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How to become a project manager (and why it’s a great career)

Project Manager
What is a project manager and why is it such a vital role?
What does a project manager do?
4 reasons to pursue a career in project management
What skills make a successful project manager?
How to become a project manager: A step-by-step guide
Final thoughts

With a solid understanding of a project manager’s role and responsibilities, you can develop the skills to become an asset for almost any organization.

In this article, you’ll learn what it means to be a project manager, how the function benefits modern businesses and which skills you need to excel as a project management professional.

We’ll also walk you through the process of becoming a project manager so you can start your new career journey today.

What is a project manager and why is it such a vital role?

A project manager is a professional who plays the lead role in organizing, planning, executing and closing projects for an organization.

A project is defined as a temporary effort to create value through a new or refined product, service or result. For example, a content marketing agency might want to implement a system for tracking and optimizing freelancer performance: the process from initiation and planning through implementation to closure and reflection is a project.

While every project has a beginning and end, businesses can stretch initiatives out over long periods or combine multiple projects to achieve more substantial goals (creating what’s called a program).

Depending on the frequency and scope of its projects, an organization may:

  • Hire a dedicated project manager

  • Build a project management team, led by a senior project manager

  • Build a project management team to work alongside a project management office (PMO)

  • Outsource the responsibility to a freelance project manager

Whatever the setup, it’s the project manager’s responsibility to maximize a project’s benefits for their employer.

This typically involves minimizing risk, overcoming challenges and ensuring project work stays in line with time, scope and cost constraints (three common constraints that unite most projects).

What does a project manager do?

In organizing, planning, executing and closing projects, project managers have many day-to-day responsibilities – here’s a list of the most important.

Help define project scope, goals and deliverables

A project manager will work alongside stakeholders (e.g. company directors, other managers and clients) to determine the project’s purpose and feasibility.

They’ll help set constraints that the project must fit within: typically the timeframe, budget and scope (the project’s desired outcome and the actions and cost required to achieve it).

For example, in an initiative to expand into a new market, say a fashion e-commerce brand has a desired outcome of increasing total revenue by 10%. To achieve its goal, it must translate its website content for a new audience, connect with local influencers and choose a new shipping provider. It aims to achieve its main objective within two months using a budget of $4,000.

Define tasks and required resources

With objectives and constraints set, it’s up to the project manager to build a roadmap. They’ll decide which tasks will contribute to the desired outcome and what resources it’ll take to complete them.

For our e-commerce brand, tasks could include:

  • Identifying specific web pages that require translation

  • Building a list of prospective shipping partners

  • Creating a pitch template for targeting social media influencers

Estimating that all tasks (our examples plus many more) will take around 45 working hours, the project manager determines that they’ll need three team members with skills in logistics, sales and marketing on a part-time basis.

Collect and manage the project team

The project manager rallies and briefs their chosen team members, explaining the project’s plan, aims and deliverables.

From here onwards, they’re responsible for allocating work and resources, supporting staff and tracking performance. If a team member uncovers an unexpected project challenge, such as a missing resource or an incompatibility, they’ll raise it with the project manager to address.

Manage the project budget

The project manager tracks spending throughout the project, approving expenses and finding ways to increase cost-efficiency. By preventing overspending, they help the business maximize its project investment.

If a project goes over budget, the project manager may need to secure more funds from the PMO or other decision-makers.

Track progress towards milestones and deliverables

As well as an outcome, most projects have smaller, individual goals or actions – this is especially true with agile projects, in which teams work in sprints toward regular deliverables.

The project manager tracks progress toward these milestones to ensure the main objective remains achievable within the timeline. When progress is slow, they address issues or adapt their strategy and update project stakeholders accordingly.

For example, our e-commerce brand could have a milestone of agreeing promotional deals with 10 social media influencers. This measurable action contributes towards the wider goal of setting up in a new market. If the team has only agreed five deals with three days until the deadline, the project manager could push the due date back or reassign another team member to help.

Manage quality assurance

It’s not enough for team members to keep reaching milestones in line with the project schedule. Their work must meet certain quality standards, as laid out in the project’s planning stage, to satisfy stakeholders.

