Project Managers: What's the Perfect Background?
While reading a blog post about 2013’s recurring themes in Project Management, I was struck by the idea that fewer successful project managers are coming from technical backgrounds than in the past.
Traditionally, a technically skilled person—someone who already understands the details necessary to carry out specific functions of the project—transitions into a role of Project Management (or Account Management, which has adjacent and overlapping responsibilities).
Today’s trends, however, illustrate that project managers are now “coming directly from higher education” and are “coming from a background of customer services, admin functions, or personal assistants.”
This information is both generally interesting and personally validating, as I recently made a transition: from finishing my Master’s while doing marketing and client relations at a professional service firm to serving as an Account Manager at goBRANDgo!.
What are they good for?
Employers may—with raised eyebrows—ask what a potential PM would do if one of the technically skilled team members is unavailable to perform his or her function. The skepticism nested in this question is easily addressed with straightforward thinking.
Whether or not someone has a technical background, there are fundamental skills needed to be a successful project/account manager. Progressive hiring managers are placing less emphasis on the field or industry experience and more focus on these skills. Skills are transferable, and it may actually be an asset to not have a technical background in, say, design and development. With the necessary skills and a variety of past experiences to pull from, I hear things differently, and can approach problems in an agile, creative manner.
This is a challenge I face in my new role. I come equipped with excellent organizational skills and have experience in client relations, problem solving, and strategic marketing and communication, but I have no idea how to build a website, yet that is a deliverable I’ll be managing a team to accomplish.
To directly answer that potential employer or client… it doesn’t make or break the project if the PM doesn’t know all the nuts-and-bolts of constructing a website, because there are plenty of people on the team that do!
Certainly, a good project manager will invest in learning. They’ll spend time with the engineers, developers, designers, etc. They’ll ask questions and look for patterns. They’ll take the time to identify communication and work styles, and they’ll start to work at solutions for specific challenges.
Ken Norton describes project management as “fundamentally about thinking on your feet, staying one step ahead of your competitors, and being able to project yourself into the minds of your colleagues and your customers.”
Key skills of project and account management are:
- comfort with people,
- relatability to those around you,
- strong interpersonal skills,
- an ability to manage others in multiple directions (often without any direct lines of authority),
- leadership skills and earned respect,
- organizational and time management skills,
- and communication skills—ability to speak up, ask questions, challenge others, and speak unfavorably at times.
I foresee success in my future as an account manager at goBRANDgo!, because I work with an awesome team that has the expertise to support me and provide the technical details, and I have the skills and abilities to manage a timeline and clients’ expectations.
What’s your experience? Have you had great Project- and Account Managers from non-traditional backgrounds? Are you one? What about the other way around?