What Comes Next?: Life After Certification

So, where to from here?

You’ve climbed the project management ranks. Graduated from a team member to a team lead. Headed a major piece of work. Stepped into a project management role under fire. Struggled mightily, but got there in the end. Took a course to find out what went wrong. Applied some of that. Found it a bit easier, but still a challenge. Got promoted. New challenges. New struggles. More education. An exam. And then certification.

Alright, then. You’ve arrived, right?

Perhaps. And at the same time, if this is what ‘arrived’ looks like, where are we exactly? And where to from here?

It is a fundamental truth for most project managers that attaining their certification is the apex of their project management education. Once you have a PMP, you have attained the most recognized project management credential available in the North American marketplace. It is, to many, the culmination of their career development.

Interestingly, in a more global context, it is merely one stepping stone among many. The International Project Management Association (IPMA), which predominately operates in Europe, has a four-tier certification process, with the D-level ‘Certified Project Management Associate’ at the base, and the A-level ‘Certified Projects Director’ as the highest level of certification. Lining up the qualifications, the PMP is essentially equivalent to the second tier ‘Certified Project Manager’, or level C. This means that there are two discrete additional levels of certification possible.

While some will argue that the program management and portfolio management certifications put out by PMI are intended to address this, there are some essential differences that it is important to note. Firstly, the additional PMI certifications are no longer project focussed: one addresses the management of programs, and the other portfolios; we’re now pursuing different subjects. The IPMA certifications, by contrast, are rigorously focussed on the continued development of project leadership capabilities.

As well, while PMI certifications of all types rely on a demonstration of education, experience and passing an exam (the latter being the subject of most fear), the IPMA certifications actually go much further. They don’t just test for knowledge; they actually require demonstration of competency. In other words, it’s not enough to simply know the right answer – you have to be able to apply it effectively. Candidates not only demonstrate their experience and knowledge, but are also subject to a rigorous review by independent assessors. This includes an evaluation of a previously completed project and a personal interview that includes an assessment of interpersonal skills and personal qualities.

All of this is not to dismiss PMI’s certification or to say that IPMA’s is better, necessarily. What it does highlight is that there are a number of opportunities for progression of skills and capabilities than what is associated with the PMP. Just because we have our PMP certification doesn’t mean we are done. Attaining certification is an accomplishment to be celebrated, but by no means should we be resting on our laurels from there.

This problem was also clearly highlighted in the results of the major world-wide research project, Researching the Value of Project Management. This 4-year, $2.5 million study investigated project management practices in depth in 65 organizations from around the world, in order to understand the value they realize from their investments in project management.

Among the conclusions of the study were that those organizations who realize the greatest amounts of value through project management are those that enjoy senior, experienced capable project managers who have the ability to effectively exercise situational leadership. In other words, they have the perspective, flexibility, adaptability and range of skill sets to respond appropriately in a variety of circumstances. They can successfully apply judgement and critical thinking and adapt their approach to address the unique requirements of different challenges.

The question, for the project manager with ambition and an eye on future progression, is – as already stated twice – where to from here? And more specifically, what are the development paths and opportunities available to project managers as they seek to progress beyond their certification?

Unfortunately, these paths – in North America – often lead away from our professional associations. Some veer directly onto the path of academia, and there are numerous master’s degrees in project management, as well as a few doctorates. For those with an academic bent, these options can be extremely satisfying and also worthwhile; they also represent a significant investment of effort and finances, however, over a prolonged period of time. They are also, for the most part, designed to develop the situational leaderships and critical thinking skills most designed of senior project managers.

Without pursuing graduate studies, continued development options start to shift away from the traditional path of project management and towards more diverse and meandering tributaries of knowledge. This is where many project managers begin to focus and reinforce their expertise in core subject matter disciplines: engineers in engineering, IT staff in development methodologies and so on. While these efforts continue to build subject expertise, this is not the same as developing continued leadership abilities.

Development opportunities of particular value and relevance would be programs in leadership, negotiation, mediation and emotional intelligence. Equally relevant are those that emphasize strategy and advanced organizational skills: strategic management, governance and executive development programs that continue to hone strategic and business understanding. Finally, programs in effective team management and development – team leadership, human resources, labour relations, motivation – provide additional leadership depth. The form of these programs – whether formally led or self-directed, in isolation or as part of a larger development agenda – can and will vary, based upon the interests and time of the individual. The need to develop these skillsets, however, is critical to continuing the development of advanced management abilities.

The final consideration for the certified project manager is one of overall contribution: of giving something back to the discipline. This was again a significant finding of the Value of Project Management study. Organizations that realized value were committed supporters of the broader discipline of project management, as was their staff. In continuing to advance effective project management skills, mentoring and growing the skills of new and developing project managers is crucial. One of the most effective avenues is through the support, assistance and guidance of more senior project managers.

This is a challenge today in part because certification is seen as the pinnacle of project management development. It is unfortunate, but true, that there are few remaining opportunities for involvement in today’s associations for project managers once they attain their certification. The membership numbers support this; the average membership in PMI is just under three years, and many project managers fail to renew their memberships after certification. Just as they attain a point of seniority and expertise, they withdraw from the association, and the opportunity to contribute – and for others to benefit from their knowledge – is lost.

Certainly, our professional associations need to do more to create opportunities for senior project managers, to provide programs and continue to deliver value after they have attained certification. By the same token, however, it should be seen as both an obligation and a privilege for more senior project managers – and, in fact, senior members of any discipline – to stay involved, to give back and to support the continued evolution of the discipline. Continued development isn’t just self directed or focussed on self interest – it is ideally collaborative and independent.

There are numerous development opportunities and a variety of challenges that await the certified project manager. This isn’t the end of our development, it’s just the start. Recognizing that fact is the first step. Committing to take another step beyond, however, is critical.

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