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Typical career path for a project manager – and the reasons why you should avoid it

Nearly every CV has the words “project manager” included in it somewhere these days.  That’s because at some time, most people have been involved in managing some kind of project at work.  The projects can span from something very small and fairly insignificant to something that has a huge impact on how the business does business going forward.


In every business function there are projects of some kind.  From HR to IT, barely a day will go by without another project being started or finished – plus there are the projects that cross disciplines and departments.


Getting invited onto your first project team


Unless you are taken on as a project manager, what tends to happen is that you begin to perform well within your job and then get picked out to contribute to a project.  Well the truth is no one contributes to a project, they all argue they manage the project.  Every member of the team will very shortly call him/herself a project manager as he/she will feel he/she did manage an aspect of the project.  The real management job is usually given the title project leader who everyone aspires to be at some time. Watch out for it though as it could be a poisoned challis as I shall explain later.


Being invited to contribute to a project


So the typical career path towards becoming a project manager starts with being invited to contribute to a project.  Here lies the first danger.  Contributing to a project is normally expected to be done in addition to all your other responsibilities rather than instead of.  The danger is your performance in the normal job will deteriorate as your focus changes – and this can come back and bite you later as you will need your normal job at the end of the project.


Attending preliminary project meetings


Most projects start with loads of lengthy meetings when the team sit around and discuss what needs to be done and what the key deliverables are.  Everyone is upbeat and excited to be one of the chosen few. These meetings are rarely short and very difficult to organise. Every one want to have his/her say.


At this stage everyone on the project is part-time so the meetings tend to be held at times of the day when everyone can attend – very often after normal working hours or even before most people get into work.  These meetings are given wonderful titles such as breakfast meeting or working lunch to make sure the team stay motivated and pumped up.  You are promise a free lunch or even a food spread.


Being given your role


The project is divided up and every one is given a clear role – well it is not always that clear.  Very often you will be introduced to the software that will track everything.  You now have the challenge of not only attending meetings but also delivering the tasks that have been assigned to you.  You are now under pressure to do your bit and also keep the system up to date.


You work like crazy – whilst still doing the normal day-to-day tasks and report back that you have delivered what was required.  The next meeting is then like a maths class that you may remember from school – when everyone around the table lists their reason for not doing their homework.  Things begin to slip and the discussions turn to amending the original schedule rather than addressing why the tasks haven’t been done despite everyone promising that they would do them.


Giving presentations and updates to stakeholders


Slowly but surely, meetings turn to excuses and finger pointing – until someone around the table reminds the team that the first stakeholder presentation is looming on the horizon.  Now an extra task is required.  Not only do you have to perform your normal job, attend meetings, perform this week’s project tasks and help out with everyone else who hasn’t complete theirs – you now have to present to the stakeholders and the presentation better be good.  This is normally a nerve wracking experience even if things are going well and usually they aren’t.


If you are one of the people who have really contributed to-date, more than likely you will be asked to present or at least attend the presentation.  You will also be given the task of telling the rest of the team that the stakeholders have had second thoughts regarding some aspects of the project and want to change things.  You may even receive the dreaded “brown envelope” in which the stakeholders explain their reasons for making cuts to the project.


Being forced to do all the boring bits as no-one else will do them


The project creeps on slowly and unless you are lucky enough to be on one of those one-in-a-hundred projects that runs to time, you gradually feel the pressure increasing.  What used to be a eight hour working day, at best, is moving towards at least a ten hour day with the expectation of weekend working as you near the go-live date.


The biggest career danger of all


Here lies one of the biggest career dangers of all.  If the project is a success, you can be sure the stakeholders will take all the credit and the project team at best will just say goodbye to each other.  If the project is a failure, you can be sure who the stakeholders will blame – you.  You are in a lose-lose situation.


Returning to line manager role or having to seek employment elsewhere


The only escape plan is back to line manager or operator role.  Assuming the project didn’t advocate head count reductions including your own, you can now concentrate on doing what you were first employed to do.  The trouble is that you will often find yourself shooting yourself in the foot.  The reason you were invited to be a project manager was as a result of your expertise hence the project is likely to involve some improvement in your specialist area of the business.  Watch out that while you plan changes to other people’s jobs, that someone else in the organisation isn’t planning a change to your job.  Frequently, part of the planned cost savings of the project would be to reduce the size of the organisation and what better place to start with than with the project team.  After all, they couldn’t have been that busy otherwise they wouldn’t have had the time to work on the project in the place.


So having been invited to become a project manager, where do you find yourself?  You find yourself simply back where you started.  Will the next annual appraisal be better given your extra contribution?  If the project or projects went well, your boss will tell you that that was what was expected of you.  If one or more of the projects failed, as most do, you can actually expect a worse appraisal. You brought it upon yourself.  Well you didn’t in fact, but that is how the boss will see it.


What does it leave?


You can pat yourself on your back for making a valuable contribution and just like everyone else proudly add it to your CV when hopefully another company will see it, recruit you and start the process all over again.


If this sounds familiar to you, then it is time to choose a different career path that avoids the pitfalls of being a project manager.  There are plenty to choose from and if you are plagued by project management-itus at your company, contact us.


Career Consultants was founded by Sarah Berry over twenty years ago and has helped tens of thousands of people get more from their career.  From helping people to change job to ways to reach the top of your profession, Career Consultants is here to help you, so do get in touch.


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