Project management practitioners need to recognize that there is a difference between creating a career path plan and professional development activities.  While the two are undoubtedly interlinked, there is a significant difference for instance between someone who is pursuing the PMP certification and another who is pursuing a new job opportunity.

Traditionally many practitioners fell into the profession by accident and as such had not had a chance to sit down and chart a path for their career in project management.  They were chosen to lead a team because they were good at performing a technical activity and some executive gave them a chance to manage projects.

There are some instances where both organizations and individuals are challenged by this issue.  A practitioner will prepare to take the PMP exam by going through the process of documenting experience, studying, and scheduling the time to do it.  The organization may be supportive enough to provide this person enough breathing room to study, complete the paperwork, and even pay for the exam.  As soon as that practitioner becomes a certified professional there is a significant misalignment as to what happens next.  In such organizations may be the assumption was “we paid for your certification, show us some loyalty.”  On the other hand, the individual may be thinking “ok, I just got certified I am ready for something bigger and better.”  The end of this dilemma is fairly obvious as the person ends up leaving the organization dissatisfied that the company did not value their contribution, while the organization feels jilted that the person used the company to improve then left.

The next time around the parties might introduce restrictions as far as the expectations for the support the organization will provide to the professional.  The agreement might be that “if we pay for your certification, then you have to remain with us for X period.”  So instead of this abrupt break in the relationship, we find a slower and perhaps more painful situation where the professional is unhappy and the organization feels that it is not receiving value from the person.

The scenario that I outline above is directly related to the issue that in these instances neither the organization nor the individual have given serious thought to what type of career path they need to have for project managers.  Some organizations may argue that there simply isn’t a career for PMs, just a position, or may state that they are too small to develop a career path for anyone.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in some organizations that recognize the importance of career path, especially project management.  However, even in those organizations I saw some colleagues reach a frustrating conclusion because of assumptions related to certification.  After all, there is no guarantee that attaining any certification will lead to career advancement.

For practitioners, to address this issue head on they must first understand what type of career path is available in the field, within their organization and outside.  Then they should develop an awareness of the type of opportunities available within their organization.  Once that is done, the next step should be to develop that career path plan.  Much like a strategic plan, the career path should identify the goals along with the gaps needed to achieve those goals.  Once all of this is done, I believe the practitioner can embark upon certification with their eyes wide open and without the potential for disappointment.

PMI has put together an excellent framework to help organizations understand project management career paths.  It is a free download for members and can be accessed by clicking the following link for PathPro.