Top 5 Strategies To Advance As A Project Manager

Top 5 Strategies To Advance As A Project Manager

Whether you’re a business or project analyst, project coordinator or some other type of project team member, making the transition to a project manager role is likely to be on your career agenda (the salary is excellent and demand is high). But although it’s well worn, the path to becoming a PM can be a bit daunting and often different for everyone. Nevertheless, there are some tried-and-tested approaches you should consider.

Coffee picture from Shutterstock

Step 1: Begin with the end in mind

As Steven Covey notes in his world-renowned book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, beginning with the end in mind is a crucial step to realising your goals. For a career in project management this means being clear on what your objectives actually are rather than just jumping straight in:

Ask yourself:

  • Is there are particularly industry, company or type of company you want to work for?
  • Is there a particular project management methodology you want to specialise in?
  • Are you more focused on finding interesting and more involved work or on increasing your earning potential? Or both?

Having an idea of where you want to end up now will help you realise which decision points and activities will help you get there, faster

Step 2: Coffee, coffee, coffee

And no, it’s not because you’ll be so exhausted that you’ll need the caffeine. The cold, hard reality of the workplace is that people hire people that they like and that they know. Yes, there will be processes and assessment criteria in place, which you certainly can’t ignore, but ultimately the person making the hiring decision is the one you want to connect with. So, knowing the right people might just help you get the right job — and if you and your objectives are well known to your network, they might just think of you when something comes up.

Even if no-one offers you a job, there is enormous value in leveraging the experiences and knowledge of a well-rounded network.

So get building. Networks don’t have to be formal — they often start with friends, family or colleagues and grow from there. But be deliberate. Based on your objectives, try and identify the gaps in your network and who could fill them. Make contact with each of them using LinkedIn, email or a phone call.

Then meet them and shout a coffee. Discuss your objectives, ask their advice, how they got to where they are and what they think you should do to get where you want to go.

Step 3: Assess your current experience and identify any gaps

This is where the information you have gathered in steps 1 and 2 come into play. Based on your objectives, what are your experience and qualification gaps? What have people in your network done that you haven’t and think you should? You can always ask these questions explicitly of people in your network:

  • What experienced do your contacts have that you don’t? Or what have they recommended? Would these experiences suit your objectives?
  • Do you currently hold the right project management certifications for the industries you want to work in?

Step 4: Close the gaps

To close the gap you need to focus on one or two key areas . Firstly, get more experience: Take on new roles, secondments and side projects. Talk to your manager about stretch opportunities

Secondly, improve your qualifications. Most PMs have at least one type of project management qualification and most employers will expect you to have one too. Consider the following certifications:

  • PRINCE2 — the most established certification
  • Agile — the new and fast growing certification
  • PMP — the certification for really experienced project managers

Step 5: More coffee(!)

Remember your network is the key, so keep working on it at every opportunity. Use your network to continue to test your objectives, understand your gaps and help close them.

Andrew Wayland has worked as a project manager for over 10 years, and currently provides project management training through Online Course Academy.


  • Interesting article but not very useful and quite naive. Becoming a PM is not like advancing through IT technical areas where it is just a matter of gaining knowledge/certifications and then doing the job whilst gaining experience. The PM journey is quite different, having been through it over the last 15 years and seen many others attempt to become PMs. Being a PM is 80% ‘soft skills’, 15% luck and 5% methodology (PRINCE2, PMP etc).

    As a PM you are directly responsible and accountable from management/business above, and your team below. If you cannot lead, maintain a working team, deal with hundreds of issues and manage stakeholders you will NOT deliver. Lack of delivery is why most people stop being PMs, either by choice (due to the pressure and stress) or ‘being let go’. This is also why PMs move around so much and there is very high turnover of these roles. The IT industry is absolutely overflowing with people who call themselves PMs, but can’t deliver. Many of these remain unemployed for long periods of time and they are easy to spot in interviews.

    I would suggest a more practical and low risk approach. In your current role, find a small project or initiative, ask to completely lead it and be responsible for it from ‘woe to go’. But it must involve almost none of your own effort, rather managing a team of others to achieve a deliverable. Do this several times to get a feel for what ‘leading’ and managing a team is really like. There is a big difference between working on a project and being the project manager responsible for it all. Only then would I attempt to gain a PM certification like PRINCE2 or a PMP and really divert your career down this path.

    As someone who hires other PMs for corporate roles, I’ll never employ a junior PM with little experience for anything but the most minor roles. I always ‘bin’ any PM CVs where the PM has had under 5 years experience, which is almost nothing as a PM. So please don’t think it is a quick road to riches. It is a LONG, HARD, FRUSTRATING path to becoming even an average PM so please try managing teams in your current role, before you start down this path. If I had my time over again, I would have not become a PM but remained in a technical role and additional money is not worth the trouble.

  • See that photo up there, of the two happy people, enjoying a few quiet moments whilst they have a drink ?
    They are not Project Managers.
    They’re probably from Sales or Marketing, or that epitome of all things lazy and inefficient, Human Resources.
    No doubt, they’re laughing heartily at a photo of the PM looking harried and hunted, taken a few hours earlier, as he looks to dodge the next ambush.
    The only time you’ll see two Project Managers laughing like that, is when they’re looking at someone elses project that bears a striking resemblance to Apollo 13.

    The title of the article should probably be How to Start As A Project Manager.
    Advancing comes through hard experience, not from bouts of lattes. That said, the advice is still valid for either the new or misguided.

