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In my previous role as operations and resourcing director, I was not often confronted by young new talent hungry to break into the illustrious, glory-laden, widely acclaimed, and wildly celebrated career path of project management. 

Here’s the real clincher for why many shy away from project management: When you do it right, it’s like oxygen. Nobody gets awards for air, but we all need to breathe.

If you’re still with me and you still want to be a project manager, let me take you on the 12 step hero’s journey it will require. 

What’s the 12 step hero’s journey you ask? To paraphrase Wikipedia, here’s a quick refresher: 

The hero's journey is a timeless story structure which follows a protagonist on an unforeseen quest, where they face challenges, gain insights, and return home transformed.

I’d say becoming a project manager and landing your first entry-level project management job compares favorably to the hero’s journey. Let’s take a look at the similarities below.

And if you want to skip right to skill building, check out the many helpful offerings from The DPM School.

Landing Your First PM Job In 12 Steps: The Hero’s Journey

1. The Ordinary World

We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins. 

You're not a PM yet, but you have many translatable skills, such as: highly organized, driven, motivated, servant leader, curious, courageous, and intelligent.

Action Item

Listen to that inner voice telling you there’s more. You know you got this. 

2. Call to Adventure

The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure. 

College graduation? Career dissatisfaction? Life changes? A question arises and begins to percolate: Are you doing PM work without the PM title? Feel like an accidental project manager?

Action Item

Look back at your past self. Remember how optimistic you used to be. 

3. Refusal of the Call

The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any other number of issues. 

The question becomes more insistent internally. Friends and acquaintances suggest project management as a career option. Imposter syndrome causes a hesitation in taking action. 

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Action Items

Take stock. What updates are needed to your resume? How do you know? Begin researching. (Tip: DPM’s mini courses are a great place to start.)

Plus, get more project management resume tips here.

4. Meeting the Mentor

The hero encounters a mentor who can give advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead. 

A senior coworker or trusted member in the network, found by way of close friends, or direct friendship with experience in the field, provides wayfinding. 

Action Items

As you develop a network, certain individuals will begin to stand out. Seek them out. LinkedIn is a good starting point. Ask to connect. Do include an introductory note. When people respond, build on those connections. Should your leads not have direct contacts, they will certainly have leads who will.

What do you say? I express my interest in their subject matter, introduce myself, share a bit about what I do, and how it might be interesting to continue the conversation. 

Seek out certifications or online courses. Popular ones include the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), the Project Management Professional (the PMP certification), PRINCE2, or an agile certification.

For more people to connect with, check out this list of project managers to follow on social media.

5. Crossing the Threshold

The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.

Wayfinding connections lead to informational interviews at places that are hiring or represent businesses for which you’d like to work. You are actively working your way from the outer-rings of the target closer in towards the bullseye. 

Action Items 

This may seem casual. IT IS NOT! Network connections can provide leads at prospective businesses where a project management role would be welcome. Treat this with the same effort and respect as last-stage interviewing. Know who you’re talking to.

Prep for this second-tier informational interview is different from the more general, “I'd like to get into PM'ing what should I do?” This has higher stakes; you’re potentially talking to ops and senior project managers, where a good impression could lead to a leg up in a real interview scenario. Here's where good questions will get you noticed. 

Gather intel. What project management software do they use? What’s a typical day, week, month? Which teams do they work with and how do they interact? Follow up on these answers by doing additional personal research on those topics. 

You can use what you discover as a talking point in your thank you follow-up communication–and at bare minimum, you need to send thank you emails as a follow up. However, I may or may not have secured project manager positions based on my handwritten and hand delivered thank you cards. 

Don’t form-letter this. Include a distillation of your conversation, express an insight you gained, and always remember that sincere gratitude must come through. 

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.

Informational interviews lead to actual interviews for desired positions. Some go well. Others don’t, leading to existential questions and possible withdrawal to safety, but the hero perseveres despite some humiliation.

Action Items 

Some people will give you time and some won't. Believe in yourself and know every interaction is a chance to learn and takes you one step closer. Take what is beneficial and discard the rest. Keep moving. Always keep moving.

