The Development Path of a Project Manager

“How do you know whether someone is a good fit for becoming a project manager or not?”

When recruiting, you look for skills (performance) and attitude (values). While it's relatively straightforward to assess past performance and current status, the problem is that you can never really know how and in what direction a person will develop. Skills and experience for sure are a bit easier to predict, if you give people the right support and invest in training, but a lot can also happen to a person’s motivation.

The obvious reason for assessing the fit for becoming a project manager right at the beginning is, of course, money. Such an assessment, unfortunately, is next to impossible. There’s a development path that needs to be travelled: getting practical experience and learning from mistakes.

During the development phase, however, it’s possible to take notice to the progress for the role. To that end, here are my five steps towards becoming a good project manager:

Level 1: The Headless Chicken. You really have no idea of what you are doing. You try to do something as good as you can in order to push things forward together with the people you are working with. It sometimes works out and sometimes you get burned really badly. You learn a lot about how not to do things.

Level 2: The Bottleneck. You start to have an idea of how you do things. You have found some basic tools and practices that you use to support what you are doing. You know that you should be sharing responsibility more actively and communicate more. Somehow you still end up doing more work than the others, since you are doing things your team should be doing. This can also often results in you being the bottleneck of everything. You need to stop micro-managing your team.

Level 3: The Dictator. You notice that you need to delegate more. You notice that you cannot do and be involved in every aspect of the project. You really start learning about giving out more responsibility to others. But you might struggle with motivating people or you worry too much about, if the others can do what you have asked them to do. Often this results in demanding authority: “I am project manager. Do as you are told.”

Level 4: The Enabler. You notice that people are doing what they are supposed to do most of the time. They understand the common goal and what is expected of them. This gives you time to focus on the big picture and ensuring that related things on the critical path are completed at the right time. You have stopped thinking about not having an impact on every detail. You know your own role and that there will always be some fire to put out. You communicate actively, lead people and get results.

Level 5: The Leader. You think you have it all figured out and decide to write about it in a blog. You know that you can always do things better and inspire people more. You understand that learning and continuous improvement is the only way forward. You understand that in a way project management will always be hard work. If you want to smell the roses, do something else.

What puzzles me is why so many project managers seem to get stuck in being too involved in details and small issues. Doing too much themselves, even risking burnout. Worrying too much about everything that cannot be controlled. Not trusting people to do what they are supposed to. All this often resulting in not getting great results and wasting resources, since the focus is too much on the task level execution, instead of what actually needs to be done. Or alternatively getting results by risking their own and other peoples health.

The most important thing I have learned about project management is to not only give people tasks, but responsibility for getting things done. Trust your team.