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Skills maketh the project manager

Martin Vaughan
August 15, 2011

Education is not enough to become a project manager—skills are the key desirables, and you either have them or build them.

Project management is fast becoming a career of choice for some young people, a stepping-stone for others. Project management skills are highly sought after, as they are applicable to general business management. When one considers the communication and people management skills, together with financial, risk management and the ability to ‘get things done’, project management provides tangible and useful skills.

I lecture at Melbourne University and the most common question from postgraduate IT students is ‘How do I get a job in project management?’—they mistakenly assumed they could get a project manager job straight out of university. Realistically, that is not the case.

Pathways to project management

There are a number of pathways into project management and much written about the ‘accidental’ project manager. Indeed, the focus of the industry over the last decade is bridging the skills gaps and accreditation. An accidental project manager will usually find themselves in an unfamiliar role due to desire, circumstance, strategic reasons or resource shortage. They are often expected to hit the ground running.

By focusing on the accidental project manager, Australian industry has neglected the next generation of young, ‘aspirational’ project managers. The lack of graduate recruitment through the late 1990s and early 2000s now affects business with staff shortages and generational gaps. There is currently an acute shortage of project support staff with discipline specialists such as planners attracting very high income levels. We also see people moving into specialist roles such as PMO management, who lack the foundation skills and experience.

The different PMBoK domains, in which support staff tend to provide a ‘controls’ function, provide the foundations for a career in project management. They provide the logical first step for aspirational project managers and should be the focus of graduates when job hunting. They provide both a tangible role as well as the opportunity to watch stakeholders, project team dynamics and leadership styles.

An alternate pathway for graduates who may aspire to project management is to obtain a job in associated areas such as testing, finance or business analysis. As a team member, they can then gain business, technical and project knowledge, prior to stepping up into project management, having undertaken project management studies in their own time.

Occasionally we see people with project management experience who change industries to maintain interest and increase their employment prospects. We have seen people from engineering move to IT and be particularly effective, although they need to read extensively about project and system development lifecycles, testing and requirements management to enable this change.

Effective project managers

There is an interesting disconnect between what recruiters look for when recruiting project managers and what makes for an effective project manager long term. Think of the typical job ad for a project manager, ‘Must have X years industry experience, must have done similar projects before, must be accredited, must be good with XYZ tools’. Now think of what attributes make for an effective project manager—they will be heavily weighted toward people skills, particularly communication.

Based on this observation, and work done in many industries, the following order of priority in terms of skills is proposed:

  • Soft skills (communication, leadership, problem solving etc.)
  • Astuteness (e.g. knowing when to push and when to back off)
  • Project management domain skills (can be taught)
  • Industry experience (can be supplemented through mentoring/coaching).
Martin Vaughan
Martin Vaughan started his career as a specialist planner/scheduler in construction before moving to defence, then into IT. He progressed through project management and program management into consulting and advisory roles. Meanwhile he maintained an interest in tools and technology, on the way building and managing small businesses and squeezing in some lecturing in IT Project Management at the University of Melbourne. He is now a director and senior consultant at Core Consulting Group.
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