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How to navigate the project manager career path for long-term success

Want to become a project manager? Before starting your journey, learn more about the project management career path, responsibilities, and challenges.
From Team '23

Tempo Team

Project managers (PMs) shoulder a challenging yet rewarding role, steering the success or failure of initiatives that significantly impact the company’s trajectory. 

For those seeking to make a meaningful impact in an organization, transitioning into project management provides opportunities to deliver tangible results that directly contribute to the company’s success. But before getting your project management professional (PMP) certification, start by learning all about the project manager career path to see if it’s the right move for you.

What skills do you need to become a project manager?

The project management sector expects significant growth in the coming years, putting qualified professionals in high demand. Typically, people pursue PMP certification through the Project Management Institute (PMI), which offers courses, professional accreditation, and specialized training to equip them with essential skills for the role.

Securing a project management certification is valuable, but it’s not the only path into the industry. Many professionals, like product managers, learn how to manage projects, even without the official title.

Whether you’re aiming for PMP certification or looking to incorporate PM duties into a broader role, perfecting the following skills will propel your career path.

Soft skills

Soft skills are behavior-based competencies crucial for effective teamwork and personal interactions. These skills, including effective communication, leadership, and adaptability, are crucial for a thriving project management career, as the role demands motivating and uniting team members toward a shared objective.

Key soft skills to cultivate include:

  • Time management

  • Leadership

  • Decision-making

  • Problem-solving

  • Motivating others

  • Organization

  • Navigating ambiguity

  • Practicing self-care

Risk management

Risk management involves identifying, assessing, and mitigating potential issues throughout a project’s life cycle. This requires foreseeing what could go wrong and preparing risk prevention strategies.

Along with honing your soft skills, you should also develop targeted risk management skills, including:

  • Analyzing

  • Strategic thinking 

  • Adaptability

  • Business acumen

  • Brainstorming

Risk management also leverages several tools and techniques that are vital to learn, such as:

  • Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats (SWOT) analysis

  • Risk registers and matrices

  • Root cause analysis

  • Decision trees

Stakeholder management

Stakeholders encompass all individuals and entities who have a vested interest in or will be impacted by a project’s execution. This group ranges from upper management and functional team members to investors and consumers.

PMs must identify these varied stakeholders and harmonize their expectations to gain the support needed to initiate the project. After the project starts, they continue to manage and influence stakeholder expectations while crafting strategies for effective communication across different groups.

Essential skills for effective stakeholder management include:

  • Communication

  • Conflict management

  • Relationship building

  • Negotiation

  • Active listening

The project manager career path

You have several options for developing the project management skills discussed above. First, you can learn by actively engaging in project management tasks within your current role. Or you can attend courses offered by local colleges and universities in person or online. Pursuing a degree in project management or obtaining certification through the PMI are further options.

Opting for formal education offers distinctive advantages over on-the-job training, such as exposure to various tools and technologies you’ll use throughout your career. While on-the-job training may focus on perfecting a specific tool, formal education offers deeper knowledge with multiple common resources. You’ll also build a professional network with your peers, which is a valuable resource for future job opportunities and career growth. 

Choosing to specialize in a technical area can further tailor your career path. Whether it’s focusing on a specific sector, such as construction management, or perfecting a particular methodology like Agile, specialization lets you hone in on areas that match your interests and career goals.

Despite these varied options, there’s no “best way” to launch your career. The perfect path is uniquely personal, depending on your goals, preferences, and situation. But generally, the ideal upward trajectory for a PM progresses through these roles.

Project Coordinator

Starting in this role is common after earning certifications like the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) or PMP. In this entry-level role, you manage daily project activities, freeing up time for the PM to focus on strategic decisions. 

Typical responsibilities include:

  • Updating the project plan

  • Organizing and leading team meetings

  • Gathering and analyzing project data and metrics

  • Tracking the budget

  • Handling document management

Assistant Project Manager

In this role, you support the PM on complex projects by assuming certain management and oversight responsibilities. It’s a valuable learning opportunity that prepares you to lead future projects.

