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People attach meaning and value to different things over time. For example, at its basic level, money could be described as pieces of paper or metal. It’s the value that we associate it with these pieces of paper and metal that make it desired and valuable.

The same could be argued for job titles. For instance, for the role of a project manager, people have assigned value to specific adjectives that describe the project management position.

Like “junior” and “senior”. And much like money, at certain times in our career as a project manager, we may have put value and desire on the ‘senior project manager’ title. 

However, what exactly is a senior project manager and how does one obtain such a role, level, or title during their career.

In this article, I’ll take a look at what a senior project manager is, how to become a senior project manager, and if becoming a senior PM has more to do with experience and expertise or being in the right place at the right time.

What Is A Senior Project Manager?

Being called a ‘senior’ could mean a lot of things. In everyday life, we consider members of our communities and families ‘seniors’ if they have reached a certain age or point in their life. 

In Canada where I live, anyone who is 55 years of age and older may be eligible for discounts as a result of their age. In other communities and cultures, someone may be considered a senior if they have acquired certain experiences, skills or have been practicing a profession or activity for an extended period of time.

In the project management world, a senior project manager is a project manager at the more experienced end of the scale, who manages multiple projects and teams at the same time.

Associated with this concept of a senior-level project manager is that they demonstrate outstanding leadership skills and influence those above and below them without an executive level position and the use of coercion.

Let’s take a more detailed look at what differentiates a senior project manager from other project manager job roles.

Project Manager vs Senior Project Manager: What’s The Difference?

The role of project manager can be best described as, “the single most important position on a project team and has the overall responsibility for its success. This position comes with a tremendous responsibility, accountability, ownership, and authority.” 

This is usually gained via years of experience working on projects as either a project manager or program manager. Neal Whitten, for PMI, states further some of the main responsibilities of a project manager, including:

  • Has full accountability and responsibility for the project: Accountable for outcome of project
  • Applies lessons learned from recent projects: Learns from past mistakes and successes
  • Defines roles & responsibilities: Responsible for making sure everyone on the project team understands what they need to do and what is expected of them
  • Leads project planning activities: Leads the development, execution, and monitoring of the project plan against project performance

So, if these are the basic responsibilities that all project managers do, how can one be viewed as a senior at this?

What differentiates entry-level, junior, or intermediate level project managers from a senior project manager is how they demonstrate the following skills in carrying out the responsibilities listed above.

Leadership Skills

At the core of the project management role is the ability to lead people. What may differentiate a junior vs senior project manager is the type of leadership style they use and how they use their leadership position to influence others. Senior project managers may use charismatic or expert leadership styles. 

Members of the project team may be inclined to follow their project manager due to their ability to connect with all kinds of stakeholders on the project.

Likewise, they may be viewed as a leader due to their knowledge and experience from managing other projects. Senior project managers are able to influence stakeholders without using coercion or relying on a position of authority. 

They are able to communicate the goals and vision of the project and inspire stakeholders to support this in order to deliver a project’s results. Junior or intermediate project managers may rely on their formal position in order to influence those on a project.

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Communication Skills 

Senior project managers should have exemplary communication skills. They must be able to not only deliver messages to the appropriate stakeholders using the appropriate tools at the right time, they must also be able to understand and interpret communication as well. 

This includes both verbal and non-verbal communications. Now this does not mean that a project manager needs to have superpower skills like the ability to read minds.

What it does mean is that senior project managers should be able to interpret the intention and meaning behind any communication from key stakeholders like the project sponsor and understand how this impacts project execution and the work of the team.

Mentoring and Coaching Skills 

This is a key differentiating skill between junior and senior project managers. Not only must a project manager know their role and project management tools, techniques, and frameworks, they may also need to teach and coach others on these as well. 

For instance, a project manager may need to provide coaching to the Scrum team on how to use certain project planning tools such as a Work Breakdown Structure, User Story creation, or project management methodology such as Scrum or Kanban

Likewise, they may need to teach a project stakeholder like the sponsor about an agile project management delivery framework like Scrum or the project life cycle, as well as what their role is. 