With a clear understanding of business objectives and stakeholder expectations, the project manager tests deliverables and analyzes performance data (e.g. bugs reported in a software development project). This helps to minimize mistakes and identify issues early.

Quality assurance aims to increase efficiency, avoid overspending and ensure customer or stakeholder satisfaction.

Evaluate and assess project results

By documenting the project’s successes, considering the challenges and reflecting on the entire process, the project manager can replicate winning patterns and avoid repeating mistakes in future initiatives.

Project evaluation typically has two stages:

  1. A closing team meeting takes place, allowing the project lead to collect the thoughts of all team members.

  2. The project leader creates and shares a report of their findings with stakeholders and, if applicable, the PMO.

For example, while working on its expansion project, our e-commerce brand discovers a new, productivity-boosting project management tool. The project manager discusses specific benefits with team members before reporting the findings to others in the business. They can then use the same tool to streamline their own initiatives.

4 reasons to pursue a career in project management

It takes plenty of commitment to enter project management, especially if you’re starting from scratch, so you’ll want to make sure it’s worth your time and effort.

There are many reasons to pursue a project management career. Here are four of the biggest.

1. You’ll be in high demand

The demand for project management talent is growing. Project Management Institute (PMI) estimates there are currently around 90 million project professionals worldwide and that the global economy will need 25 million new recruits by 2030.

This growth means that you should have no trouble finding career opportunities with the right project management skills.

In an earlier report, PMI wrote:

As opportunities are growing, much of the available talent is reaching retirement age. These factors are creating an extraordinarily positive jobs outlook for skilled project professionals.

2. There’s plenty of maneuverability

Project management skills are relevant in all industries, from healthcare to retail, so you’ll never be tied to one company or sector.

For example, PMI reports that project management job openings are growing fastest in the following industries:

  • Manufacturing and construction

  • Information services and publishing

  • Finance and insurance

  • Management and professional services

  • Utilities

While the US and Japan remain major employers of project management professionals, there’s unprecedented demand from China, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, meaning you’ll have the freedom to move geographically, too.

3. It’s a promising career path

Project management certifications and skills provide sturdy foundations for more senior roles, which naturally have higher salaries.

Several years of experience leading successful projects could allow you to apply for other positions with strategic organizational responsibilities, such as:

  • Portfolio manager

  • Program manager

  • Head or director of projects

  • Chief operating officer (COO)

  • Chief information officer (CIO)

  • President or vice president of operations

4. Project managers are well paid

How much do project managers make? According to Indeed.com, the average salary for a project manager in the US (as of November 2022) is $77,172. However, as in any field, pay can be higher or lower depending on your qualifications, experience level and region.

For example, PMI’s Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey found that respondents with Project Management Professional (PMP) certification earned around 22% more than those without.

The most telling finding, again from Indeed.com, is that just over two-thirds of project managers working in the US are satisfied with what they earn.

What skills make a successful project manager?

It takes a broad range of skills to run project after project successfully. Many of these soft skills are transferable, so you may already have some solid foundations from time spent in other roles.

Knowing which skills are important enables you to fill the right gaps and become more valuable to employers. With that in mind, here are eight skills you’ll need to develop.

  • Leadership. As a project manager, your team will look to you for guidance. You’ll need to be a strong decision-maker with the confidence to direct staff and make strategic changes, even when not everyone agrees.

  • Communication. You’ll sometimes lead and work with people who don’t share your skills or priorities. By using terminology everyone understands and explaining benefits in relatable ways, you’ll ensure that even when there are differences, everyone pulls in the same direction towards wider business objectives.

  • Time management and organization. There are hundreds of variables to consider when leading projects, from budgets and objectives to team members and stakeholders. As the project manager, you must keep track of what’s happening and plan your time effectively so that nothing gets missed.

Project management software definitely helps. Look to tools like Asana and Trello, as their scheduling, reporting and tracking capabilities will simplify the process and help your team work faster.

