Project Managers Next Step

Firms find keys to keeping experienced managers.

For Lee Blezard, being a project manager is the business equivalent of conducting an orchestra. "I apply my attention and send resources to the places that need it to make everything come together," said the veteran manager at Nortel Networks Corp., in Brampton, Ontario.

In the last 10 years, Blezard has managed everything from software development projects to installations of high-speed networks—and he delights in the recognition his skills are finally getting. "[Project managers are] becoming more and more important to the success of the company," Blezard said.

Ironically, however, while project management may open up opportunities beyond the IT department, some would-be candidates avoid the role because they fear they wont get the resources theyll need to succeed or that theyll be pigeonholed as project managers. Their fears are well-founded: While some companies, such as Nortel, do reward high achievers, advancement opportunities are still rare, said Matt Light, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

The absence of a well- defined career path is encouraging some veteran project managers to jump to companies such as Nortel that offer formal growth plans or to seek new careers, Light said. "You dont get to age 40 or 50 and remain content to be at the same salary and level of authority," he said.

A major problem for career-conscious managers is that many companies continue to see project management as an informal role. Some volunteer for the duty to get brownie points. Others are "volunteered" based on unrelated talents at writing software code or administering networks. Neither path leads to getting good project managers, experts say. "If the person isnt given training ... the end product may be different than whats expected," said Raj Kapur, vice president and general manager for the Center for Project Management, a San Ramon, Calif., consultancy. Training at many companies consists of throwing a technical person with no management experience into the ad hoc role of project manager. Those who survive continue to lead future projects. Exacerbating the problem, ad hoc project managers usually dont receive extra authority or compensation even though theyre held responsible for a projects success or failure, Light said.

The era of the ad hoc project manager appears to be waning. According to the Project Management Institute, a Newtown Square, Pa., professional organization that certifies project managers, its membership increased by more than 16,000 over the last year to 71,617.

In its latest compensation survey, PMI determined that the mean compensation for project managers in the United States now stands at almost $88,000. Increasingly, project manager-friendly companies are creating higher-level management positions, known as program manager positions, which give experienced people oversight of multiple projects and an opportunity to demonstrate skills appropriate for corporate executive positions.

Nortel is in the process of creating formal career paths based on project management training and skills, said Charlene Donohue, who directs classroom and Web-based project manager instruction. The Nortel curriculum targets three skill levels, beginning with basic concepts for those who will likely participate in but not manage project teams. More advanced courses cover journeyman and expert managers. Those with three or feweryears of project management experience participate in a four-day program that teaches core subjects such as evaluating a projects viability, estimating its resource requirements, building teams and tracking progress. Veteran managers who have logged more than three years of project management, such as Blezard, participate in advanced courses that teach the complexities of financing overseas projects and establishing virtual teams that include members from throughout the world.

Nortels project manager curriculum has been rolled out to North American employees over the last two years, and now Donohue is making it available to Nortel divisions worldwide. Shes also helping the company create formal job titles that reward successful project managers with promotions. The career path strategy is due to be finalized this quarter and implemented this year, she said. So far, Donohue doesnt have hard numbers about how many employees have completed the courses or what the training has done for Nortels bottom line. But she says the company now defines project management capabilities as enabling skills—something employees must demonstrate when being considered for promotions.

For his part, Blezard credits the work hes done as a project manager for propelling his career from a rookie engineering school graduate fiddling with telephone switches to his current role directing leading-edge optical network engineering and testing. Whats more, project management skills give him increased value within and outside Nortel. "In the last five years, project managers have received more recognition worldwide," he said. In todays uncertain employment market, thats music to anyones ears.