50 Shades Of Project Manager: Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Career

Anastazja Michalak
By Anastazja Michalak
16 Min Read

I started my Project Management career in IT in 2015. Before that, I was a working professional in another industry for 6 years (education and international logistics). In 2014 I got my first job in IT, in an international corporation (Atos) as a Service Desk agent. I had no prior experience in IT and I had no clue about where to develop further. During my first year in that company, I learned a lot about my new job responsibilities as well as about development opportunities. One of them was Project Management post-graduate studies. The company cooperated with the local institute and offered discounts for its employees. I quickly understood that the Service desk job was “neither my circus nor my monkeys” and I immediately used the chance to learn. During my studies, I decided to learn more about Project Management and became an active volunteer in PMI local chapter. After one year of learning theory and applying it while volunteering, I realized that was exactly what I loved doing (despite all the challenges down the road) and that was the career I wanted to pursue.

Since 2015 I am dedicated to my profession, I am still learning every single day, I am still passionate about the career I chose for myself, I still keep growing my experience and expertise. What is more, I have developed a whole roadmap for my own development for the next 10 years πŸ˜‹ Since 2015 I am staying true to myself and my development. Even though I’ve changed jobs a few times, I stayed on the same career develoment path in Project Management. What has changed though, is the type of experience I gathered and the roles I’ve performed πŸ‘¨β€πŸŽ“.

In today’s article, I want to share some insights about roles a project manager may be asked to perform. If I knew those things in 2015, who knows maybe my career would be even faster. Today this information will help you to choose your development path more carefully, ask hiring managers the right questions and craft the job descriptions better to reflect exact company needs.

When you look at job offers, many of them say “Project Manager” with different degrees of seniority. Apparently not only there is a difference, but the roles also differ. Here are my 7 insights about different roles you might need to perform which are under the same naming umbrella of the “Project Manager”.

1. Project Manager as People Manager

Some companies publish the open positions and call them “Project Manager”, but the role looks more like a “People Manager”. This is why it is important to ask the right questions about the role, responsibilities, and decision-making authority during the interview. Responsibilities will include but will be not limited to hiring and onboarding new people to the team, planning of the employees’ career development (promotions, salary increases, demotion, rotation etc), managing team conflicts, and customer escalations if any of them are related to the performance of the individuals. In such cases, the PM is not dealing much with the core PM’s responsibilities like project initiation, planning, execution, and closure.

If you ask me, I’ll say that team management is a good skill to have and develop, but not for too long. As a manager, you need to be able to treat people not just as resources but as individual contributors and find a common language with each of them. This is crucial for any project’s success because at the heart of any project are people. It is vital to understand what motivates people, how to manage their performance, and how to support them in their development. Servant leadership, my dears, servant leadership πŸ‘† Be careful, though, not to stay too long in such positions, as you do not train other crucial PM skills in project planning, execution, monitoring and control.

2. Project Manager as a Scrum Master

This will sound a bit shocking to you, but I’ve witnessed it myself and I am still not able to find a proper explanation. The only thing which comes to my mind is that many, especially large, organizations are still new to Agile and they are still figuring out how they want to integrate the new roles into already existing organizational structure, positions, and processes. Especially now in 2021 when there is so much hype around Agile. Nowadays, even pure waterfall projects start using the elements of agile methodology. What scares me most, is that you might be hired as a Project Manager and perform a role of a Scrum Master or vice versa – be hired as a Scrum Master but perform a role of a Project manager. The worst thing is when an organization is mixing these 2 positions into one: when the Project Manager is also a Scrum Master. Such a combination is really bad because as per the Scrum Guide the Scrum Master is supposed to be a servant leader, protect the team and help them resolve issues and impediments. The Project Manager, on the other hand, is responsible to get things done and ensure the project progresses as expected, push things forward, and expects tasks to be managed properly and delivered as per scope, time, and schedule.

A colleague of mine told me a story that she was officially working as a Project Manager in one organization, and then during the Agile transformation initiative leadership decided to change the naming convention of the role from Project Manager to Scrum Master. Unexpected turn of events, isn’t it 😲?

Therefore, I think it is crucial to ask the hiring managers the proper questions and clarify the role, responsibilities, organizational and reporting structure. I remember during one of the interviews, the hiring manager told me that they offer me a Senior PM position but the role will be different depending on the project assignment: sometimes it can be a Scrum Master, sometimes a Project Manager. To be honest, it is a very vague explanation, moreover, it sounded to me like sometimes I will be promoted to Senior PM in one assignment and in another demoted to Scrum Master responsibilities. Come on πŸ™ˆ!

3. Project Manager as Project Coordinator

Sometimes, just because you have years of experience, you are offered a role of a Project Manager/Senior Project manager, but in reality, you work as a project coordinator/senior project coordinator. Because you are not given a proper decision-making authority, because the things you are accountable for are not directly related to the project’s success or failure. Such situations have the right to exist, of course, but then there should be clarity on the position naming convention and responsibilities and decision-making authority. How can you effectively manage planning activities, risks and issues, scope, timelines, and budgets if you are not given proper authority?

This is where I never stop being surprised when I talk with certain types of project managers who have sufficient years of experience but always coordinated work, they never actually managed up to the project constraints.

4. Project Manager as both the Project Manager and Team Manager

This combination is interesting. I have observed it only in few companies (software development) and I really liked it. The concept is that as a Project Manager you are responsible for both the project and people assigned to it (their career development, promotions, or rotations). I think this is cool because you have an opportunity to select people who will be working with you, have decision-making authority over the hiring process, and be directly responsible for the scope, budgets, and schedules. You are able to build a better bond with your direct reports and be able to evaluate their performance objectively. In my personal opinion, such type of role is very mature and helps project managers develop ownership for the people they manage and the outcome of the project as a whole.

As I have already mentioned above, many large organizations separate these roles: there is a place for the project manager, there is a place for the people manager or counselor and there is a place for the person who is fully responsible for the outcome of the project or product (program director, product manager, delivery manager, etc). And often people managers, counselors have no clue about how you perform in the project. They only collect feedbacks from your peer team members or senior supervisors in the project or program. This becomes a real challenge when you plan your promotion and next career steps.

5. Project Manager as a Stream Leader

Think of it as if you are a part of a large program with many different streams and you are given a piece of it, which you are responsible for and have to deliver. At this point in time, you are managing as per scope, budget, and schedule, you are responsible for the outcome and you are the “owner of your territory”. At this point in time, you might not have enough experience to manage the whole program, but it is a great start because you have your own field where you make decisions, plan, monitor, report and most importantly – you are held accountable.

I remember when I first joined IBM, I was still gathering experience and trying my skills with projects of larger complexity and size. You know, there is a difference when you manage 5 projects simultaneously with low or medium complexity and team size up to 5 people each, and when you manage 1 stream with 10 project managers reporting to you, a team size of 50 FTE + and your budget is around 5-10 million dollars. There is a difference when you are one of many PMs and when you are the one and only responsible and accountable.

One of the things I’ve always done right – I’ve always asked for my own “territory” – a project/program for which I will be fully responsible and accountable. Even though in the project you are never alone and you have many individual contributors, at the same time there is only one person who will be asked for when things start to fall apart. This kind of ownership is challenging but is very rewarding from a career perspective.

6. Project Manager as a “Jack of all Trades”

This might be applicable mainly for smaller companies when they need a “go-to” person and call it project management. The good thing about it is that there is an opportunity to learn a bit of everything on a high level: marketing, finance, procurement, project management, IT etc. Sometimes is it great because you can extend your knowledge and grasp an understanding of different areas, which will be very useful for the helicopter view. On the other hand, it is also true that you can be a “jack of all trades” and master of none.

7. Project Manager as a Program Manager

Sometimes you are hired as a Project Manager/ Senior Project Manager and your role will be to manage a Program. I personally see no concern about it as long as it is giving you experience and or well reflected on your salary level. Sometimes the company may not have such a position in its structure, but the role exists internally and can be performed. But again, the Program Manager in a smaller company may have to deal with totally different project complexity than in a larger company. Here it is important to not get too confident in your role and keep developing and increasing the complexity if not within one company, then in different corporations.

As you have already read above, there are different roles you may be asked to perform at the position of the Project Manager. However, the most important thing is WHAT you do, and not how the position is called. As long as you do what you love, as long as your role is challenging and lets you develop – you will be OK!

I hope this information will help you in your own career development, give you insights about which questions to ask when looking for a new role or when looking for a new project manager to join your team:) If you know someone who can benefit from this information, please share. If you have additional useful insights, please reach back, I’d love to learn from you too. Let’s support each other in our continuous improvement. Sharing is caring!

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By Anastazja Michalak IT Program Manager, PMP
I am a certified Project and Program Manager with hands-on experience in delivering complex business initiatives since 2014.
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