Throughout the project, a senior project manager may need to mentor those on the team by providing feedback and additional resources.

That’s not to say that junior project managers can’t and don’t do mentoring and coaching, but senior project managers should be able to proactively recognize when stakeholders may need coaching and support.

How Many Years Of Experience Does A Senior PM Need?

According to insights from job recruitment sites like Glassdoor, senior project managers on average have between 5 to 8 years of work experience (with 5 years being the minimum).

Of course it’s not just simply a matter of putting in the ‘right’ number of years and then receiving an official title change to senior project manager.

Everyone is different and as such our career paths, development, and growth will look different too. It may take someone 5 years to transition into a senior project management role whereas someone else’s journey could take them 8. 

What is important to be considered is being able to develop project management skills in the areas of project planning, communication, and leadership to be able to demonstrate above average performance and knowledge in these areas.

Is Getting Promoted Just Right Place, Right Time?

It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. We may look at peers and colleagues who are also in project management roles and wonder, “how did they get promoted and I didn’t?” Is there truth in the saying that getting promoted is really about being in the right place at the right time?

From an office politics point-of-view, it may look and feel like this. However, any HR expert will tell you that a lot more should (and often does) factor into what makes an employee promotable.

While timing (such as an internal organizational restructuring) may provide opportunities for advancement, that alone may not provide a solid rationale for promoting a project manager into a senior PM role. 

Oftentimes, organizations will look at leadership skills, project accomplishments, and capacity to take on more complex tasks as inputs in the career advancement process.

Likewise, some may feel that simply being in a role for a certain period of time (for example, 5 years) qualifies one to move into a senior project manager role.

This is a form of entitlement that may actually harm your chances of promotion or career advancement. Rather than simply putting in the time, it may be more worthwhile to focus on such questions as:

  • What am I doing to help the project team meet their goals?
  • What contributions am I making to the organization?
  • How am I encouraging and supporting the growth and development of others?

What Skills & Qualifications Do Senior PMs Need?

One of the fascinating things about networking within the project management community and meeting new project managers is learning about their skills, qualifications, and project management career path. 

While all of us may take different paths to enter the project management profession, in general project managers need to have a solid foundation in leadership to be successful.

Kathy Schwalbe, in her book Introduction to Project Management, Seventh Edition, indicates further suggested skills and knowledge areas a project manager should have:

  • Hands-on experience managing all ten project management knowledge areas and the eight project performance domains, tools, and techniques from the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)
  • The application area of the project (domain, industry, market, etc.)
  • The project environment (politics of the organization, culture, change management, etc.)
  • General business knowledge (financial management, strategic planning, risk management, etc.)
  • Human relations knowledge (leadership, motivation, communication, soft skills, etc.)

Formal project management training (waterfall, Agile, SAFe, etc) is also recommended. Community colleges and sites such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, and The DPM School all have excellent project management training in a variety of project management topics and learning styles to help project managers become upskilled. 

Many project managers have formal educational qualifications such as a bachelor’s degree, or advanced degree such as a master’s degree in addition to specific project management training. 

Likewise, having relevant project management certifications are also highly recommended. Organizations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI), Scrum Alliance, and Scaled Agile offer a variety of project management certifications and learning paths. 

Project management certifications such as the PMP certification (Project Management Professional) and CSM (Certified Scrum Master) are globally recognized and may be required for career advancement.

How To Become A Senior Project Manager

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescribed list that will outline how you can advance to become a project manager. As mentioned earlier, the path to our career advancement will be different for each of us. 

Along that path, we may pause for life events like starting a family, transitioning to another industry or organization, or even relocating to another country. Below are some recommendations for things that you could do on a regular basis to prepare you for a senior project manager role.

Volunteer Yourself

Volunteer for projects and initiatives outside of your area of responsibility: Does your organization participate in corporate social responsibility/philanthropic causes? Is there a call-out for volunteers to participate on a committee or board? 

These are great opportunities to expand your project management experience by taking on different tasks that you may not get to do in your main role. Also, this will demonstrate your ability to take on more responsibility and to possibly push yourself beyond your comfort zone and develop your problem-solving skills.

