If you’ve ever thought about going into project management, you’ve probably heard that you need to get a certification.
And if you’re planning to become a project manager without experience, it can be hard to choose between all the training options available on the market. The acronyms alone can be dizzying: PRINCE2, SCRUM, CAPM, PMP, Six Sigma, PMBOK, and so on. Add that to the ongoing debate not just about whether to get a certification, but which one is the best, and the whole process becomes quite overwhelming.
If that’s you, now might be a good time to take a step back and reframe the question:
Can I get started as a project manager (PM) without experience and without a certification?
The answer is maybe.
If you’ve set your sights on working in a large corporate structure with budgets that run in the millions, then the best course of action is to get a certification. This will help you provide proof of hours of experience (a requirement for certifications) and help you understand advanced project management principles.
On the flip side, if you’re thinking of taking on small-business clients, or forward-thinking startups, getting a certification might be a waste a time and money. Often, these types of clients don’t really care what you know in theory, as long as you’re able to move their projects forward in practice.
A seasoned project manager will be the first to admit that a certification does not a good PM make. (Think about it, just because two people get a college degree, that doesn’t mean they are equally qualified.)
So what should you do?
In this post, we’ll outline four steps that you can take if you want to go the project management route. These steps are ideal if you’re thinking of becoming a freelance project manager, but they can also be helpful if you want to work in a small team as a PM.
Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
STEP 1: Take an honest look at your skill set
The truth is, no official-looking piece of paper with a stamp on it will help you do your job, and do it well. It will always come down to what you can accomplish. At the end of the day, the skills you have are more important than any certification you could obtain.
But if you’re going to pursue a project management certification, you need to have a strong understanding of your skill set. Taking the time to put these things on paper will help you gain the clarity you need to get started. And with clarity comes confidence.
Here’s what you should do first if you want to become a project manager without experience.
Sit down and make a list of the skills you have.
Simply put, what are you good at?
Are you a good communicator? Write that down!
Are you responsible for managing finances at your day job? Write that down!
Are you quick to act with a clear head in a crisis situation? Write that down!
And don’t stop at the obvious either. We’re often blind to the many projects we’ve been involved in because we often don’t tend to think of them as projects. Maybe you’ve taken it upon yourself to organize training events at your job. Those are event management skills right there. Or maybe you’re coordinating a team of volunteers in your community. Sure enough, we can consider this as having people management skills.
The key to doing this exercise right – and it’s in your best interest to do it as accurately as possible – is to not trick yourself into seeing yourself as you’d LIKE to be.
Here’s what I mean by that. This ideal version of your skills might include having very good communication skills. But in reality, you might shudder at the thought of explaining details via email or speaking in front of a team. Or you’d like to see yourself as having above average leadership skills. But in fact, you find it very unpleasant to have to motivate team members or communicate a shared vision to your co-workers.
So while you’re taking an inventory of your skills, it’s very important to also write down examples of instances when you demonstrated these skills. By diving deeper into this question, you’ll be able to separate the fictional idealized version of your abilities from the skills that you actually DO have.
Action step: In writing, take stock of the professional skills you have.
Next step: Dig deeper and write down the instances when you demonstrated these skills.
STEP 2: Make a plan to improve the skills that you want to develop
Now that you have a general idea of your skills on paper, take an honest look at what you need to improve.
To start with, have a closer look at job descriptions for your desired field of work or for the type of projects that you’d like to start managing. Don’t just stop at one job description; collect a few representative samples, but don’t overdo it. Five to seven job descriptions should do the trick.
Again, it’s a good idea to do this in writing. And maybe even do the writing by hand, because it has been proven that it will help you filter the information better.
On a piece of paper, draw three columns with the following headers:
Skills I have – Skills required – Skills I need to improve
In the first column, write down the skills you’ve discovered in the previous exercise (see Step 1).
For the second column, you need to pull the information from the job descriptions you’ve collected. What are the skills mentioned for your ideal job? How about for your top three jobs? Write them down in the second column.
At this point, stop and asses where these two columns overlap. Let’s say one of your skills is being accurate at handling financial processes, and your ideal jobs require someone with this skill. Great, you’ve got that covered, so you can cross it off your list.
On the other hand, let’s say that the kind of projects you’re after require someone who is a good negotiator. You feel that’s not your strong suit, so you should add that under the Skills I need to improve column. Keep going until you’ve identified a few other skills you need to improve.
