Suppose you’re a project manager and have all your ducks in a row: sufficient industry experience, a PMP accredited certification, and a handful of successfully delivered projects that recommend you for one of the leadership roles available at your company.
Yet, why is it that everytime you think of taking this big step, it feels more and more out of reach?
That’s because project success has evolved from the simple budget-time-scope triad, to also include stakeholder satisfaction, product success, business benefits, and above all team development as valid success criteria. Yes, the stakes are higher. This means your role is not anymore limited to planning, executing, and closing projects.
You need to have a say in the whole project cycle, create a vision, inspire people to follow it, and challenge the status-quo on a daily basis.
You need to become a leader.
Wait, aren’t leaders and project managers the same thing?!
Effectiveness vs. efficiency
Not at all. They have distinct roles and agendas.
Leaders are more strategic. Their duty is to create and communicate the overall vision, making sure all parties strive towards a shared set of goals, a common meaning. That’s why they focus more on the end results rather than the process. On trailing a blaze for others to follow, rather than taking the most traveled path.
When it comes to their teams, leaders become coaches. They’re keen enough to pick up everybody’s personal and professional motivations, and align them with the company’s vision. If a team member fails, they take the hit without playing the blame game and bring them back on track.
Project managers, on the other hand, are more tactical, centered on the execution side. They’re more concerned with setting up budgets and timelines, scheduling resources, monitoring progress, and managing risk. In short, all the aspects that lead to the successful delivery of a project.
In terms of authority, they report directly to the management team or PMO, and expect team members to… well, do their jobs and meet deadlines.
To boil it down to a popular industry saying:
“A leader does the right things (effectiveness); a manager does things right (efficiency)”
OK, so you now have a rough idea about what a leader does. Still, how can you recognize one?
Don’t worry, you’re not going to read about a set of leadership skills. There are plenty of scientific and industry-oriented articles that cover this subject extensively. Instead, we’re going to focus on the predominant attitudes of a leader.
Think of a linchpin. No, not that bolt which keeps the wheel on the axle – even though this meaning works too in this context. But about that person without which a company wouldn’t be the same. Someone who is “indispensable”, to put it in Seth Godin’s words. They are full of energy, respected by all, and always on the lookout for something new.
It turns out there are three main attitudes that characterize a linchpin. According to Seth, linchpins:
- Pour their heart, soul, and energy into their work – Their responsibilities don’t end with their job description. Work represents for them a “platform for generosity, for expression, for art”. A chance to create an experience that has never been created before. That’s why they give their best to make each interaction a memorable one.
- Act, in spite of their fears – Most people are afraid of failure. That’s why they buy into job security and generous office perks to play it safe. Linchpins, on the other hand, deliberately seek out challenges. This doesn’t mean they don’t have their own doubts. But rather that they don’t beat themselves into giving up because of failure.
- Give without expecting anything in return – Today, if someone gives you a gift, you’re expected to reciprocate it in a way or another. Linchpins don’t abide by this reciprocity principle though. They give voluntarily, without expectations. The goal? To create powerful connections with recipients, while encouraging them to forward the gift to the next person.
The good news is that linchpins, leaders, in other words, don’t necessarily need to be CEOs or entrepreneurs. They can be found in all industries and at all levels, even in the person of a project manager.
Obstacles to overcome
Striving for one of the top leadership roles comes with a series of obstacles though.
Among the most notable ones is that of building a network. One that will actually support you in terms of introducing you to the right people, uncovering opportunities that are disguised as impossible projects, and suggesting areas of future improvement.
You’ll also need to become an ongoing learner and advance your skills and professional development, just to stay on top of the trends. Skills are those hard (budgeting, planning, scheduling, etc.) and soft (active listening, conflict management, etc.) skills that you nurture through experience.
Professional development is the domain-specific knowledge that comes from trainings, communities of practice, and certified bodies. Not to mention that you need to earn 60 professional development units (PDUs) over three years to maintain your PMP certification: 35 to be spent on courses, with the remaining 25 to be spent on volunteering at another company, attending events, writing industry-related articles, or speaking at conferences.
Don’t forget about your personal brand as well. This represents how people perceive you in the project management community. Every project, product, blog article, video, speech, and testimonial that you deliver is a reflection of your work. A portfolio that acts as a first impression for all your future career and business interactions.
