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3 Steps to Becoming a Project Manager

I didn't know I wanted to be a project manager until after I became one. 


It sounds ridiculous, but it's true! I'm what my co-workers affectionately refer to as an "accidental project manager." 


My Journey Into Project Management


I have two Bachelor's degrees—one in English and one in Religion—along with prior work experience with a college ministry. I applied for a "Content Senior Specialist” position at a Christian nonprofit. My understanding was that I would be helping write and edit a Bible study curriculum for adults and teens. Sounds like a perfect fit, right?


During my first week on the job, I learned that I would NOT actually be writing anything because a professional writer had already been contracted to produce the curriculum. And, I didn't need to do much editing either because that would be handled by another department in the company.


And, sure, my ministry background was nice to have, but there were already three other incredibly talented people on the team—an ordained minister, a youth pastor, and a church elder. Womp, womp.


So, why did they need me anyway? 


Well… the curriculum needed to be ready in time for a major fundraising event that was only a couple months away. The team didn't have a documented timeline, task list, or plan for how and when to communicate with the writer, editors, or stakeholders. They needed to create printed materials and decide on graphic design for packaging. Creating a website for the product was a major requirement. And, there was a last-minute request to translate the entire curriculum into Spanish. The project's scope kept growing and growing, and nobody was officially in charge of keeping it on track!


My boss very kindly said, "There is a discipline called project management. You should probably reach out for help."


I did, and that's what set me on the path to officially becoming a project manager. (By some miracle, our project wrapped up on time and on budget! I’m still not exactly sure how.)


Take 3 Intentional Steps


I don't recommend my haphazard path to becoming a project manager. It was incredibly overwhelming! 


If you think you want to explore a career as a project manager, here are my three recommendations for a more direct route:


1. Explore: Does PM Work Fit You?


First, take some time to reflect on whether you would enjoy doing what project managers do.


Project managers are responsible for taking an idea, a team, a deadline, and assorted tools; creating a plan; and making that idea a reality. The project manager holds the overall responsibility for whether or not a project is successful. 


A project manager is in a leadership role—although that role doesn't necessarily come with authority. This can be tricky when you need to get senior level staff members to complete a task for your project, but you can’t actually make them do it!


If a project is at risk of running late, not achieving its deliverables, or going over budget, the project manager is the person who needs to problem solve, alert the team, and get it back on track. 


Some examples of a project manager's responsibilities are:


  • Building a project timeline

  • Creating a project budget

  • Building a team and assigning work to team members

  • Planning and leading meetings

  • Working with stakeholders and senior leaders to get their approval

  • Evaluating risks involved in a project and managing those risks

  • Writing or presenting project updates to stakeholders and executives 

  • Making decisions—sometimes tough ones

  • Dealing with unexpected changes and problems

  • Collecting feedback and keeping track of lessons learned


Project managers spend a lot of time and energy communicating, organizing, planning, and executing.


Communication & People Management


Do you enjoy communicating with others—both good news and bad? As a project manager, you’ll spend over 80% of your time communicating with people through meetings, email, and instant messaging. And, you’ll communicate with staff in all levels of an organization including executive assistants, software developers, graphic designers, senior directors, and even CEOs.


The best project managers communicate clearly, consistently, and proactively. They also need to be influential encouragers, because much of their time is spent motivating and rallying teams to complete their tasks on time and to stay positive about the project even when things are difficult. 


Organization, Planning, & Time Management


Are you naturally organized? Or is it a constant struggle to stay on top of your tasks and projects? How are you at time management? And, can you see yourself leading others who may not be skilled in those areas? If these things come naturally to you, that's a good sign that you would enjoy being a project manager.


Project managers are handed a vision and asked to turn it into an actionable, realistic plan. Then, they break down their big plan into smaller tasks and organize the tasks to be completed in a specific order to successfully achieve the goal.


Execution


Do you enjoy making things happen and getting things done? That’s what project managers do. They execute their plan and get the project over the finish line. Sometimes it may feel like you’re dragging it over the finish line, but you do whatever it takes to complete the project on time!


If you are a person who would rather spend your time dreaming up grand strategies than getting into the logistics, you're probably a better fit for another role (and that's great!). But, if project management still sounds like a good fit, here's your next step:


2. Gain relevant skills and experience.


You probably won't get hired as a project manager right out of the gate without several years of official experience in the role. But I bet you already have some skills that would enable you to attain a coordinator-level job. 


Project coordinators are different than project managers. But—let me be clear—one is not better than the other. They are different roles that require different skillsets.


A project coordinator helps to ensure that the project is organized, running smoothly, and on track to meet its goals and deadlines. They often work alongside a project manager and carry out administrative, communication, technical, or other miscellaneous tasks that move the project forward.


Project coordinators are often behind-the-scenes wizards helping to make sure the project is successful. We jokingly call the project coordinators on our team our “Swiss army knives” because they are agile and adaptable at learning and doing what it takes to get things done.


Here are some typical examples of project coordinator tasks:


  • Organizing project team meetings

  • Preparing meeting agendas

  • Taking meeting notes and documenting action items

  • Updating tasks and timelines in the project management program

  • Following up with task owners when their deadlines are approaching

  • Preparing status reports

  • Monitoring project costs and budgets

  • Alerting the project manager if they find a problem or risk that needs to be addressed

  • Filling in for the project manager if they are away due to sickness or vacation


In the end, you may find that you actually prefer project coordination over project management. There have been seasons of my career where I've preferred working as a project coordinator without shouldering the full responsibility for the success of the project.


If you're thinking about officially getting certified as a project manager, you will need relevant work experience to be eligible to apply for a Project Management Institute (PMI) certification such as the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential. Working as a project coordinator is the perfect way to gain PM experience and prepare your application to get certified. Which brings me to my third and final recommendation:


3. Consider becoming certified.


Entering the project management field can feel a lot like trying to learn a new language. Scope creep, gold plating, risk management...what does it all mean? Taking the time to fully understand the terminology and lifecycle of a project will help you better understand your work.


While many companies don’t require their project managers to be certified, it’s something to consider. In addition to boosting your knowledge and confidence, becoming certified can give you an edge when you’re seeking work and increase your earning potential.


PMI certification has been so valuable to me. Obtaining the PMP credential increased my confidence. After stumbling into the profession, the certification helped me feel like a legitimate project manager.


We often shy away from talking about money and salaries, but the majority of us can't (and don’t want to!) work a low-paying job. Getting certified will boost your earning capacity so you can get that higher-paying project management job. In fact, the 2024 PMI Salary Survey discovered that project managers who hold a PMP certification earn a 33-percent higher median salary than their non-certified counterparts. I've never met a project manager who regretted getting certified! 


Choose the Direct Route


Becoming a project manager was quite the unexpected adventure for me. But, you can take a more direct route by intentionally exploring a career in project management in three easy steps.

  1. Spend time determining whether project management work fits your skills, interests, and wiring.

  2. If the answer is yes, get some relevant work experience.

  3. Then, with that experience under your belt, consider PM certification so you can grow your knowledge, increase your competitive edge, and boost your earning potential.


What other questions do you have about entering the field of project management? Leave me a question or comment. I'd love to hear from you!

 


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