Informational interviews and interviews in general are a time challenge for most people. Many enjoy the process and love to give back, finding it validating, confirming knowledge gained has value.

Nevertheless, most folks lack the necessary non-billable time. Some people handle this internal pressure gracefully, understanding the bigger humanitarian picture.

Others may become frustrated when the precious given time is perceived as a waste. Let me repeat: Always keep moving.

7. The Approach

The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.

Interviews lead to a long term opportunity disguised as a short term setback. Internal vision of self does not match external reality.

Action Items

Job offer extended and taken. Perhaps at a lesser title, maybe project coordinator, with a lesser salary than anticipated. If not, congratulations! Otherwise, hard work and dedication with consistent effort demonstrates value. Your teams will notice. It will pay-off long term.     

8. The Ordeal

Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis. 

Contact with the goal inevitably places the hero in situations outside of their existing set of experience. Feelings of failure threaten to mount, feeding imposter syndrome, leading to potential exit from the field. 

Those with insufficient strength of will, leave. Those with too much self-importance, leave. Those with fragile spirits, leave. Those who live and learn, stay. Those who act honestly, with integrity and taking the appropriate amount of responsibility, stay. 

Action Items 

Inevitably you will encounter aspects outside of your experience set or the scope of your current job. Fumbles happen. Maybe you underestimated the budget? Forgot to scope hard costs (ie. costs not associated with employee time?) 

Or it’s just a miss. Didn’t take a future out of office into account? Don’t let it spiral. Cut your losses. Be transparent with your team. Problem solve and accept your failures. Learn from them. Use them to build future wins. Moving forward with grace does much to build team equity despite any issues.   

9. The Reward

After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword—a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item or piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.

Work befitting the title of project manager replaces the usually assigned executional daily tasks. Trust increases. Oversight decreases. Ownership of work increases.

Action Items

Overcoming setbacks and successfully navigating projects builds palpable and demonstrable confidence. Teams notice, begin asking for you to lead new projects. Department heads notice, raises and promotions are on the horizon. More complex projects and initiatives are assigned to you. 

10. The Road Back

 The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.

Having done the work befitting the title, increased trust leads to increased responsibility, including types of work previously not done. 

Action Items 

You are stepping into your title. No time to relax, however, as the big wheel keeps on turning and new challenges await. The organizational mind, the proactive anticipator, the planner is needed as much as ever. You know the work and more of it is coming your way steadily.

11. The Resurrection

The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all. 

Because projects have been initiated and seen through to conclusion successfully, our hero is now promoted to the title of project manager. All challenges are now fair game. The hero is assigned a complicated, highly complex, Never Been Done (NBD) type of project. 

Action Items 

You are in and you have the title, project manager salary, project complexity, and team trust befitting the work done. With all of the good will, trust, and equity, you are becoming the go to person for other project managers. Team members seek you out for answers. Your knowledge is sought out to solve problems.

Imposter syndrome is safely six feet under, decomposing in a bag laced with fungal spores.   

12. The Return

The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.

That LinkedIn inMail you received from someone you’re not connected to: you’ve read it. You are now that person. You extend the ladder back down and pull others up. You make the time. You share the knowledge. You illuminate the horizon for others making their way. You’ve become a wayfinder yourself for the next generation.  

Action Items

Like SuperWoman/Man who can hear and perceive almost everything all at once all the time, learn how to turn it off. Not everything needs timing and pricing to be maximized at all times for life to be enjoyed. Your kids’ toys don’t need utilization reports informing Q4 buying strategies for the coming year. What am I saying, of course they do. Welcome home.  

30 Skills Project Managers Need

Any quick search will reveal a plethora of bulleted lists detailing skills needed as a project manager. A quick word cloud summary is below. 

project management skills word cloud
A word cloud illustrating the most important project management skills.

These include:

  • Risk management
  • Stakeholder management
  • Time management
  • Leadership skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Communication skills
  • Technical skills 

Everyone has these in varying quantities. What characterizes a good project manager, one who breathes air into projects, is the miraculous ability to see the entire world of the project from 35,000 feet, while never letting go of the realities on the ground, in the weeds even. 

