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Article by Debbie Lewis, Chair of the Board of Association for Project Management (APM)

Debbie LewisDebbie has had a 34-year career in telecommunications with circa 24 years in project and programme management.

She holds degrees in physics, telecommunications and major programme management. In BT plc, she became Director Strategic Programmes managing a portfolio of major programmes that delivered transformational change in networks including launch of ultrafast broadband in the UK and 5G mobile, as well as internal business change. Debbie is currently Chair of the APM Board and Chair of the APM Professional Standards and Knowledge Committee. Here, she shares her views on career progression, with a focus on her experience of being a project professional in a technology industry.

The ladder

“Climbing the career ladder” starts with a clear understanding of what that means in your own personal context. Your career goal should have some clarity (at least to the next stage) and a clarity that is authentic to you. Gaining that clarity requires personal reflection, a strong dose of self-awareness and the emotional intelligence to be true to your values and needs. Like any journey, the preparation can make for the best experience; so, my first piece of advice would be to give yourself the gift of knowing your values and choosing an ambition that aligns to those values. Therein you’ll enjoy the journey (even the really tough parts) and, through the truth of your goal, have a much greater probability of success.

Tips on climbing the project career ladder

Having understood and set your goal, how do you make the journey? My own career experience and success was supported by three things:

  • Visible delivery success enabled by relevant skills and ongoing learning
  • Being a trusted partner
  • Choosing challenge

Visible delivery success enabled by relevant skills and ongoing learning

Nothing will speak louder than the visible evidence of success in your work. A great reputation though, is hard earnt. The keys to success include the skills that come from relevant qualifications and the experience gained from applying those skills. I speak in the context of project management, and as the professional body for project management in the UK, point to APM as an incredibly important enabler.

For project professionals, APM is the only chartered body in the world and, as such, its suite of accreditations  provide a route to best practice and delivery success in projects. Becoming a Chartered Project Professional (ChPP) signposts knowledge and skill but is also a recognition of successful practice. APM also provides a Continued Professional Development (CPD) framework so project professionals can ensure they are proactive in ongoing learning wherever they are in their career and that they have evidence of that learning and its relevance. If you are not a project professional, ask yourself what your equivalent is.

And one last comment on visibility; it should be more than the visibility of your delivery success. It is also important that you are visible in sharing your passion for your work, your organisation and your profession. So be proactive in making that real in the most authentic way possible, whether it’s leadership of activities outside of your immediate job description, support of networks of like-minded people or mentoring of others as just a few examples.

Being a trusted partner

Personal sponsorship is important for career progression. Projects need sponsorship to succeed but people also need career sponsors to help them navigate the peaks and troughs. You may have different sponsors at different times in your career but do actively seek a sponsor and develop that partnership to support your success. The more senior your sponsor, the better. Working in partnership, you can support mutual success, whilst they can provide a platform for your visibility and potential new roles. A strong reputation that decision-makers and influencers agree and a trusted pair of hands that the organisation knows will make things happen, can see career opportunities come to you before you even think about pursuing them yourself.

Challenge and change

Being open to change and willing to accept new challenges is very important for career progression. Imposter syndrome can hold you back, so occasionally it requires a leap of faith and some bravery. Learning is inevitable and is a benefit of the process, both from failure and from success. It matures you as a professional but also as an individual. So, even when it scares you, a new challenge can be the door to opportunity and a new understanding of that clarity of career goal that I spoke about above.

And finally…

Project management is now increasingly recognised as an enabler of business, economic and societal success and the growing demand for project professionals makes it an excellent career choice. With the pace of change in the world of technology, many of the biggest and most important projects of the next decade will be technology driven projects. The bringing together of project skills and technical knowledge makes for an exciting enabler of many of the most significant ambitions society has, including sustainability, equality and inclusion, and economic recovery. As women in technology and the project profession, I truly believe that we can be the ones to make the difference.