Ask For Feedback Regularly

If you want to advance your career, you should be aware of gaps or areas that you may need to improve.

Ask not only your manager or sponsor for feedback, ask for feedback from the members of your project team and stakeholders. Be prepared to receive both positive and negative feedback as well. This will help you set goals, milestones, and metrics to measure your career development progress.  

Invest In Your Professional Development

Seek out and take advantage of opportunities to develop your skills and knowledge. Whether or not your organization provides financial resources for attending specialized conferences like agile conferences and training courses, there are many free webinars and events (both in-person and virtual) that you can attend to learn more about the latest trends and tools in project management.

If you are looking to learn more about specific project management software tools beyond Microsoft Project, many vendors offer free trials that you can use to become familiar with the software.

Become a Mentor

One of the most important roles a project manager has is to be a coach and leader, and to foster an environment for collaboration and teamwork.

Mentorship offers a great opportunity for you to build and develop your coaching skills by helping to develop someone and build both their and your interpersonal skills. Mentorship is also a great way to reflect on your own skills, experiences, and career plan to see if there are further areas that you should develop.

Senior Project Manager Salary

The salary for a senior project manager can vary based on location, industry, and years of work experience.

Sites such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor can offer an insight into the salary range you can expect for a senior project management role and many senior project manager job descriptions that may state the salary range and desired skills and qualifications. 

Also, resources such as The Digital Project Manager’s Salary Guide can also provide some insights.

What NOT To Do To Become A Senior PM

Nobody wants to sabotage their career. However, we may be tempted to do things without even realizing that they could hurt our chances of advancement into a senior project manager role. There are certain things that you should avoid doing if you want to become a successful senior project manager. 

Here are some of them:

  • Don’t be a jerk: This can’t be stated enough. Senior project managers need to be excellent at building relationships with everyone on the project team and with all stakeholders. This includes treating all people with respect and acting in a professional manner in all interactions and communications. [Translation: even the people you don’t like on a personal level].  Being rude or acting like a bully will not help you succeed or build strong teams. Be kind and have empathy! 
  • Avoid micromanaging: As a senior project manager, it is important to delegate tasks to your team and trust them to carry out those tasks. Micromanaging can create a culture of distrust and lead to low morale among team members.
  • Don't neglect communication: Effective communication is essential for any project to be successful. As a senior project manager, you should communicate clearly with your team, stakeholders, and others involved in the project.
  • Don't make assumptions: Assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes. As a senior project manager, it is important to ask questions and clarify assumptions to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • Don't ignore risks: Every project has risks, and it is the responsibility of the senior project manager to identify, assess, and manage those risks. Ignoring risks can lead to project failure (here's how to avoid project failure).
  • Don't be inflexible: Projects can be unpredictable, and it is important to be adaptable and flexible in your approach. As a senior project manager, you should be willing to adjust your plans and strategies as needed to achieve project success.

By avoiding these common pitfalls, you can increase your chances of becoming a successful senior project manager.

Upwards and Onwards

By now hopefully you will see that transitioning into a senior project management role isn’t a result of being part of a secret society at the office or simply putting in your time at the office.

It takes a combination of professional growth, leadership, and gaining an excellent and in-depth knowledge of project management tools and frameworks. 

While our career journeys may not be the same, at the end we will hopefully bloom into the amazing project managers we’re all destined (and have the ability to become).

What does your career journey look like? Got any other tips & suggestions for how to advance in a project management career? Feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn or Twitter to share your feedback and thoughts.

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Christina Sookram
By Christina Sookram

With over 15 years of corporate experience as a project manager, Christina Sookram is an experienced project leader and educator. She has provided project leadership experience at some of Canada's largest technology companies. She has subject matter expertise in both waterfall and agile project delivery and product management functions with a focus on Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe® agile methodologies. A successful entrepreneur, Christina founded CNS Project Consulting Inc in 2020 to help clients in the IT, education and Web3 industries. Christina is also an instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University and OCAD University where she enjoys sharing her love of all things project management with students.