The high level overview understanding allows for proper scoping, project planning, budgeting, forecasting, and anticipatory problem solving needed for the successful interplay between the various disciplines. 

In the weeds, on the ground, daily process knowledge facilitates friction-free teamwork, as the project manager can smooth the way for workflows and project management methodologies to unfold providing proper specs, proper timing, and proper overall resource management and utilization. 

Project managers must speak the language of all disciplines involved. In advertising, this means knowing what account, strategy, finance, creative, production, and vendor teams mean when they pepper conversations with jargon.

Speaking the language inspires confidence, builds trust, facilitates further communication, and allows for increased problem solving ability. This is an upward spiral into the good! 

How To Get A Project Management Job With No Experience

I’ve met many project managers who took non-traditional routes into their careers in project management. Mine was no different. 11 years ago, I transitioned from 17 years of teaching into project management, joining those who took a circuitous route into their project management careers.

I got lucky in that I knew someone who knew someone and didn’t mind making an introduction. I met with someone who worked at an agency. It must have gone well, as I was asked later on, if I was interested in interviewing. I was.

I interviewed many times, with several teams. Looking back, I must have had advocates, because what I didn’t have was project management experience. I repeatedly made the case that teaching had transferable skills, easily applied within the context of this new project management career path.

Spoiler alert: I ultimately got the job. It’s a crazy story, too long to retell here. 

Here’s a cliff note summary of my takeaways: 

  • Be on your game: Know who you are talking to. Do background research. Ask thoughtful questions. Build on previously provided answers with intelligent and insightful follow up questions. Successful project managers ask questions and bring missing information to light. When you ask questions this shows engagement, interest, and dedication to understanding.  
  • Grow your network: Join networks. LinkedIn is a good place to start. Find groups. Research businesses that spark your interest, and learn about what they do and who works in fields you’re interested in. Reach out to those people.
  • Nurture your advocates: Once you have connections who are interested in furthering your development, maintain these by staying engaged, making progress, and respecting their advice. 
  • Follow through: Honor commitments. Take additional steps. Send thank you cards for time taken. 
  • Keep showing up. Don’t give up. One door closes. Another opens. 
  • Think of yourself like a brand. The agency is your target audience and you need a journey, touchpoint, and message map to convert the lead into a sale, which is to say convert to hire.

Find out more about how to become a project manager without experience here.

FAQs About Project Management Jobs

TL;DR section below. If you’re curious, but don’t have time to walk the full 12 step hero’s journey of discovering project management, take a look at some FAQs below.

Is it easy to get a job as a project manager?

Like everything everywhere, if you’re in the right place, at the right time, with the right project management skills, and everyone involved in hiring has had lunch and is happy, then sure.

Another scenario where it could be easy is if you’ve built an interdisciplinary network of advocates based on your unassailable and universally strong reputation and there’s no economic downturn, pandemic, or massive tech industry lay-off to contend with, then signs do point to easy. If there are any pieces missing, then you have to put in the work. With work, it will come.

What is the best way to find a project management job?

Within your network. If you don’t have a network you’re aware of, begin building one. LinkedIn is an excellent place to start. It isn’t the only game in town however. DPM’s membership community can kickstart your networking unlike anything else, as it is purpose built for this exact function, among others. Introduce yourself. Build relationships. Put yourself out there.

More about getting started in project management here.

What are the qualities of a good project manager?

A balanced combination of hard skills, soft skills, life experience, humor, compassion, drive, motivation, determination, adaptation, intelligence, and incredible foresight followed by action. Understand the past, but stay focused on moving forward into the future.

What’s Next?

Still wondering if project management is the right career for you? Check out certifications and mini courses from The DPM School to test the waters.

By Thako Harris

Thako Harris is a seasoned operations and resourcing veteran, with over 11 years of experience within the discipline of project management. His client roster includes recognizable brands such as: Subaru, Noom, GNC, Comcast. Most recently Thako led a department of eight senior project managers, focusing on process implementation, resource management, utilization and profitability, as well as managing his own portfolio of clients. With a broad range of career experiences, Thako brings a fresh, human perspective to agency operations.