  • Critical and strategic thinking. Every project begins with an idea. Your ability to separate the good ones (i.e. feasible and worthwhile) from the bad will help you avoid wasting time and resources. Learn from experience and other project managers, and don’t be afraid to let bad or unfinished ideas go.

  • Accountability. Project managers must manage expectations from people above (e.g. stakeholders, directors and clients) and below (team members) their command. That means taking responsibility for all aspects of the project work, including failures.

  • Risk management. Challenges are inevitable in any project. The better able you are to predict them (through technology, team communication and personal experience) and minimize their impact, the better your outcomes will be. Involve yourself in your employer’s risk assessment efforts to learn about the process.

  • Analytical mindset. By analyzing and learning from past projects, you’ll ensure every project you lead has a higher chance of success than the one before.

Reflection starts with talking to team members but data will give you the clearest picture. Use the reporting and dashboard features of project management tools to make sense of complex metrics.

  • Problem-solving. You will often face problems as a project manager as speed bumps are inevitable. Your ability to evaluate options calmly and move forward can be the difference between achieving your main objective and wasting resources.

According to project management consultant Stephanie Jaeger, relationship-building and problem-solving go hand-in-hand.

In an article on the topic for PMI, she writes:

The basis for effective problem-solving lies firmly in building good relationships, honesty, effective communication and team spirit. Build this foundation from day one and you will already be a step ahead when problems occur.

How to become a project manager: A step-by-step guide

It takes time and commitment to become a good project manager. Even when you’ve secured your first project management position, you’ll need to keep developing your skills to optimize your success rate and keep your employer happy.

Get started on your new career journey today by following the five steps below.

1. Identify and start closing your biggest skills gaps

Most people have at least a couple of the basic skills required in project management. You may have useful technical skills in an area like data analytics, or a few valuable soft skills, such as communication and time management.

Use the list above to find gaps in your knowledge and start planning your development. Prioritize your weakest areas to build a well-rounded skill set faster. You can then use project management courses to dive deeper into specific areas.

2. Find opportunities to build project management experience

There are elements of most jobs that overlap with project management. You can use these to start gaining experience early.

For example, a procurement administrator will have plenty of opportunities to practice and learn about resource management. Similarly, a human resources (HR) manager will likely use analytics software, at least on a basic level. Find the overlapping elements in your current position and spend extra time on them to build experience.

Once you’re in an entry-level project management role, you’ll start gaining invaluable experience on the job. Take every opportunity to learn from more experienced project management professionals.

3. Prepare your resume

When you have a basic grasp of all the key project management skills and know which industry you’d like to work in, start putting a targeted resume together.

As well as your newly-developed skills, list any relevant tech proficiencies, even if you’ve not applied them to project management methodologies before.

You may be an expert with Microsoft Excel or understand the workings of a particular customer relationship management (CRM) platform. These kinds of information technology (IT) skills are transferable and could impress an employer.

4. Start networking

Job boards will have positions you can (and should) apply for, but you’ll be competing with hundreds of other aspiring project managers.

Supplement your search by talking to people who are already in the field, as conversations can yield opportunities.

If possible, speak to the project management professionals in your own business. Tell them your intentions and make it clear that you want to learn about what they do. If an entry-level position opens, you’ll be first on their mind.

Another option is to attend events. Look to your local business community or connect with other project professionals through PMI events.

5. Never stop developing

Once you’ve got your first project manager job, keep going.

The nature of project work means there will always be new variables, opportunities, challenges and objectives impacting your responsibilities. Whether you’re working with new technologies or adapting to different project management methodologies, you must be ready to learn and improve.

Pick up your copy of the PMBOK Guide (PMI’s flagship resource on project management standards), look out for relevant courses and expose yourself to as many different types of projects as you can. You’ll become a much more successful project manager as a result.

Final thoughts

There are few roles more valuable in modern business than the project manager.

Develop the right skills and you’ll have more freedom than most to choose where you work, what you work on and who you work for.

More importantly, as a skilled project manager you can directly influence the success and growth of any organization you join. Start your journey today by honing the relevant skills and gaining project experience at every opportunity.

Driving business growth