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The Three Dimensions of Project Management Career Progression

In the course of talking to and managing many PPM practitioners over the years, the question of career progression has come to the fore many times. Typically the discussion has arrived at the point of “is there a natural hierarchy through which PPM practitioners can progress?”

If we strip the concept down to three prominent roles in the PPM community as an example, does a Project Coordinator naturally progress to a Project Manager and in turn does this naturally lead to the role of Programme Manager?

Like many concepts, at its simplest many would answer yes! The progression is natural and shows that an individual is growing in knowledge, competence and demonstrating the right attitude to advancing their career. But is it really that simple?

If we consider the question from three different dimensions it may offer a clearer view;

1. The Individual
2. The Required Skills and Competencies
3. The Organisation.

As the word suggests PPM practitioners are individuals and will all have a slightly different approach to their careers and their ambitions.

Many factors of a personal basis will come into play such as drive, confidence, motivation and circumstances. All of these are important factors in the development of an individual and the track they may wish to choose in their working and personal lives.

We will have some individuals who have a natural desire to feel that they are moving forward (or up) in terms of their career, never satisfied unless they have that next mountain to climb and conquer.

On the other hand we may have individuals that have found their niche in life, a role that fits them well and aligns with their personal needs. They have no desire to climb the next mountain, set themselves stretch targets; they just want to do a great job in the role they enjoy!

We then have another group of practitioners who really want to excel in their chosen field. I am a project manager, I want to learn all about my craft and be recognised for my value and contribution. I have no desire to move onto “the next level” whatever that may be; this does not mean I have no ambition; my ambition is to be the best at what I do!

Over the years the Arras People Project Management Benchmark Report has looked at skills and competencies across the differing role categories associated with PPM and found that practitioners themselves recognise that each role makes differing demands on an individual.

Again taking the three roles of Project Co-ordinator, Project Manager and Programme Manager, whilst we may have some common requirements when we consider competencies, the level, skill and depth of capability will vary considerably.

As an example some colleagues consider that a great Project Co-ordinator will have a deeper understanding of “project management” than some project managers as it is their role to assist in the delivery of project management excellence. However a project manager who is just excellent at the “project management” will probably fail as they do not have the soft skills that allow him/her to deploy that knowledge in a way that brings out the best result for the project!

If we now consider the organisation we still typically see a triangle; point at the top, only one CEO or Chairman; six Directors, etc., as we work our way down into its operating depths.

It may be a simplification but most organisations I have dealt with have one to many relationships in the PPM space. One Programme Manager has a relationship to many Project Managers; one PMO Manager has a relationship to many Project Coordinators, etc. So we also have a situation where in any organisation the more senior the role the fewer roles there are available at any one time. Typically alongside this relationship we also have the fact that remuneration and benefits will increase with the perceived seniority of that role within the organisation!

So how do these three elements tie back together?

In my opinion every organisation needs the three types of individuals we identified; if all employees were looking to climb the ladder on a regular basis they would not have anywhere to go! Worse still, the organisation would have an “all chiefs and no Indians” feel, with no substance or depth in their PPM capability. They would probably also have the issue of low staff retention as the “high achievers” looked for opportunities outside of the organisation; this in turn reducing capability and increasing training costs. The assumption that just because somebody is good at role X they would be good at role Y is a classic that we have probably all come across?

“Commonly labelled as promoted to a level of incompetency!”

Personally I have come across this many times especially in technical disciplines where the ceiling is too low and thus excelling at a technical discipline is never recognised nor rewarded.

Similarly in the field of PPM, many organisations do not recognise that a project manager or a project co-ordinator who excels in their chosen field is a major asset who should be cherished, encouraged and rewarded!

Finally, yes organisations do need career paths for those who wish to develop their careers through the levels available within PPM and beyond.

Enlightened organisations will offer these individuals the opportunity to develop their skills and competencies, but I suggest, should do so with their eyes wide open. A career framework which identifies skills and competencies required to undertake PPM roles both hard and soft should be used, not only to encourage practitioners, but also to identify shortfalls which need to be overcome before progression is made.

Identification, encouragement and development of the “right stuff” are essential for all organisations, individuals and skill sets if the right balance is to be achieved for both parties.

About John Thorpe

John Thorpe is the Managing Director of Arras People, the project management recruitment specialists

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