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JPMA-01243; No of Pages 8

International Journal of Project Management xx (2010) xxx – xxx


Designing and implementing a career path for project managers

Katharina Hölzle1
Technische Universität Berlin, Technology and Innovation Management, Strasse des 17, Juni 135, H71, 10623 Berlin, Germany
Received 8 April 2010; accepted 25 May 2010


Many project managers do not feel adequately respected and compensated for their work. They often see their role as a temporary one and
focus more on their advancement in traditional leadership career paths. Although a lot has been done with respect to qualification and certification
programs for project managers, the special role of motivation and retention of project managers has not extensively been researched in the past.
Moreover, human resource management has neglected career possibilities and career design for project managers so far. Consequently, our
research builds on different streams of research from human resource management, project management, and motivational theory to identify the
key ingredients for a project managers' career path. A qualitative study with 20 companies that have already implemented a project managers'
career path has been conducted. The findings of this research are used to derive key success factors for the design and implementation of a project
managers' career path.
© 2010 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Keywords: Project manager; Career; Incentives

1. Introduction project-based organization, leading to an increasing demand

for qualified and motivated project managers (Turner et al.,
Although the importance of project management is nowa- 2008). For the qualification of project managers, the PMBOK®
days widely acknowledged and the evolution and importance of Guide has been created and published. In addition, most
project-based organizations has received quite some attention in organizations rely on the PMI® qualification and certification
theory and practice (Sydow et al., 2004; Turner and Keegan, processes for project managers or have even developed their
1999, 2001), the role and the motivation of the individual own certificates (Remington and Leigh, 2008). However,
project manager is still under-researched. An increasing number concerning the motivation of employees on becoming and
of organizations develop dynamic work environments through staying in the role of a project manager, the quote of Pinto et al.
the use of temporary work forms such as projects and programs. is still valid: “Few individuals grow up with the dream of one
Yet the implications for employees working in these transient day becoming a project manager. It is neither a well-defined nor
surroundings have only recently brought to the attention of a well-understood career path within most modern organiza-
research and practice (Aitken and Crawford, 2007; Gällstedt, tions. Generally, the role is thrust upon people rather than being
2003; Turner et al., 2008). “Two interdependent manifestations sought.” (Pinto and Kharbanda, 1997), more often than not
of the new economy are the rise of project-based careers and the p. 216. The role of the project manager is rather often defined
creation of temporary organizations for project-based work.” by an accumulative description of tasks (Huemann, 2000), an
(DeFillippi and Arthur, 1998), p. 125. Tasks are being assigned responsibility for the successful completion of the
transferred from the traditional line organization into the project (Sotiriou and Wittmer, 2001), leadership for the project
team (Kloppenborg and Petrick, 1999), and the successful
transfer of the project's results into the organization (Parker and
E-mail address: katharina.hoelzle@tim.tu-berlin.de.
An assistant professor at the Technische Universität Berlin. Her main focus Skitmore, 2005). At the same time, accompanying organization-
lies on project managers' career paths, organizational models for innovation wide human resource and project management processes for the
management, open innovation, and barriers of innovation. support of the project manager are missing (Huemann et al.,
0263-7863/$ - see front matter © 2010 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
2 K. Hölzle / International Journal of Project Management xx (2010) xxx–xxx

