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.
I’ve often wondered why. What I’ve concluded from my extensive (read: gut reaction) research can only be explained by way of some comparisons.
- If project management were a vehicle, it’d have the guts and spirit of a 1951 Willys Overland, with the brains of a Rivian R1T. Indestructible old soul, intelligently trailblazing the landscape of the new.
- If project management were a painting, it would be some extreme version of tenebrism, making sense of the dark by bringing the key elements to light.
- Finally, if it were a tree, it’d have to be the yew: long lived and regarded as nature’s most perfect bow material. You know, the better to keep your project teams on target.
I could continue. What all of these things have in common is that each is an acquired taste, takes time to master, doesn’t give up its rewards easily, and comes with high potential for errors resulting in disastrous consequences.
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.
Think Moana, Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice, Star Wars’ Rey, LOTR’s Frodo, Hunger Games’ Katniss, and of course, GOT’s Daenerys.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
For those who reach out to me, I’m generally game to chat about career-building strategies over coffee, calendar allowing. As a rule, I’ve found that with plenty of flexibility in timing, most who answer inquiries will make additional time to talk with those interested in entering the field.
Should your leads not have direct contacts, they will certainly have leads who will. 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. Information can be gathered at the Project Management Institute (PMI) or DPM’s training offerings for digital focused efforts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You are in and you have the title, 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.
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.
- 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:
- ATB (authorization to buy): Media doc detailing which channels are being purchased, at which levels of investment, and when
- BRD (business requirements document)
- FTE (full time equivalent): 2,080 hours
- KPI (key performance indicator)
- ROI (return on investment)
- EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa)
- EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization)
- ABM (account based marketing)
- Funnel: A marketing funnel is a model that shows the way a potential customer goes from becoming aware of your brand to purchasing a good or service.
- Journey Map: How customers discover and ultimately buy your product—“Who are you? You do what now?? Take my money!!!”
- Messaging Map: How you talk about your business—“We know you love coffee. Ours is the best. Here’s why you should try us.”
- Touch Point Map: Where people come into contact with your business—REI 20% sale email. REI discount cards in snail mail. REI app notification of impending end of 20% off member sale.
- CTA (call to action)
- SMIT (single most important thing)
- RTB (reason to believe)
- ICR (internal creative review)
- RACI: Doc detailing who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed
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. 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. However, until that introduction took place, I was making the rounds among the local agencies, speaking with friends of friends, having informational interviews with anyone who would take the time.
The turning point came during an evening out at a restaurant, where this key introduction took place. 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.
For some unknown reason, I believed I could do it. I felt solid in my teaching career and this confidence must have pervaded. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Knowing what I know now, I would have been exponentially less self-secure going in.
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.
Be a brand:
- How do you show up?
- What can people consistently expect from you?
- How do you differentiate yourself from others?
- What is your value proposition? How do you add value?
- How do you visualize the process of getting hired?
- What are the steps along the way that get you to your final goal?
- Who do you need to know?
- Which project management certifications will unlock any gates blocking your way? If not certifications, which equivalent experiences (or maybe project management courses)?
- How will prospective agencies hiring come into contact with you?
- Do you have inside advocates, people in your LinkedIn network who have access or connections to accelerate your position?
Message map (what your brand implies is specified here):
- How do you talk about yourself?
- What sets you apart?
- What benefits do you provide?
- What can potential hiring managers consistently expect, should they commit to your hire?
Is it easy to get a job as a project manager?
What is the best way to find a project management job?
What are the qualities of a good project manager?
For more on the story, you can chat with me on the DPM slack channel, or leave any comments below.
Learn more about how to become a digital project manager here. If you’re a veteran or you’re just setting sail on your journey, I’d love to hear from you. For more intel into the world of servant leadership known as project management, subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter.