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How Do You Become a Project Manager?
By Kevin Lonergan

Few if any of us grow up wanting to be a project manager, or probably even knowing such a job exists. Most of us go on to start out in our careers still without any appreciation of this role. So how do people become project managers? Well the truth (certainly in the past) has been that many people fall into the role almost by accident. That may sound strange, but it has happened thousands of times, and will continue to do so for some time yet.

So, what do we mean by ‘fallen into the role’?

Very few people become involved in project management following a careful (and structured) assessment of their skills and competencies in relation to this challenging role. Most reach a certain ‘level’ in an organization and one day, literally, they become a project manager. They may (or may not) exhibit habits like being well organized (which will help a great deal) but the selection or appointment may be made for many other reasons. One example might be they are responsible for a specific product within a business that is going through major change etc, and it is felt that this person must lead the project. It may be true that ‘this person’ should be heavily involved in the project, but if they have never led or managed a project before, this can be a major constraint or challenge for them. They will be on a steep learning curve, and may easily make some decisions (or overlook certain actions) that downstream they come to regret, if they look back in a highly objective manner. Few people can really do that.

So what happens when our product manager is suddenly a project manager?

They may go on a short training course, which may help, but will not turn them into a seasoned project manager overnight. They may or may not ask their colleagues for advice (in relation to the role). If they don’t, their learning curve is likely to get steeper quite fast. The sad reality is that even being at the helm of one large project, all the way from start to finish will not turn you into a great project manager. You will (hopefully) learn a lot of things. Most of them will be things not to repeat next time, and some of them will give context to the things the training company may have encouraged you to do, but you somehow never managed to find the time or saw it as a high enough priority.

Maybe what should happen?

Firstly, perhaps the product manager should be known as the Business Owner or Sponsor. They have a critical role on the project, and if they have never been closely involved with a major project before, they are going to need support and coaching, before the project gets off the ground, not after issues start to emerge.

Then, the business should select and appoint a project manager, with great care. This person ought to come from in-house (preferably) and should have a track record in managing projects well. (That is quite different to having a CV that says “I’ve been managing projects for x years”)

And most important of all, businesses should have a very long hard look at how they chose, develop and appoint project managers for all but the most simple of projects.

Kevin Lonergan is a Project Management Consultant at

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