Magic Project Management Career Choices

Project Management Career DevelopmentA few months ago I met one of the senior members of the Magic Circle.

It was a great experience. To see someone at the top of their game, clearly professional and still loving what they’re doing.

Each day when I’m in the office I see the word “Magic” outside my window. No I’m not overlooking Hogwarts, it’s just the name given to the indoor market, although I’m not quite sure what’s magic about it.

I loved watching Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on the BBC recently too (the book is even better)

I’m also weirdly addicted to finding out how magicians do it, spoiler alert for Dynamo’s phone in a bottle!

What’s all this mention of magic about?

I think I’ve been influenced enough by magic recently and it got me thinking about the relation to project management careers. Bear with me, the connection becomes obvious.

At the simplest level I think we’d all like a little magic to happen in our careers.

On another level, the types of magic tricks that exist got me thinking about practical steps in managing a project management career.

Magic tricks – and the effects of the magic always fall into a category. There’s a dispute about how many categories there actually are but there are obvious ones like the rabbit in a hat (a production) and the woman being cut in half in a box (restoration) for example.

So let’s take a look at the effects of magic and see if we can get a bit of it to rub off and into our career development thoughts.


PM Careers Let’s start with the classic 1814 trick, the rabbit being pulled from an empty hat. It’s called a production magic because the trick involves producing something out of nothing.

In a career within project management there will always be opportunities to produce something new out of nothing. These challenges are what keep us fresh and on our toes.

The trick is to keep our eyes and ears open for new opportunity and be ready to make ourselves available and to step forward.

Perhaps it’s time to put yourself forward for a new type of project that’s never been done before in your business. Or perhaps the first programme. Is there a new department or function needed? The challenge doesn’t have to be directly related to project management, maybe now is the time to try your hand at other operational roles.

If you’re working within a supporting function like the PMO, is now the time to drive forwards with a new method, process, technique or tool?

Do you recognise that there is a skillset becoming more prevalent within your business that you know you’re falling short in or know nothing about? Is it time to understand what all this “agile” talk is all about and learn something new? What about gaps in your softer skills training? There is always something new to learn about – producing something out of nothing.


Project Manager CareerIf you’ve never seen The Prestige with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale you really should. It features the Vanishing Bird in the Cage trick, which has you would guess is all about making something vanish. To make the trick complete of course, it also needs to reappear.

That brings us nicely to the career disappearing act – the sabbatical. Running a recruitment business like Arras People, brings you into contact with lots of people who have taken a career sabbatical.

A sabbatical literally means ‘ceasing’ and has become known as taking a break from work for over two months or more. It can include a postponed gap year and we see lots of project practitioners taking time out for a big travel project. Sometimes it’s about getting something out of your system so you come back to the working world feeling like you’ve achieved something you’ve wanted to do for a while.

For others it can be a necessity, one project too many have led to stress and disillusion and time away is essential for stronger mental health. Another common career break is for family reasons, not just for raising children but also dealing with ill-health of any family member. Its times like these that we’re reminded of the true meaning of work/life balance.

Other sabbaticals are still about work in some way. Practitioners have taken a sabbatical from their day jobs to try another job within the same business. After three months or so they resume their normal job, returning with new experiences, skills and insights into business operations.

Some organisations are open to long serving employees taking a sabbatical outside the business and there will be rules about what the sabbatical can be. Projects like writing a book, lecturing at a local college on project management or working for a charity for a while.

Sabbaticals are all about gaining renewed focus, energy and skills that make a difference to the day job. Of course, some sabbaticals could also lead us to the next magic trick, the escape.


Project Management Contractors This is an obvious career trick, the disappearing act. Rather than write about all the reasons why people choose to leave their position, I wanted to share an insight from a book called  The Management Shift. The basis of the book is about harnessing the power of the people who work in an organisation – especially knowledge workers. The statistics were clear, 45% of US workers consider their job satisfying. Which leaves a potential 55% at risk of walking out the door, just vanishing.

The book goes on the cover the leadership required to help workers become more enthusiastic and satisfied with their work. It specifically covers a model called “Emergent Leadership Model” which highlights five different levels of how workers engage with their work, with each other and how an organisation progresses. The five levels of worker engagement and effectiveness are listed here:

  • Lifeless – workers experience insecurity, apathy and negativity in turn they get little work done
  • Reluctant – workers operate with low levels of trust and blame others when things go wrong. They get work done but just enough to earn their pay.
  • Controlled – workers “do what they are told” with managers using ‘command and control’ leadership. Teamwork takes place but is organised with a formal leader. Workers don’t tend to work on new initiatives on their own.
  • Enthusiastic – Managers disperse power and authority, innovation spreads and work becomes enjoyable and fun.
  • Limitless – at this level, anything is possible. Workers approach their work with energy, passion and wisdom. Workers feel like they’re doing something they were born to do.

