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 every time 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 include stakeholder satisfaction, product success, business benefits, and team development as valid success criteria. Yes, the stakes are higher. Your role is no longer 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. And there are several different management styles to choose from, whether running a remote or an in-house team. Also, there is a multitude of tools to help you be more efficient, like the ones in this list of best task management software.
In addition, good leaders look for the most popular, paid solutions that are best suited for corporate needs, be they invoicing and accounting software or online time-tracking apps. Even if they are running small companies and irrespective of their earnings, timesheet management software is instrumental.
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, ensuring all parties strive towards a shared set of goals and a common objective. That’s why they focus more on the end results rather than the process— on blazing a trail for others to follow rather than taking the most traveled path.
When it comes to their teams, leaders become coaches. They’re keen 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.
On the other hand, project managers are more tactical and centered on the execution side. They’re more concerned with setting up budgets and timelines, scheduling resources, monitoring progress, and managing risk. In short, they focus on all the aspects that lead to successful project delivery.
To take things further, there’s a subtler difference between a product manager vs. project manager—read this article for examples, core pm skills, and what is the main differentiator.
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, you now have a rough idea of 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 that keeps the wheel on the axle, even though this meaning works as well, 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 try their best to make each interaction memorable.
- Act, in spite of their fears – Most people are afraid of failure. 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 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 one 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.
Note if you’re not a project manager yet stumbled upon this article: curious which are the project manager education requirements? Read this reference guide which outlines the prerequisites to becoming a project manager, training materials, and actionable steps on how to move into a project management role.
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 introducing you to the right people, uncovering opportunities disguised as impossible projects, and suggesting areas of future improvement.
You’ll also need to become an ongoing learner, engage in leadership programs, 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 you nurture through experience.
Professional development is the domain-specific knowledge that comes from training, 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 you deliver reflects your work. A portfolio is good if that acts as a first impression for all your future career and business interactions.
If you struggle with the fear of failure, read our article on procrastination solutions.
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 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 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 still alive or someone from a century ago whose writings and events inspire you. Choose a mentor who represents your values and principles and 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. 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, in a project manager position, aspiring for a leadership role, you should pursue one. But don’t forget that you actually need 4.500 hours spread over three calendar years—if you have a bachelor’s degree—or 7.500 hours spread over five 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.
There are two ways to get project experience: start by running small projects and move up to bigger ones, start with minor 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 that reflects all your values, principles, and work ethic altogether. Stephane Parent, CEO @Leader Maker, hits the nail on the head when he says:
Leadership sees everything—projects, initiatives, risks, issues—as being about people. That means you must constantly build relationships and question your own motives and belief systems against other people.
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’ judgment. Misguided leadership is one of the touted reasons why employees leave their jobs, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article, the Great Resignation statistics, explained the phenomenon and outlined trends and plans for leaders to adopt.
But 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 enriching, 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.
First published on September 26, 2018.
Andrei Țiț is a product marketer at Ahrefs. He has been involved in product marketing at various SaaS companies for over six years, specializing in content marketing and short-form video. In his free time, he enjoys cooking and traveling.