2007). Only a few examples exist where the unique requirements individual arise on the way. The analysis of this interdependency
and challenges of human resource practices in the project-based has been done by multiple agency-theoretical studies (Prender-
organization are documented (Turner, 2003). Consequently, we ergast, 1999; Turner and Müller, 2003). In the context of project
call for an in-depth study of the role and motivation of project management, the dyadic principal–agent relationship is extended
managers (Söderlund, 2004) and the development of a project- by multiple principals who represent sometimes conflicting
oriented human resource management in the organization positions. Furthermore, the project managers themselves as agents
(Huemann et al., 2004). If the project, the project team and the may also have different ideas about what is right for the project, or
project manager are only regarded as temporary organizational may even have objectives which are not aligned with the principal
form which will be resolved at the end of the project, the project (Turner and Müller, 2003). Furthermore, the project manager will
members have to cope with a permanent uncertainty with regard only fulfill his or her roles as long as the incentives are as big as or
to their future role in the organization. Often, project managers bigger (from a personal point of view and the alternatives at hand)
see their position only as a stepping stone for a (often man- than the contributions provided (March and Simon, 1958). These
agerial) higher-ranked position in the organization (Parker and points show that the individual employee, i.e. the project manager
Skitmore, 2005; Pinto and Kharbanda, 1997). Herewith, a lot of considers all offered incentives in one subjective benefit
experience and knowledge is lost while the project manager's measurement. He or she will only be satisfied if the overall sum
position is not very attractive per se. The management of a of the rewards is bigger than the costs involved to fulfill his or her
project needs to become an integral part of organizational human task. If the satisfaction goes below a specific point, the project
resource policies where the employees feel that open manager will leave the situation, i.e. change into another role
and respected guidelines and principles for the nomination and (March and Simon, 1958). Consequently, the organization needs
appointment of project managers exist. Only in this case em- to design an incentive system for project managers considering the
ployees will actively and intensively shape and live project maximum benefit for the project managers and stimulating their
management in the organization, contributing to the success of motivation to stay in the project management role.
an innovative organization (Gupta and Singhal, 1993). In order Looking at the multitude of studies which deal with incentive
to keep and motivate project managers, the organization needs to and reward systems (for an overview see e.g. (Gomez-Mejia and
develop a holistic yet integrated incentive system and career path Balkin, 1989; Wiersma, 1992) we derive four main conclusions:
for its project managers, preventing the loss of valuable project First, most authors focus on tangible and/or variable rewards.
management know-how and expertise. While a lot has been These are easy to measure but do not reflect the complete picture
written on the motivational structure of managers, researchers, of individual motivation. Especially with respect to project
and experts, quite less is known with respect to the unique management, we can assume a strong intrinsic motivation based
motivational structure of project managers (Allen and Katz, on the tasks and challenges associated with working in projects
1995; Dolfi and Andrews, 2007). (Gällstedt, 2003). Second, only a very few studies deal explicitly
This paper builds on different streams of research from with the specific requirements of project team members or project
human resource management, project management, and moti- managers (Turner et al., 2008). We can, however, derive some
vational theory to develop a model for a project managers' overall rules for the design of a project managers' incentive
career path. In a second step, we use these findings to design an system as project managers are managers and also often come
empirical derived best practice model for a project managers' from Research and Development where quite some studies
career path building on the experience of companies which have concerning the motivation of engineers have been conducted
already implemented such a career path. Their experience and (Allen and Katz, 1995; Badawy, 1997; Béret et al., 2003; Gomez-
the findings from literature will result in the identification of Mejia et al., 1990). Third, many studies are conceptual in nature
critical success factors for a project managers' career path. where quite some requirements and models are derived but only a
Our results extend the understanding of the role and moti- few are tested empirically. We consequently call for an empirical-
vation of the project manager. Researchers get first insights on based research where the methods and instruments implemented
motivation and requirements of project managers for their in practice are surveyed. Fourth, research has shown that only the
career. Managers can use this knowledge for developing de- combination of incentives into an incentive system leads to
signated career paths for project managers or creating a holistic overall motivation. It seems therefore feasible to design an
career system in the organization. incentive system for project managers. As mentioned before,
incentives can either be tangible or intangible, short- or long-term,
2. Incentive systems for project managers variable or fixed. We do not focus on these differentiations further
as we see the incentive system as an overall frame for the
The main purpose of an organizational incentive system is the interaction of the organization with their members (Kerr and
guidance of the employees' behavior (Gomez-Mejia and Balkin, Slocum, 1987) which leads to long-term satisfaction and success
1989). It defines the relationship between the organization and the of all parties (Kochanski and Ledford, 2001).
individual by detailing the terms of exchange. It is an unequivocal
statement of the organization's values and beliefs (Kerr and 3. A project managers' career path
Slocum, 1987). The organization aims at reaching certain goals
with the design and use of an incentive system. In order to reach With respect to incentivizing the individual project manager,
these goals, benefits and costs for the organization as well as the it is not enough to look only at providing rewards in return for
K. Hölzle / International Journal of Project Management xx (2010) xxx–xxx 3