Duties involve:

  • Communicating project progress to stakeholders

  • Monitoring project budget and expenses

  • Identifying resource allocation needs and gaps

  • Overseeing project performance

  • Managing specific project parts, phases, or deliverables

  • Undertaking other routine, low-risk tasks

Project Manager

The PM spearheads multiple initiatives from inception to completion. This role involves developing the project charter, overseeing the project’s execution, and conducting the post-mortem analysis, including archiving all project documentation. It requires strategic oversight over the project’s progress while meticulously managing day-to-day tasks and operations.

PM tasks include:

  • Communicating effectively with team members and stakeholders

  • Overseeing the project budget and managing risks

  • Working efficiently under tight deadlines and high-pressure situations

  • Adapting to changing project requirements and dynamic environments

  • Demonstrating resilience and resourcefulness in navigating challenges

Senior Project Manager

With more experience, you might advance to a senior PM, responsible for overseeing more complex projects and assuming larger responsibilities. This includes conducting interviews, hiring staff, and mentoring junior PMs.

Additional Senior PM tasks include:

  • Serving as an escalation point to resolve issues other PMs can’t address

  • Intervening in projects that are off track

  • Training and managing other PMs

  • Promoting continuous learning, process enhancements, and the integration of new PM methodologies across the organization

Director of Project Management

The role of a Director of Project Management transcends the responsibilities found at other levels, introducing broader challenges and duties. Rather than focusing on daily project execution tasks, this position requires organization-wide leadership. The director oversees the entire project management department, coordinating with executives and managing multiple projects that drive high-impact, strategic outcomes. 

PM directors handle:

  • Managing multi-million dollar budgets 

  • Overseeing resource allocation across the PM team

  • Leading business process reengineering initiatives

  • Strategizing and guiding the organization to achieve overarching objectives

Tips to get promoted as a project manager

To tackle more challenging projects and assume greater responsibilities, you must aim higher. Here are some strategies to bring a promotion within your grasp.

Set a concrete promotion goal

Treat your advancement ambition as a distinct project and use your PM expertise to outline the goal, break down the process into manageable tasks, and establish a clear timeline for achievement. Remember, securing a promotion is a journey with a defined start, progression, and completion — just like any other project —- so be precise and establish deadlines.

Keep your manager happy

Your direct supervisor can make or break your promotion project. They play a pivotal role, so cultivating a supportive working relationship is essential. Seek their feedback, act on it, and communicate the changes you’ve made, demonstrating your commitment to growth.

Consistently deliver

Aiming for a promotion doesn’t excuse neglecting existing duties. Excel in your current role, and if needed, allocate extra time by adjusting your work hours. This dedication helps you meet your responsibilities while pursuing additional tasks that position you for advancement. Keep track of your accomplishments, ensure they’re visible to management, and be ready to present them if needed.

Seek and solve problems

It’s not enough to just solve problems that land on your plate — strive to seek and solve problems others haven’t. Showcase your initiative by addressing unresolved issues and completing stalled projects. This strategy demonstrates initiative and displays your capability to deliver solutions and improve processes.

Learn from your mistakes

When mistakes happen, promptly acknowledge them. Outlining what you’ve learned from your errors demonstrates responsibility and a dedication to constant improvement.

Align with company goals

Initiative will only take you so far. To get promoted, you must convince management that moving you up the hierarchy will add value to the company and help it achieve its objectives. Demonstrating how your promotion aligns with the company’s strategic direction positions you as a valuable asset, making the company more inclined to support your career progression. 

Envision leading a project coordinator at a software development company aiming to break into new markets with its flagship product. You spearhead the effort to identify and integrate enhancements specific to these markets, focusing on features that solve unique regional challenges. Upon completing your analysis, you present your findings and a strategic implementation roadmap to senior management, effectively aligning your project with the company’s goals for market expansion.

Level up your project management skills

Boost your standing with superiors by perfecting PM tools like Tempo Strategic Roadmaps. Strategic Roadmaps elevates project planning with its user-friendly project roadmaps, helping you detail crucial tasks, workflows, and timelines. When combined with Timesheets, a comprehensive resource and time-tracking tool, you’re equipped to achieve project success.