Path to becoming a PMO Director from Project Manager

How do you bridge the gap between the role of the Project Manager at an execution level and the PMO Director, who takes on more of a strategic view? This perspective comes from over 20 years experience in the insurance technology industry. 

Let me paint a picture for you. You've worked your way into a solid Project Management career within the PMO. Over the years you've gained solid industry experience, technical skills, and certifications that would get you an interview for any mid-level delivery position in the role as a Project Manager. Now you aspire to the organizational upper rung, you are recognized for your commitment to execution, which has an unintended consequence; you are overlooked for more the senior strategic PMO position as your strength in skillset is viewed as best suited to mid-level management solutions execution.

If you are interested in learning how to excel your career, then read on. From this article, you'll take away 4 actionable points you may use to re-orientate your career.  

Firstly, let's look at the typical differences between a Project Manager and a PMO Director (these may vary based on organization type, size, matrix type, PMO configuration). 

   Difference Between Project Manager And PMO Director roles. 

Difference Between Project Manager And PMO Director roles. 

The Project Manager plays a critical role in driving a project to success, utilizing their skills and experience to deliver within set parameters. However, the PMO Director executes on a perspective aligned to the strategic direction of the company as outlined by the CEO, to meet corporate objectives, or put simply how to get from where you are to where you want to go. This reflects the vision, mission, and values of the organization which manifests as multiple strategic initiatives executed through programs, and projects coordinated through the Head of PMO / PMO Director and the PM's.

The PMO Director role is accountable for the successes or failures of the Project Manager’s deliverables, their piece of the puzzle must be constantly assessed for alignment to the broader organizational strategy. The PMO Director will be intrinsic in developing the PMO / governance framework (and continuously improving it) in order to meet the ever-changing landscape of the organizational objectives.  The PM's will contribute insights based on what they are seeing at a delivery level. 

Overall there are significant overlaps across the roles, encompassing skill sets, technical understanding, soft skills, leading and influencing. Let’s focus on the 4 key gaps between the two roles, because this is where a business or IT Project Managers may be perceived to be missing capabilities to fulfill a director role.  

  1. Diversified Experience - there's no substitution to adding value through a combination of both deep-rooted information technology project management knowledge and understanding challenges / opportunities in your industry.  The foundation for this understanding comes from having been in the trenches, executing with both good and bad outcomes, applying technical knowledge in real-world scenarios and really getting to grips with the best approach to solutions delivery through years of trial and error. 

    The best way to attain a more comprehensive view on key constituents of the sales and software delivery life-cycle (which will shape your strategic viewpoint), is to engage in as many aspects of your business as is feasible. In a software business this would encompass analysis, sales, consulting, planning, execution, product development, product testing, deployment, support and ongoing operations.  Further to that, exposure to non-project management roles, business units, and resources not typically within your delivery framework will add other viewpoints, challenges, and diversify your knowledge of both industry and organization with a renewed perspective on risk and opportunity which in turn will drive organizational change. This is relevant as they are top of the mind for senior executives.  

    Seek out those roles that bridge the gaps (for example, business consulting has exceptional benefit through the diverse mix of external clients, business analysis allows comprehensive insight into organizational workflows, quality assurance / development gives you product insight and product challenges), this doesn't mean you have to quit your day job, it means showing willingness to take on work that isn't in your remit (you may consider working cross-role and adding strategic learning into your annual objectives as an avenue to explore).  My own personal experience of becoming a front-line consultant with a new product, provided me with insight that only a client-facing role with its fair share of problems is able to.  Additionally, broaching areas outside my remit in order to review and consolidate security strategy, data governance, CRM, account management procedures, supporting the organizational tooling review, all gave valuable insights at a granular level that I could roll-up to form a more considered strategic view. I’d use this insight to inform the executives when the opportunity arose. The PM should aim to increase their exposure cross-role, through seeking out opportunities outside their comfort zone and direct remit to gain executive exposure. 
  2. Enterprise viewpoint - Understanding the nuances of the industry you are in, and the organizational fit of your company from within that industry is key to being able to assess organizational strengths and weaknesses and prioritize in the best interests of the company. Regardless of your role in an organization you should have a clear perspective of strategy, how tactical changes loop into the bigger picture, and a visceral feeling of what actions need to be undertaken to meet objectives. The Project Manager should make it their duty to understand the organizational workflows, responsibilities, tools, processes, resources and accountability as this puts you in a unique and powerful position where you can use your technical skillets and experience to drive discussion on project prioritization. 
  3. C-level engagement and exposure - the PM is typically well-versed in engaging multiple stakeholders at all levels. For the Project Manager, the opportunity to dialogue with the key influences of projects and strategic direction is usually either when the executive is a sponsor, or as a component part of a steering committee. To set yourself apart and really jump into the realm of strategic thinking, use what you have learnt about the company, market and gaps aligned to your specific knowledge on the challenges ground-up to assemble a prioritized top-down estimation of where the company can derive business benefit. Compile this into executive format (i.e. single slide summarizing situation, action, outcome) and at least have the value-proposition memorized, with ability to pitch at a moment’s notice. Support this with an elevator pitch (for that coffee machine encounter) as a good entry point to getting you the right attention as a strategic thinker and ultimately positioning you to get noticed and promoted.  
  4. Leading up and down the chain – As a Project Manager you possess a skillet and attributes that contribute to successful project delivery; emotional intelligence, negotiation, influencing etc are already finely honed. It’s the over-riding factor that defines a successful PM. You are already pre-qualified at stakeholder management.  The challenge as Director is your project stakeholders are no longer a component part of a project delivery dialogue, and your new audience of executives and PM’s want to talk outcomes. 

    The fact you have a professional and consistent audience you can use to your advantage. Start with the end in mind (the business objectives, executive direction), extrapolate the evidence-based outcome and measures, now use the If / Then / Else matrix to work back to strategic initiatives, programs, project outcomes. This simple basis traces the outcome to the project, in turn clarifies and aligns the discussion with both the PM and the Executive simultaneously. This is also a good technique for validating a project or strategic initiative; keeping it simple, traceable, visible, makes it accountable!       

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Top 4 aspects to support promotion to Director  

  1. Ensure you have a broad spectrum understanding of strategic direction and all changes in both your organization and your industry, focus on the gaps that carry the most weight
  2. Regardless of your current role remit. Actively engage in strategic planning, have a perspective on key objectives that can be pitched to the high influencing individuals at a moment’s notice
  3. Deliver to the role you want to be in, rather than just the role you undertake. Take every opportunity to engage the C-suite with targeted insights that show understanding of challenges and opportunities with which the executives will identify
  4. Bridge the gap in proficiency of managing direct reports and honing in on what executives need to make informed-decisions, by working outcomes back target to source.  Utilize an “If / Then / Else” structure leveraging the consistency in information your PM professional team shall be able to provide, and where possible get exposure to test out your approach and hypotheses with the target audience, to validate both the approach and the content.   

In conclusion, the role of a PMO director requires a broader view of the industry, your current organization, and the ability to think from a strategic standpoint. PMO directors are strategic thinkers and play a critical role in managing portfolio of projects, manage project management staff, and ensure organizations are spending their budget on the most critical initiatives. The role of a PMO director expands behind just the organization. 

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Author: Simon Fagg