good organizational behavior. Only if the individual needs of accompanied by individual incentives, qualification and
the project managers are respected and integrated in an overall personnel development measures. Only with a goal-oriented
organizational incentive system, a successful and sustainable and balanced career path planning, organizational interests with
project management can be implemented. We extend the respect to needed resources and individual interests with respect
organizational perspective of a project management incentive to further development can be aligned. A decreasing need for
system by integrating the project managers' individual pure managers and a simultaneous increasing need for highly
perspectives on their career. As career is the factor most qualified specialists call for a balanced portfolio of different
directly related to turnover intentions, career opportunities organizational career paths such as leadership, expert and
provide employees with the motivation to achieve and the project managers' career path. This also allows for flexible
reason to stay (Demers, 2001). In the following paragraphs, we change (i.e., hybrid career) between these career paths
are looking at both aspects of the career, the individual and depending on the individual situation or actual career
organizational side before integrating them into one career path preferences (Bailyn, 1991).
for the project manager.
3.3. Project manager's competencies
3.1. The individual project manager's career
Based on Turner's (2006) definition of a project as a
The study of Jones and DeFillippi (Jones and DeFillipi, temporary organization with dedicated resources, the project
1996) has highlighted the transitory nature of projects and becomes an instrument of organizational change, resource and
necessity for project team members to be proactive in managing risk management (Turner, 2006). It develops own patterns of
their own careers and developing their own vision of career actions, communication paths and rules which are reasonably
development as opposed to relying on other parties. Conse- different from the organizational surrounding. Consequently,
quently, the individual project manager needs to be clear about projects can be defined as distinctive social systems (Huemann
career expectations and which competencies and know-how to et al., 2007) and the role of the project manager evolves from
acquire or not (El-Sabaa, 2001). The personality of the project being the administrator of the project towards a much more
manager strongly influences the decision which career path to managerial position. Hence, the project manager needs a
choose or not (Holland, 1973; Myers and McCaulley, 1990; complete different set of capabilities and competencies.
Tremblay et al., 2002) and how to succeed in a project man- The generally described project manager's competencies
agement work environment (Dolfi and Andrews, 2007). Apart such as project-specific expertise, problem-solving competence,
from individual preferences, the decision for a career path is leadership and social competence (Hauschildt et al., 2000;
moderated by the individual career script (Duberley et al., 2006) Huemann, 2000) have to be complemented with entrepreneurial
or career orientation (Brousseau et al., 1996). The spiral stair- and project management competence. Depending on the type
case career is commonly regarded as THE career orientation for and scope of the project, the competencies vary in their depth
the project-based organization (Turner et al., 2000). It is shaped and breadth. A short-term, specialized and low budget project
by the need for individual training and development. The calls for different competencies as a long-term, strategic and
organization needs to respond to individual career preferences large-scale project. The project manager can acquire these
in a flexible and dynamic way, adapting to the requirements competencies through qualification programs but has to have
and needs of the project manager (Brousseau et al., 1996; Chen periods of exercising and applying them in order to transform
et al., 2004). competencies into expertise. Additionally, the project manager
usually needs to exhibit more engagement and commitment
3.2. The organizational career than regular employees in order to finish the project
successfully. Consequently, the organization needs to offer
Traditionally, the organizational career describes the hierar- intrinsic and extrinsic incentives to foster an according
chical, upward-oriented promotion of an individual in the behavior.
organization. Until the early eighties this promotion took place
in the organizational hierarchy, starting with entry positions and 3.4. The project organization
then moving through middle and upper management until top
management (Peiperl and Baruch, 1997; Schein, 1978) hereby It is, however, not sufficient to only demand these
often following the Peter principle where in a hierarchy every competencies from the project manager; the organization also
employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence (Peter and needs to create an environment where the project manager can
Hull, 1969). With the starting economic downturn and the act according to the project requirements. As project-based
generation of the “baby boomers”, this organizational career working is often described as stressful and frequently associated
was not sufficient to satisfy all employees. Many organizations with the removal of artefacts that serve to create stability in the
started to introduce the dual ladder, an expert career path next to sense of having a ‘home’ such as one's own desk, post-box,
the leadership career (Allen and Katz, 1986; Katz and Tushman, computer facilities or simply somewhere to hang one's hat
1990; Spear and Souder, 1986). The organizational frame for (Keegan and Turner, 2003), the organization needs to create a
the creation of career opportunities is called career path model ‘home’ for the project manager. The project manager will only
or career path (Baruch, 2004). Every step in the career path is be successful if the organization provides an adequate
4 K. Hölzle / International Journal of Project Management xx (2010) xxx–xxx