It’s important to mention that you should use this exercise as a starting point, not as an end point. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the things you don’t know, and you might start believing that you should wait until you’ve acquired ALL of these skills before you could even dream of looking for project management clients.
In reality, that’s not going to be a very productive approach. That’s why you should just pick two or three skills to work on, and make a plan on how to improve them.
Should you read a few books?
Maybe attend a workshop?
Can you take a short online course? (We’re offering a great course written by a project management pro.)
Even though it might feel empowering to take charge of your education, keep in mind that the best kind of learning is the one that comes from experience. You can’t fully prepare for all the aspects of a job until you get the job.
So while bridging the knowledge gap is important, it’s also crucial to start looking for project management clients before you feel you’re ready.
Action step: On a piece of paper, draw three columns with the following headers:
Skills I have – Skills required – Skills I need to improve.
Fill in your answers.
Next step: Choose one or two skills that you want to improve, and make a plan to do so.
STEP 3: Decide on how you’ll position yourself as a PM
After you’ve identified your skills and a proper way to fill your knowledge gaps, it’s time to start thinking about the kind of work you want to do, and the type of clients you want to work with.
The simple questions here are:
1. What sets you apart from other project managers?
2. How do you want to be spending your work hours?
You can come at these questions from a few different angles.
Do you want to specialize in a certain technology or project management tool? For example, maybe you’re really good at wrangling a project using Asana, Redmine, Workbook, or any other popular tech tool at the moment.
Here are seven digital project management solutions from Entrepreneur.
Maybe you want to work only on a certain type of project (for example, recruitment drives)?
Or you may not care as much about the projects, as long as you’re in your desired industry, be it healthcare, educational technology or real estate.
Then consider whether there’s any easy way to make this happen based on the skills you already have. If you’re already using a project management tool in your day job, can you apply the same knowledge in working for clients? Or if you already have HR experience, would you be able to transition to working as a PM in recruitment?
After you’ve asked yourself these questions, make sure you’re also setting goals in the direction you’ve decided to take. Although it might not come easy, try to set specific goals. So instead of saying “I want to work in tech”, you can frame it this way, “I want to work remotely for a tech company managing the way their product and engineering teams receive customer feedback.”
Once again, we’re aiming for clarity.
Here’s our recommendation for this step: do not get stuck in this phase because you think you should cover all your bases. At this point, know that your positioning will evolve as your roles will change. The best way to discover what you like doing is to give something a try and learn on the job.
Action step: In writing, answer the two questions we’ve mentioned at the top of Step 3.
Next step: Set a specific goal about the kind of work you want to do.
STEP 4: Start building your project management network
It’s much easier to become a project manager without experience if you’re actually connected to the project management world. Start talking to other PMs and colleagues about the goals you’ve set in Step 3.
You aim here is to be top-of-mind in case your network comes across opportunities that might be a good fit for you.
And while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from colleagues whose opinion you value. Ask them what they think your strong skills are and how you could improve your gaps in knowledge.
The creator of our Project Management for Virtual Assistants course, Hailey Thomas, says that one of the methods she uses to find leads is to connect with industry peers – whether that’s the head of marketing, the operations manager, or the corporate equivalent of the job she’s interested in. When doing so, Hailey focuses on making them come across as the experts instead of showing off her own skills – although she doesn’t shy away from sharing her own industry tips.
These connections are usually the first ones to realize that their company needs to bring a virtual project manager on board, so it’s a really good idea to cultivate relationships with them.
It’s important to recognize that even project managers don’t work in isolation. They collaborate with teams – in some cases, they even create teams. So it’s never too early to start growing your network.
Action step: draw up a list of five people that you could reach out to and talk about your goals.
Next step: Once you have the list ready, write a short and sweet email to them and set up a coffee date or even a Skype catch-up session.
Ready to Level Up Your Project Management Skills?
Problem + solution = match made in heaven!
You may have noticed that the recurring piece of advice throughout this article can be summed up in two words: take action.
At Horkey HandBook, we believe that the most important thing is to start. So whether you decide to go for an official certification, or we’ve convinced you that it is possible to become a project manager without experience, it’s crucial that you take action.
You’re allowed to start small, as long as you start something.
Hailey Thomas, the creator of the Project Management for Virtual Assistants course says that “Becoming a project manager without a certification isn’t just possible – it’s totally doable!”
Comment below to let us know how you’ve implemented these four steps and what results you got.