How and why do people become project managers?

Last month, I had the opportunity to share my experience of project management with a group of college students.  And I remember saying: “Project management is not about what you study and what you know.  To become a project manager, you must learn by doing.”  My initial intent of this opening remarks was to introduce a hands-on exercise that I’ve planned to do with the group.  However, now reflecting on this experience, I got curious about if this statement is valid.  I wonder how and why other project managers choose this field as their career.  So, I started looking on the internet and stumble across a research sponsored by the PMI, titled “Project Manager Development Paths” (Havermans, et al., 2015).

When I watch this webinar, I am pleasantly surprised that many project managers shared a common path that was similar to mine.  This study consisted of semi-structured interviews, personality tests and brief survey targeting experienced project managers in the UK.  The average age of the participants in this research was 43 years old and had an average 19 years of working experience.  Below are the high-level results of the research:

Question 1:  How many years of PM dedicated education & training do project managers have, on average?

Not counting formal education, the research found most PMs had less than one year of dedicated PM training.  This is similar to what I expect.  Project Managers learn by doing.  Currently, most of the PM training is really focus on PMP exam preparation, but very little formal training or schools that can teach project management as a discipline.  A good sign is that there is an increasing number of organizations who are introducing and running their own project management courses to their project teams.  This is an encouraging move to promote a more disciplined application of project management in the business world.

Question 2:  How & why do people become project managers?

Once again, similar to my own experience, most of the PM participants indicate they “drifted into it” and “there was not a lot of career information” that they have access to and consider before joining the field.

When they were asked what do they like most about being project managers, over 70% of the PMs indicated because of the enterprising vocational interest.  Managing projects is “something that requires assertiveness, persuasion, and leadership”.  Moreover, they enjoyed it because being a PM allowed them to “get results” and have “variety in challenges”.

Question 3:  What characterizes their professional development?

Many PM participants in this research indicated PM is a relatively young field, so there wasn’t a lot of support or guidance when they first get started.  They have to learn by doing and through mistakes, they realized what they are really good at and become more self-assured.

As part of their “professional development”, the PMs found the most recurring issues were learning how to manage and influence contradicting views.  As they become more experienced, they gradually master the skills of bridging, reflecting and more people oriented.  Although most PMs did not have formal support, they found the most useful help they can get was mentoring and coaching through line managers, coaches, and colleagues.

Despite the rewards of having a variety of challenges and freedom to manage their projects, it was found that the major factor for PMs to leave this field was stress (from workload and conflict).  For those who is still actively practicing project management, they see their future as moving back to general management or coaching young PM’s.

Final Words…

So, the result of this research confirmed my original thought that project managers are made through experience and not through academic studies.  Project management is a field that can provide a rewarding career if you are seeking for getting results and enjoy a variety of challenges.  As this field mature, I see there will be more opportunity to introduce more established training and mentoring opportunities to any aspiring project managers.



Havermans, L., Savelsbergh, C., Storm, P. & Broekema, H., 2015. Project Manager Development Paths, [online]—What-Project-Managers-Learn-from-Their-Experiences-and-What-Influences-Their-Learning&CFID=2756735&CFTOKEN=bed0fea4a: PMI.


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