    Being a PM isn’t a cruise through of rounds of coffee with friends and family, though admittedly that may help get you started on small projects (where essentially the technicians will finish the project with or without you), it should also help develop the taste for success.
    You’ll want to recall that sweet sensation from time to time..

    Here’s what else you can do to set yourself up as a Project Manager:
    Develop your soft skills
    Most of your job is getting people to agree, commit and then maintain that commitment. Humans are naturally resistant to committing to anything, so asking them to be available 2-3 weeks in the future can be akin to picking up a greasy ballbearing with chopsticks.
    Staff will go on leave on the exact dates of a cutover and ‘forget’ to tell you, or they will get deployed on other projects. Stakeholders will tell you about important changes at the last minute, and it is not uncommon to find yourself as the liaison person between two managers and/or departments that absolutely hate each other.

    You will have convince, cajole, motivate, and very occasionally, bully others to keep to those commitments, keep their focus and keep them goddamn working.
    Getting a solid set of soft skills is arguably one of the most important things you’ll need as a Project Manager.
    Gone are the days of ordering other to just do as you say, Staff are often cross deployed on other projects and any foot stamping will see them shift their attention to those other projects at the cost of yours.
    The irony of having to ask/beg/threaten staff to do the very job they are paid for, has not been lost on many a PM.

    Here’s where else your soft skills will come into play – when a project is starts to fail.
    Once that happens, people will flee your project faster than a fart from a balloon. Those that can’t will assume the demeanour of the damned.
    Guess whose job it is to not only turn the project around, but to remotivate them into being fully committed ? Yes, I’m glad it’s you.

    Grow a thick skin. And then toughen it
    Understand this – as a Project Manager, you are seen as the focal point, the lightning rod if you will, for all and any blame.
    Customer failed to tell you the specifications had changed significantly since they signed the Project Management Plan ?
    Your fault
    Project overran because the customer reduced the schedule and manpower by a third ?
    Your fault.
    Failing to predict the trajectory, wind velocity and direction from the grassy knoll, three weeks in advance ?
    Your fault.
    The early years of being a PM will be painful, and you’ll learn how not only reduce what can be blamed on you, but also defending yourself from other peoples failure(s).

    You are not a Manager, you are the Leader.
    Managers simply manage what is already in place – you will be leading the teams from chaos to order. It might sound trite, but the difference is quite significant.
    If you want guarantees, guidelines and solid gold hits, do not become a PM.
    Ambiguity, confusion and change are constant factors in your day to day dealings.
    It is your job to bring the concept into existence, so others can enjoy those guarantees and guidelines and then get busy with their managing.

    Do not fear Failure
    Everyone does, you shouldn’t. Even when the failure is your fault.
    It is from failure you will get your best experiences, though it is highly unlikely your stakeholders will see it in the same light.
    This is why bite sized projects are good to start with, so you can get the failing out of the way, and develop up your fledging PM skills.

    Methodology is not the project
    Methodology is good to have, especially in complex projects, or if you’re new to project management.
    However, methodology is a guide, albeit a tested and proven one.
    Recognise what will be needed, and what you can discard. That is where the 10 years+ experience comes in handy.

    Learn who has the Power
    Yes, yes all stakeholders are important and some of them may convince you that they actually wield the One True Power. Bollocks.

    Finding out who actually makes things happen will save you a lot of fruitless hours of trying to progress your project.
    Ideally it should be the Project Sponsor, but I swear some organisations love appointing amiable but spineless staff as the Sponsor. Everybody loves old Tom, and happily ignores everything he says.
    If you’re stuck between what the Sponsor wants and what the Solution Architect says will fly, you need to know what your chances of survival are.
    If it fails, the Solution Architect will loudly blame you because he (rightly) alerted you to the dangers, and you’ll quickly find the Sponsor will not want to share their load of the blame, and will quietly distance themselves from you.
    Amiable ? Yes.
    Spineless ?Yes.
    Stupid ? No.

    Usually it will quickly become apparent who has the reins, as the Sponsor will often defer to the One With Power, push-cum-shove.
    The other tried and tested method is to screw something up, and see who yells at you the loudest. Not altogether surprisingly, it’s a practise you will not find in any methodology books.

    As with everything else in your project, just make sure you get everything signed in writing, and you’re golden.

    • “Agile — the new and fast growing certification”

      No. Please no.

      The last thing IT needs is more coaches or PMs coming along and thinking agile is a 2 day certification they can get and then magically deliver stuff.

      It’s not.

      It’s a way of working, but more than that its a mindset. Please don’t get a little certificate, erect a card wall, and say you’re Agile. Does not work that way.

      • The fact the author mentions Agile before PMBOK tells me exactly why this article is useless.
        Also Agile is development – it is not a life-cycle! You still need to put the business case together, you still need to plan resources and stakeholders and communication. You still need to manage the client. You still need to deliver the thing into production and make sure it doesn’t fall over the minute you turn your back. You need to ensure the processes are in place to keep the system running after you go. You need to assess the project and learn from your mistakes. Agile is a tiny part of that used for some software development yet it is touted as the second coming of Jesus.

  • Coming through the mill for over 15 years in IT implementation projects, I have recently added Prince2 to my qualifications list.
    So yes, whilst I started off in functional, my CV would be binned straight away since I have not done 5 years of consecutive PM. But guess what. I’ll be the one that make the 10 years experienced PM’s life hell as he is the one that has no idea what he is doing on my field. If he is good, he will see straight away my value, but chances are (98% of the time up to now), they have no idea. It is not that difficult to be flexible, but you got to know what you up too in my industry.

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