, business analyst, project controller, program manager, etc.) I chose to be a project manager.

Do You Like Challenge?

Being a glutton for punishment really helps.

One of the great things about project management is that at least once a week someone starts running around the place wildly yelling “My hair is on fire! My hair is on fire! My hair is on fire!”

Seriously though, I can’t even smell burnt hair anymore.

Do you like thinking about a project from every possible angle? Because that is what you will need to do in order to be effective. The customer, the team, the sponsor, external stakeholders…they all have to be happy. You need to be able to change shoes every 10 minutes or so. The nature of projects is changing requirements and approaches as you go, so there will always be situations where you are the hostage negotiator that has to make everyone come out alive and feeling happy.

Do you thrive on change? The idea that a project plan is finalized and then very little changes from there is a fantasy… a theoretical construct that only lives in the pages of your project management textbook.

This doesn’t mean you throw your hands up in the air and let chaos rule… but it does mean that effective change management needs to be a key strength. Uncertainty and change happen, and it is all in how you deal with it (and anticipate it) that makes the difference.

What other questions should someone ask themselves before jumping into the alligator pit?


6 thoughts on “For Those Pursuing Project Management Careers”

  1. I empathize with every project manager, especially technical service providers. The effort to communicate abstract concepts, monitor project performance, and accurately control scheduling is exponentially increased as the complication of the technology being implemented is integrated with other mechanisms. A project manager might feel they have unpopular opinions because of their perspective, but they shouldn’t feel unpopular because of their position. Project managers will burn out when the organization they support, doesn’t reinforce or enable Project Management. PM is not only a position, it’s an attitude. When companies decide to change their attitudes, only then can they accept the benefits of Project Management. I think in some companies, having a designated title of “Project Manager” only facilitates project contributors to not manage themselves – feeling that adequate management will intuitively redirect them at every wrong turn. Professionals in the work-place should not seek loops in the management/project process to withdraw, slack, or avoid effort because of their “feelings”. However, by not addressing “feelings”, contributors will slack, products will fail, and customers will leave. So the role of managing contributors’ feelings is whose responsibility, a project manager’s, an organizational manager’s, or the contributor’s themselves? A project manager’s role is to know more about an organization, than the organization does – know more about the contributors than they themselves do – and know just as much about the specific knowledge domain as others. Wouldn’t this raise the functional knowledge of a Project Manager above that of an Organization Executive? Yes, but believing, empowering, and utilizing that knowledge is not something many executive egos can facilitate. The obvious solution would be to equalize your Project Manager among both the Organization and Performers, but this is unworkable, and results in alienation from both classes, since communication is transparent – all inequality/duplicity would be reported and disciplined via group disapproval. A project manager can either empathize with their performers, their organization, their customers, or their industry – but they can’t empathize with themselves, because who’s allowed to listen / who can a Project Manager afford to alienate?

    -Ryan Gensel

    1. User Avatar

      Thanks for the great comment Ryan!

      I especially liked this: “PM is not only a position, it’s an attitude. When companies decide to change their attitudes, only then can they accept the benefits of Project Management.”

      I would say the project manager needs to empathize with everyone around them…not sympathize, but the PM is in a unique position, kind of like the central position that interfaces with all the varied spokes in a wheel.

      Josh Nankivel

  2. Josh,

    “Seek to be truly awesome and others will sing your praise.”

    The catch is that to do a great job, especially in an organization/project not doing well, you often have to be very tough on folks. Including the bosses.

    I’ve seen managers/PMs labeled as awesome whose primary characteristic was to work like a fiend around the clock on one cataclysmic project after the next (cataclysmic just means not on-time w/quality, often the projects/products go out the door – eventually). People loved these awesome folks (awards, bonuses, etc.) but company performance remained status quo.

    Being a true glutton often means to be brutally honest:

    Good article.


    1. User Avatar

      Thanks Bruce! I agree with you. Part of being truly awesome is being honest and having integrity.

      I’ve known a lot of managers who were truly awesome, but I didn’t necessarily like them much. It’s part of the “glutton for punishment” think….being a project manager means being unpopular with some people ALL of the time.

  3. Well Put! I totally concur and am now even more excited to get into this field… Studying to get my CAPM and looking for opportunities to get experience!!

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