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Making It in Project Management


This expands upon thoughts posted on JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com on July 25, 2010


        You can't do the behavior if you don't have the attitude.


         It's the middle of the night, nearing deadline for a morning daily newspaper. I'm sitting at the elbow of a newly hired wire editor. He is in deep trouble as he attempts to make content and process decisions for Page One. I'm his boss, and I'm trying to help.

        At the wire editor's other elbow is a former police reporter recently appointed copy editor, sort of an assistant. The copy editor is calm, thoughtful and practical as we try to get through this minor crisis.


         I'm struck by the thought: Why do I have a shaking, flustering incompetent in the decision chair, while the guy I should have put there is sitting two feet and a million miles away from it?

        The scenario is one I've seen in many organizations during my decades of experience, both as a newspaper editor/manager and as a management consultant. We often don't know how to choose the right person for the job, but we sure do recognize competence when it is demonstrated in the workplace. This experience, when properly understood, is an essential component in the education of a good manager.

        If talent, education, etc. are equal, it's attitude that distinguishes the person you want in the catbird seat when it matters.

        By definition (mine, anyway), the catbird seat is the native habitat of the project manager. It takes attitude to do the job, because the natural, healthy human response to uncertainty, danger and complexity is self-protection. Or at least cautious hesitation.

        Not for the competent project manager. Properly experienced/trained/educated, the good project manager goes into danger with the steady, confident attitude that gets the job done and encourages everyone involved.

This attitude includes initiative, risk management, and taking personal responsibility. Stephen Covey's best-selling books, especially The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, detail it in very practical ways. Likewise, Andy Crowe's Alpha Project Managers describes it specifically for this field.


        So, how about you?

        You've got some project management experience (every adult does), perhaps some education, maybe a certificate. But you don't have the resume that will get you the job. Every potential employer wants a lot more experience, and a lot more proof that the candidate can handle this new responsibility. You can't get a hearing, much less an offer.

        Be grateful. People hired with great expectations can wind up buried in all the demands everybody in the organization has been looking to dump. They find the managers have no concept of what it takes to support an effective project management operation – and have no intention of changing their ways. You're supposed to do it all yourself – Hey, you're the project manager.

        Let's assume, then, that you drop the idea of being hired into a position called “Project Manager,” and decide you'll have to settle for a temporary solution outside the field. There will be no immediate career change, but you haven't given up on the idea.   


       Here are the success strategies for that motivated person who doesn't have the gee-whiz project management resume:

       •  Make sure you understand project management. Take courses, read books, join organizations, get into online discussions.

       •  Get a job – in an organization that shows promise. It is growing, forward-looking, innovative. It's going somewhere, and your job interview(s) convince you these are good people to work for. (Don't ignore the possibility that you're already working in such a place.)

       •  On the job, act like a project manager. Be sensitive to the politics and relationships that are in place, and make super-sure you do to the best of your ability anything you're asked to do. Be on time, be respectful, listen a lot and talk less. Admit mistakes and learn from them. Thank people. And, when the time comes that there's a problem no one wants to touch, a job people are avoiding, be ready to volunteer – and use your project management knowledge to achieve a solid outcome.

        Presto! You're a project manager.

        Very many of the project managers I have met wound up in the jobs because they gravitated to the challenges and made it their business to achieve quality results. By the time someone thought to give them the title “Project Manager,” everyone already knew they had been that for some time – and were good at it.

        So, making it in project management means making it (the job) yourself. When you manage your job/career as a project, you're a project manager.


Organizations need frequent tune-ups to maintain effective workflow amid change. Jim has long experience – plus creative tools -- to help executives analyze their organizations, then design and implement better ways.
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