Successful project managers have a very particular set of skills. They’re organized enough to coordinate disparate groups of people from within an organization to work together to complete a project with a lot of moving parts. They’re likeable enough that they can calm down frustrated or angry people, and help them overcome their obstacles. At the same time, they also have enough authority to convince people who don’t report to them to complete tasks, often on tight deadlines.
Whether you’re working on transitioning to a project management role from an entry-level position, or from a different role entirely, you’ll need to convince a hiring manager that you will excel at these skills.
Sometimes such promotions happen organically. Krystle Messano, a hardware project manager at Slabb Inc., was working as a receptionist at a kiosk company when managers noticed she showed acumen in customer service and organization skills. “The ability to multitask and the ability to handle stressful situations well, in a calm manner, are the two biggest things they said in which I was very capable and that would make me good at what I’m doing,” she recalled.
Sometimes you can use experiences outside of your current position to prove your organizational intelligence and people skills. Meghan Wilker, who spent 12 years as a project manager before transitioning to Chief Operating Officer at interactive design and technology agency Clockwork Active Media, used her experience teaching at a Montessori school to showcase her skills: “If I can get 20 four-year-olds to all get their boots and snow pants on in 15 minutes and get out the door, I’m pretty sure I can handle any project [the company is] going to throw at me.”
Sometimes you can gain valuable experience by taking on some management duties in your current technical role; if you realize you enjoy planning and executing, you can leverage your aptitude and background into a full-time managerial position. “A project manager who has a deeper understanding of a discipline is that much stronger of a project manager, generally speaking,” said Wilker.
“Many people in technical roles already have experience working on projects. The first step is to find out if you can take responsibility for a chunk of project work and lead, for example, the whole IT work stream.” Recommended Elizabeth Harrin, director of A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. “This type of exposure will give you project management experience, even if you don’t have the job title. Ask your boss if you can get involved in projects and learn as much as you can about the project management processes in your business.”
But it’s important to remember that, if you take on management responsibilities, you can’t operate in the same way as you did in your technical role, Harrin warns: “Your job as a project manager is to manage the work, to plan and coordinate the efforts and take a big picture view. You can’t do that if you are in the weeds writing code with your old team.” While you can occasionally step in to help, your primary duty is to manage.
As far as training goes, the Project Management Institute offers some levels of project management certification, including a PMP (Project Management Professional) certification for experienced project managers, and a CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management) certification for participants who can prove that their current responsibilities include the skillset required for project management. There are other, lesser-known certifications, as well. Although these certifications may not prove especially useful in project management jobs, they may help differentiate you from candidates with no certification.
For help with your day-to-day work, Cassandra Kaczocha, a senior project manager at Navient (formerly Sallie Mae), recommends process management training. “Being able to understand what people’s process are quickly and in detail is incredibly useful,” she explained, both in building trust and better understanding the steps involved in the projects you’re managing. The first level of Six Sigma certification can help project managers understand how to map and improve processes.
Working in project management also helps you understand various roles within a company deeply, while giving you a high-level overview of how these roles interact with one another. Many project managers choose to transition to UX or QA work afterwards, while others serve as operations managers, where (as Wilker describes it) the company itself becomes the project they manage.