The road to gaining project leadership roles
You’re doing well up until this point. You already know that you’re capable of becoming a leader and what to expect from the journey.
Now comes the hard part: the steps and actions you need to take to actually make the leap to one of the more impactful leadership roles.
For this, we’ve hand-picked a few of the best senior project managers in leadership roles about and asked them what worked and didn’t work when it came to advancing their careers. Across all interviews, four common pieces of advice overlapped each other over and over:
1. Get a mentor
This is the first step you should take. The simplest way to achieve a goal is to find someone who’s achieved it before and ask them to coach you. Don’t worry about their industry and background though. As Sante Vergini, Agile Transformation Lead @Remote Staff Support Solutions, puts it:
This person doesn’t have to be in the project management community, but rather someone that inspires and motivates you to be as successful as they are, and more importantly, revered as a leader by others. It could be a person you see every day or someone you have never met. It could be a person who is still alive or someone from a century ago whose writings and events inspire you. Choose a mentor that represents your values and principles, and who will become the mascot of your career goals.
They need to see the big picture and be able to guide you in the right direction, without directly pointing to a definite answer. It’s your job to find your path through experimentation after all. Their role is more of a facilitator, rather than a teacher. Kiron Bondale, PM @Easy in theory, difficult in practice, found early on in his career support in the form of two people managers (as he refers to HR or functional managers):
One of my first people managers felt that I might be a good fit for a PM role and insisted I receive some formal education to avoid making “accidental PM” mistakes when managing my first few projects. He also inspired me to pursue the PMP credential once I had sufficient experience and education to do so. Another of my people managers recognized that while I had the hard skills well in hand, my soft skills needed some fine tuning. He took the time to coach me through challenging situations and helped me become more mindful of opportunities for improvement.
2. Engage in smaller projects
A PMP certification can only get you so far. Sure, as a project manager aspiring for a leadership position you should pursue one. But don’t forget that you actually need 4.500 hours spread over 3 calendar years (if you have a bachelor’s degree), or 7.500 hours spread over 5 calendar years (if you have an associate’s degree) of professional experience in leading projects to pursue it in the first place, and later on to keep it. Luckily you can ramp up much easier, just like Chris Croft, Management Trainer and Keynote Speaker @Chris Croft Training did:
There are two ways to get project experience: start by running small projects and move up to bigger ones, and start with small roles in large projects and gradually move up to bigger leadership roles. Do both of these in parallel and you’ll rapidly be running large projects – and then the world is your oyster! You’ll have a transferable skill that will always be in demand.
Not because you have to, but because you own a personal brand which reflects all your values, principles, and work ethic altogether. Stephane Parent, CEO @Leader Maker, hits the nail on the head when he says that:
Leadership sees everything – projects, initiatives, risks, issues – as being about people. That means you have to be constantly building relationships and questioning your own motives and belief systems against other people’s.
Of course, it won’t be an easy journey. Your decisions might nag some people and clash with their interests. When this happens, remember these wise words from Sante Vergini:
Remain positive but pragmatic about those you interact with. There will always be negative people around and you need to deal with them in a professional manner. However, do not let anyone bring you down as you pursue your career goals. Surround yourself with people that support your journey, not sabotage it.
4. Develop a flexible, no-blame attitude
This is worth mentioning again. Leaders take great interest when it comes to the development of their teams. Failure is seen as a direct result of their leadership, and not their team members’ judgement. Isn’t this perhaps too much? Not if you have the right dose of optimism, which is absolutely vital to carry out a vision. As Stephane Parent points out:
Leadership is also about flexibility. It’s about rolling with the punches, not thinking of blame or what could have been. You have a certain level of optimism that tries to move forward, even if it’s only one small step at a time.
These are all known, yet often overlooked practices in the project management industry, that can make or break your career in the long term. Transform them into your habits and let them carry you to land one of those top leadership roles.
If the journey seems too long, don’t get discouraged. Remember that each project manager struggles with the lack of formal authority, by the nature of the profession itself. Bert Heymans, Senior Project Manager @Journeyman PM, beautifully sums this up when he says:
Power and impact are very rewarding but they come at a price. If you want to face this challenge I advise you to start with yourself, become an active listener, seek first to understand others and breed excellent self-discipline.