How to Get Your First Job in Project Management (PM)

I was recently corresponding with Geoff Crane, the creative force behind The Papercut Project Manager website, about how people can get started in Project Management (PM). After some thought-provoking back and forth with him on the topic, I was inspired to create the following article. (Thanks, Geoff!)

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In more than three decades of working with PM newbies in my classes, I’ve heard a lot of great stories about how people became project managers. Based on what I’ve heard, I have two broad suggestions for anyone who would like to get that first job as a project manager:

  1. Become a valuable and trusted contributor on project teams.
  2. “Act as if” you are in charge of (or at least responsible for) one or more projects.

Here’s a closer look each of these.

Become a Valuable and Trusted Project Contributor

Something every would-be project manager ought to consider:  PM is an activity that is often regarded as “overhead.” That means that the time project managers spend on their PM chores is budgeted under “administrative costs” or a similar heading. In contrast, the primary work of creating project deliverables is typically done by specialists in a given field. The scriptwriters, computer programmers, researchers, systems analysts, plumbers and electricians, etc.  – all these folks make unique contributions that are based on their mastering a chosen specialty. Over time, if they do good work, they come to be regarded as valuable and trusted project contributors. They are the “go to” people who get things done, know how to deal with obstacles and can creatively invent short-cuts that can be implemented without sacrificing quality.

Now if you are going to manage a project in a given field, you need to have developed a substantial working knowledge of that field for two primary reasons: 

  1. Your detailed plans, inspections, reviews and client/stakeholder outreach efforts need to make sense within the context of that field and its professional “best practices” and,
  2. You need to have the respect of those key project contributors so that when you ask them to do something they trust that you know what you’re talking about and will comply. And the best way to get their respect is if you, yourself, have spent some time working shoulder-to-shoulder with them, getting good results.

So whether you’re trying to create an accurate task list and matching project schedule, trying to sell the project to stakeholders whose support you need or trying to nudge project team members to take a specific course of action, it really helps to have spent some time yourself as a project team member, making valuable contributions and earning the trust of your peers, SMEs and other stakeholders.  (And it also helps if you love this field, can empathize with the passions of its practitioners and truly enjoy working with them!)

“Act as If” You Are Responsible

In his book The Power of Intention, Wayne Dyer suggests that  we: “Act as if everything you desire is already here… treat yourself as if you already are what you’d like to become.”  And in his book, Get Out of Your Own Way, Robert K. Cooper writes: “Brain scans show that simply imagining a complex and compelling goal will actually fire the same neurons that will be required to actually achieve the goal… In order to sense a new idea or shape a better future, we must first create it in the brain as a possibility…”

Translating these high-sounding suggestions to our topic of getting a foothold in PM (and getting a bit more specific) here is a list of things I’ve observed that “ordinary” project team members were doing just before they broke into their official role of project manager:

  • Anticipating problems that the team might face, then helping to prevent them
  • Going beyond simply enduring or complaining about obstacles or roadblocks to taking the actions that were necessary to help remove them
  • Filling in the gaps by doing the dirty, thankless jobs when no one else was available in order to keep the project moving
  • Stepping up and acting on behalf of — or, more specifically, acting as if they “owned”:
    • The schedule
    • The budget
    • The resource work load that may have needed balancing
    • The quality of the finished product
  • Advocating on behalf of team members who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) speak up for themselves
  • Serving as a bridge between stakeholders and the professionals on the project team by helping translate technical jargon, explain field-specific best practices or generally selling the project and its value
  • Leading, in critical moments when there was no one else around to serve as leader

In short, when a member of the project team starts doing the kinds of things listed above, the senior managers and stakeholders who are orbiting the project begin to listen more carefully when this person speaks.  And eventually this person acquires the personal gravitas to be asked to serve, officially, as a project manager.

Like a Glacier

If you practice the two broad collections of behaviors discussed above, it is almost inevitable that you acquire the job title of project manager.  And this job title will be deserved because you have authentically:

  • Mastered a profession and earned the respect of your peers through a track record of competence
  • Become a de facto project manager by “acting as if” you own and take responsibility for the projects on which you work

Do these things and slowly but surely, with the inevitability of a glacier moving inexorably down a mountain, you will become a project manager.

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