Table 1
Interview overview.
Co Organization Employees Fulltime project Position of the respondent
no mgr.
1 French telecommunication equipment provider 75,000 1700 Head of corporate university
2 Automotive and electronics corporation 280,000 6200 HR department; corporate project management; leadership
3 Transportation systems provider 30,000 2000 VP Group Project Management
4 Railway corporation 245,000 4000 Strategic Personnel development
5 Financial Services corporation 7000 500 Director, Business Process Management
6 Telecommunication provider 160,000 3200 Competence Center HR management
7 Engineering Services company 280 150 CEO
8 German branch of global IT systems provider 21,000 1000 Executive Project Manager
9 IT systems provider 3500 300 Manager Project Management Development
10 German branch of international telco provider 3500 250 VP Corporate Quality
11 Diagnostics division of global pharmaceutical 20,000 750 International Project Manager, Global Human Resources
12 Steel manufacturer 25,000 700 Manager strategic HR
13 IT systems provider 10,000 2000 Project Management Office
14 Plant engineering and construction 5000 1000 Head of corporate project management initiative
15 Automotive company 53,000 1200 Head of project management and processes
16 Steel manufacturer 4000 230 Head of leadership development
17 IT systems provider 40,000 3500 Strategic Project Management
18 Engineering corporation, service unit 5000 1250 Head of HR
19 Large-scale paper machinery corporation 40,000 300 Head of corporate project management training
20 Farm machines' corporation 1900 25 Corporate project management

organizational structure, processes and methods. These “sur- with recommendations for selecting a manageable sample size
rounding” factors are consequently also part of a project in exploratory research (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Addi-
managers' career path. tionally, we collected a great deal of supporting documents (an
average of 39 pages per interviewed company) which provided
us with information about the design, structure, and implemen-
4. Methodology tation of the career path. Respondents held middle to top
management positions in the project management, human
Based on the novelty and high complexity of the research resource management, or engineering departments. Further-
object, qualitative research methods are best suited for more, we collected voices from the field by talking to several
exploring the use of project managers' career path models in project managers in the respective companies. All interviews
organizations. Using a qualitative, case-based research method were conducted, coded and analyzed by a team of four
allows us to describe complex phenomenon (Yin, 1994). As researchers. The results have been presented in two workshops
the development of a project managers' career path is a truly where all respondents could participate and validate the
novel, complex and yet flexible process which allows multiple findings. Table 1 gives some information about the participating
solution possibilities, we used open research questions in order companies, their size, the number of fulltime project managers,
to allow for a maximum of flexibility while providing an and the position of the persons interviewed.
underlying structure based on the theoretical considerations The results of the qualitative research are presented in an
made before. aggregated form, i.e. an accumulation of the answers from the
The starting point for identifying organizations who had respondents, the written documentation provided and the results
already implemented a project managers' career path was a from the two workshops.
conference organized by the German association for project
management on project managers' careers. After this confer-
ence, six companies that had already implemented a project 5. Factors of a project managers' career path
managers' career path or a dedicated project management
incentive system agreed to participate in the survey. Addition- The most important reason for implementing a project
ally, professional associations in the automotive, electronics, managers' career path is the motivation of the project managers.
information technology and engineering sector announced the The importance of project management and the need for
survey through their communication channels. Another key- qualified and motivated project managers has been significantly
identifying factor was the existence of a project managers' rising in all surveyed organizations. One respondent said:
career path. Here, we had to exclude more than 10 companies “Project management has become THE core competence of our
that wanted to participate in the survey but had not implemented organization”. Most of them feel, however, that the project
a project managers' career path yet. The total sample size management profession has in the past not been very attractive
consists out of 25 interviews from 20 companies. This is in line for their employees. Organization-wide concepts providing
K. Hölzle / International Journal of Project Management xx (2010) xxx–xxx 5