The model also includes five levels the organisation itself moves through, influenced by the workers. These include;

  • Apathetic – no-one – both managers and workers – cares about work and the culture is pessimistic and negative.
  • Stagnating – managers lead by fear and conflicts and burnout are common.
  • Orderly – Rules, procedures, authority and structure all feature in large amounts. Workers are more motivated by personal achievements and remuneration and their efforts in work are aligned to this. The company has little innovation or creativity, yet its stable.
  • Collaborative – organisation culture embraces ‘trial and error’, collaboration and intuition. Trust is high and information flows freely. Significant innovation and sustained growth follows.
  • Unbounded – high levels of trust and innovation come into play. Workers believe in the organisation and act accordingly. Inspirational leaders drive growth and profit.

When people are looking to leave their jobs and set out for another position elsewhere, it is always worth the time to understand what drives the desire to move away.

Is it the pessimistic view of getting away from somewhere like a lifeless position and apathetic organisation or is it because of optimistic and positive reasons like working in a new environment, with new challenges and an environment that welcomes enthusiasm and collaboration?

Project Management Careers AdviceTransformation

When a magician performs a transformation trick, ‘something’ gets transform from one state to another. David Blaine’s Dead Bird trick pretty much sums that up. But what about transformation in our careers?

We can choose to work on an aspect of our skills to become better at what we do. If you’re not great a public speaking or perhaps want to get better at giving presentations, what is stopping you from taking steps to transform that?

We can even choose to work on individual styles we might have or an approach we might take. For example, how can could I get better at negotiation or influencing others?

We can transform ourselves from one work role into another, or choose to move away from one industry to another.

The trick of course is to find time for reflection and to explore what aspects of ourselves and our work we could realistically transform. Once we make changes, a whole host of opportunities suddenly appear in a puff of smoke.


Project Management FreelancingPenn and Teller’s Bullet trick highlights perfectly the transportation trick where something moves from one place to another. In career development that can easily be summed up too, the question is where would you move to?

It’s become commonplace for project practitioners with lots of experience and an arrival at a certain time in their life to try their hand at freelancing. Some decide to make a permanent move into contracting whilst others just see it has a stop-gap between more permanent roles. The risk free route is when previous employment has come to an end through redundancy, voluntary or otherwise. There’s nothing stopping you from taking a contract other than your own self-confidence that you can do it.

Other project practitioners might choose a less risky option by moving into consultancy. There are lots of professional services firms around that look for experienced practitioners who work well in client facing engagements. The up side to the practitioner is that it gives you the opportunity to work with a variety of different types of clients and their projects. Downside? You’re still not working for yourself if that’s what ideally you’d like to do if only you had the nerve.

There are lots of practitioners that make the move internally too, giving them a fresh opportunity to get their teeth into. That’s when it pays to network internally so you have a better idea about what opportunities are coming up in other departments or divisions.

Project Managment JobsRestoration

Everyone must have seen a classic restoration card trick in their lives? It’s known as the tear and repair trick as the magician destroys a card then restores it to its original form. With restoration in project management career development it’s all about trying to avoid all those things in our career that could knock us off course – let’s avoid the ‘tear and repair’!

What do we mean by this? Well it’s about trying to avoid bad choices. Like taking on projects that are doomed to fail from the start or just projects that don’t ignite any spark in us – there are no real challenges there for you.

Taking any old position or opportunity that comes along because taking anything is better than nothing right? Avoiding opportunities that could be leading you down a dead-end, for example, there were many contractors frozen out in the recession because their type of project experience or the industries they had always worked in were cutting back on projects.

Protecting your CV and understanding that lengthy career gaps can have a major negative impact on your career. Rightly or wrongly, having extended time out can make getting back into regular employment really difficult.


PM Career DevelopmentPrediction magic is about predicting choices or outcomes of an event. Here in the UK, Derren Brown is a popular choice for a modern mentalist (or mind reader). Wouldn’t it be great if we could just predict what we’d like to do in our career and then – in a puff of smoke – it just appears. Unfortunately we know it’s not as easy as that but half the battle is about having some clue about where we would like to be heading.

It’s often said that if you even just make some plans on paper or even articulate what you’d like to do out loud to someone else – these simple acts of taking your thoughts and getting them out there can kick-start some action. We tried it at a recent PMO Flashmob.

If thinking about your whole career feels too big and scary, how about what you want to achieve by this point next year? Or in the next six months?

Another little exercise to try is to ask your peers, colleagues and friends. Ask them what they want to get out of their career in the next year or so? The trick here is to at least start thinking out loud. The more you do it, the more likely you are to move on to some more formal action in career planning.


Defying gravity or floating in the air tricks. I’ll admit I’ve racked my brains to find the connection to project management career development, I can’t.

What I do know is many project practitioners will recognise the feat of trying to walking on water some days.




Carry on the conversation, have you got any magic project management career development tips to add? Leave them in the comments below.



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