For many years, the career path for project managers has been in question. While the emergence of PMOs established some formal paths for PMs, the placement of the PMO within an organization defines the vertical limit of such paths. These limits often force skilled project managers to pursue other career paths for advancement or accept a relatively limited ascension within most organizations.
Interestingly, a new trend may be emerging which will position PMs for senior executive roles.
First, let’s look at the role of the traditional project manager. Per standard PM training, roles and responsibilities, project managers have been expected to become experts at domains such as:
- Managing scope, time, cost and quality
- Human Resource Management
- Communications Management
- Risk Management
- Expectation Management
- “Soft” skills (some I know prefer the term “critical” over soft)
Project Managers vs Functional Managers
While these skills are typically mastered at a ground level, they are often parallel to what entry-level and mid-level managers (aka functional managers) must master to advance within the organization. However, significant differences have traditionally existed where PMs have focused these skills more narrowly on specific projects while functional managers have taken a broader business view, often related to profitability or growth of the organization.
For example, a mid-level manager may begin turning “soft” skills towards improving the culture of the organization while PMs more narrowly focus on the culture of their project teams. Of course, another key differentiator between PMs and functional managers has been the PM mantra of responsibility without authority.
The PMO Effect
With the emergence of PMOs and the formal responsibility for more complexity, those within the PMO became more visible to the C-suite. As a result, they had an opportunity to relate their PM skills to the success of the organization. As responsibility expanded beyond individual projects, each domain of PM expertise also expanded. Measurements, communication and management at the PMO level grew beyond the project and began to relate more directly to the organization as a whole. This elevation began to widely put those with project management backgrounds in a position to truly focus on the profitability and growth of the organization for the first time and positioned them alongside senior-level managers.
Today, we see PMOs being asked to take ever increasing responsibilities. Portfolio management is now a norm and is often focusing more on strategic initiatives than internal, operational IT projects. PMO leaders are finding themselves measured on successful execution of organizational strategies for growth and profitability. Stand-alone disciplines such as process improvement, talent management and organizational change management are finding that they may be under the direction of a PMO with the thinking that they are critical components of a bigger picture. The result is PMOs becoming responsible for the overall success of an organization’s strategy and thus an integral component of the C-suite.
In short, PMOs are emerging as how organizations achieve their most critical goals. This is giving those with PM backgrounds the same responsibilities and challenges traditionally held by traditional managers being primed for the C-suite.
Comparison with Accounting/Finance
For comparison, let’s look at the accounting/finance path for most large corporations. Organizations have many entry level positions. Oddly, some have even more entry-level management accounting/finance positions, but then the career path narrows as the levels of management increase. What typically makes the difference between those who advance and those who don’t isn’t just the “technical” knowledge of the discipline, but how one understands the organization and can apply their “technical” knowledge to achieving the organization’s needs. The CFO and CEO roles are understood to be the height of the career path for this knowledge area.
As organizations continue to find strategic value in PMOs, project managers will have the ability to demonstrate how the “technical” skills of PM can be applied to drive strategic success for organizations. Understanding that organization, its culture, the industry, etc. will be as valuable, if not more so, than “technical” PM knowledge in order to advance. Those able to demonstrate the biggest positive impacts to the organization will earn similar career opportunities as those in other disciplines, such as finance.
As PMOs continue to prove their ability to improve organizational outcomes such as profitability, growth and strategy execution, PMO leaders will be obvious choices for the C-suite, effectively ending the career path question for aspiring project managers.
- Have you witnessed examples of organizations looking to someone with a PM background to assume a senior-level management role?
- What PM skills are critical for senior-level executives?
- How should PM training and certifications evolve to meet the “Executive PM” role?