orientation, organizational belonging and security to the project • Special focus is put on knowledge transfer between
management professionals were missing, leading to frustration departments.
and abundance of the project managers' role. These factors lead
to the design of a project managers' career path. In the 5.2. The role of the project manager
following, we will describe those factors which the respondents
described as key for the successful implementation and In 80% of all surveyed companies, the project manager has
acceptance of this career path. full expert authority for the project. In 40% of all cases, he or
she has also budget authority for the project. And only in 20%
of all cases, the project manager has some disciplinary
5.1. Project managers' department
authority. The given authorities depend not only on the
organizational setup of the project but also on the importance
The organizational arrangement for project managers is quite
of the project manager in the organization. Our research shows
different in the organizations observed. Especially in more
that organizations see their project managers quite differently.
conservative industries like machine engineering, most project
Wherein one organization the project manager is considered a
managers are usually part of the regular line organization. Their
true manager with disciplinary and budget authority, others see
boss is their line manager and they are only temporarily
their project managers more as administrative staff, responsible
assigned to a project. With the end of the project, they return to
for the execution of the project management guidelines.
their previous line position. Although this process gives a sense
Depending on this point of view we find a broad spectrum of
of belonging and security to the project manager, important
requested project managers' competencies. Experience with
project management expertise is lost. Moreover, the project
project management and expertise are highly significant for
managers often encounter resource conflicts and conflicts with
90% of all companies (multiple answers were possible). 80% of
the line organization.
all companies see the social competence of the project manager
In order to prevent these resource conflicts and to provide a
as the most important competence, directly followed by
‘home’ for project managers, 30% of the companies have
leadership competence (as requested by 50% of all companies).
already implemented a project managers' department where all
Almost all respondents said that the relevance of expertise
project managers are consolidated. This leads to an adequate
decreases with increasing project importance while leadership
positioning of the project managers in order to have enough
and entrepreneurial competence become more important. The
resources for the project available and to strengthen their power
project manager as “local entrepreneur” is on the rise especially
base. Especially companies in industries like plant engineering
for project-oriented companies. Although most companies use
and construction and service-oriented organizations are already
these generic competencies' names, each organization defines
using such a designated project managers' department in order
them quite differently in detail. In many organizations, the
to increase know-how transfer and resource utilization. These
detailed skills below each competence vary according to the
departments can usually be found just below top management
scope of the project. An exemplary description of expertise and
level to reflect the importance of projects and project managers
social competence can be found in Table 2.
for the organization. At the same time, authority and external
reputation of the project manager are fortified.
5.3. The project managers' career path
This organizational setup has sparked intensive discussions
among the study's participants. Many companies feel that
As seen before, many organizations match the needed project
project managers lose their organizational belonging if they are
manager's skill with a project classification (Crawford et al.,
separated in such a department. However, companies using it
2006; Dvir et al., 1998; Shenhar, 1992). At the same time, this
are very much in favor of the advantages and have received very
classification also determines which kind of project manager
positive feedback from their project managers. Consequently,
leads the project, i.e. small projects are usually lead by project
based on the results from the interviews and the discussions in
managers, medium-sized projects require more experienced, i.e.
the workshops we have developed the following recommenda-
senior project managers and those projects which either require
tions for setting up a project managers' department:
many resources or are of high strategic importance call for the
most senior project managers, i.e. project directors. The definition
• Project managers from similar business units are consolidat- of each project manager level is quite different in all researched
ed in one department serving as a home, harbor, and support. organizations. We found in total ten different descriptions of
• The project managers' department reports to the overall or project managers' career path levels. Starting from just two levels
business unit management. at one organization, one organization had seven different levels
• The project managers' department is already part of the (entry, basic, experienced, advanced, senior, executive, and senior
selling process for the project. executive). The average number of levels is three, usually called
• Profit/loss responsibility stays in the business unit. The project manager, senior project manager, and project director. As
project managers' department rents the project manager to mentioned before, the required skills vary depending on the career
the business unit and receives detailed feedback on the path level, and the hard skills like expertise, project management
performance of the project manager after completion of the competence decrease with a raising level while the soft skills like
project. leadership, social, and entrepreneurial skills increase with a
6 K. Hölzle / International Journal of Project Management xx (2010) xxx–xxx

Table 2
Example for a project manager's competence profile. (• =basic skills; •• = medium skills; ••• = advanced skills).
Small Medium Large
project project project
Breadth of Project management Knows project management methods and how to use them • •• •••
experience methods and expertise
(allrounder) Interdisciplinary thinking Thinks interdisciplinary and judges situations from a broader perspective □ • •••
Depth Expertise Well-known expert ••• ••
(specialist) Creative problem-solving Analyzes complicated problems fast, efficient and goal-oriented ••• ••

Social competence
Cooperation Cooperation and team Starts and supports interdisciplinary cooperation in the team • ••• •••
Assertiveness and Wins others for an idea, method or process; realizes own ideas against barriers (in the • •• •••
negotiation skills hierarchy); shows negotiation skills even in controversial situations
Communication Communication skills Persuasive in personal contact, confident in dealing with people on different level and • •• •••
represents the company convincingly internally and externally
Intercultural competence Deals confidently with other cultures • •••

raising level. Moreover, the following recommendations can be 6. Comparison of different project managers' career paths
derived from our study:
In summary, the project managers' career path is despite
• The career path levels describe different skill levels organizational barriers and obstacles in all companies observed
• With raising career path levels social and leadership very successful. There is, however, not one solution-fits-it-all
competencies increase accompanied with courses, work- for such a career path. Some organizations have developed very
shops, on-the-job-training; less expertise and expert know- sophisticated concepts where each and every detail is specified.
how is needed in the higher ranks Others see their project managers as managers, treat them
• Integration of a mentoring model: mandatory support of similar to the other managers in the organization or provide
project managers by higher-ranked project managers them with even more freedom. Using this differentiation, we
• Movement through the career path levels by proving looked at all interviews with the perspective of how elaborated
competence and experience the concept of the project managers' career path is and how the
• Central capturing and provision of project managers' careers project managers are treated in the respective organizations.
for project and personal planning This leads to a portfolio (see Fig. 2) where all organizations are
• Alignment of all organizational career paths (i.e., expert, ranked accordingly. The discussion and validation with all
leadership and project managers) to allow for a fair and company representatives showed a great congruence with their
transparent promotion policy in the organization (see Fig. 1). own impressions. Moreover, the model helps them to show their

Fig. 1. Matching of leadership and project managers' career path.

K. Hölzle / International Journal of Project Management xx (2010) xxx–xxx 7

No model without limitations. These findings can only

represent a starting point for the definition of a project
managers' career path model. As mentioned before, we
consciously excluded some industry sectors and although we
talked to national and international companies, all of them were
based in Germany and Switzerland. Furthermore, as this has
been a qualitative, case-driven research with a small sample
size, we need more information on how other companies are
designing their project managers' career path and what their
experiences are. We did not talk with the project managers in
this study. Here, we need much more knowledge on what truly
motivates them and how they value the presented factors. We
Fig. 2. Comparison of different organizational setups. expect to have differences in project managers' motivation and
attitude depending on their age, experience, and field of
management what they have accomplished so far and where expertise.
there might be some room for improvement. We were able to integrate different streams of research from
In the upper right corner you can find companies U10, U12, human resource management, project management, and moti-
and U15 where a true project managers' career according to the vational theory in order to learn more about the different facets
requirements of our analysis is implemented. Companies U5, of a project managers' career path. We experienced very open-
U14, and U19 in the lower right corner have a very minded respondents which showed a tremendous interest in the
sophisticated concept but the implementation is constrained topic, hereby reflecting the importance of such a career path for
by organizational obstacles, we call these organizations the organization. Taking the proposed key success factors,
“scientists”. In the lower left corner we see companies U7, managers can design career paths for project managers and/or
U11, U16, and U22 which claimed to have a true project integrating this path in the existing career path system.
managers' career. Our research shows, however, that their Researchers get first insights on the organizational requirements
concept and implementation lack some important points. They for designing such a career path while understanding how
mostly do project management in the traditional, more operative individual and organizational factors collude.
way. Companies U13, U 21, and U24 in the upper left corner
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