Article Overview

This is the first of a series of three articles written by Taka Sande and Carel Van Zyl, both Project Management Professionals at the PMI South Africa Chapter. In this article, they speak about the project management skills that are demanded by the market, the transition from a project manager to an executive manager and about powering the project economy.

Table of Contents

  1. Progressing Up Towards the Chief-Level
  2. The Current Skills Demanded by the Market
  3. Transition from a Project Manager to an Executive Manager
  4. Powering the Project Economy™

Progressing Up Towards the Chief-Level

The traditional view is that Project Management is a technical skill and that it is separate from strategic and business management skills. As a result, project managers may have been seen as not ‘qualified’ enough to be placed in the strategic, business management and leadership roles. The C-Suite is usually made up of members with non-project management background.

On the other hand, as a project manager progress on the career ladder, a point is reached where the technical project management skills become a lesser component of their day to day duties. This tends to create frustration for many project managers, to come all the way to find out that there is no seat for them at the top.

Before we go further, here are some few questions to ask ourselves about our career progression;

  • As a project professional progresses in career, what is the furthest they can go up the ladder?
  • How easy is it for a Project Professional’s career progression to end up in C-Level position?
  • Are C-level and corporate governance skills essential for the project management profession?
  • Are Project Management skills actually required in the C-suite?
  • Are Project Management skills enough to perform at C-level?

The normal career progression is from junior/assistant project manager, to project manager, to senior project manager, to project programme manager and to portfolio manager. From here what next? Are we prepared to perform in roles beyond this? If you are lucky there will be a ‘Projects Director’ position in the organisation, but for most, it is not there. The executive level titles usually do not have a title that looks like ‘project manager.’ Does this mean there is no project management at that level? This calls for a look beyond the traditional project management role.

A C-Level executive is a high-ranking executive of a company in charge of making company-wide decisions. The "C" stands for "chief." Some best-known C-level executives include the chief executive officer (CEO), chief operating officer (COO) and chief information officer (CIO). Of all the C-level executives, the CIO has the most bearing in IT, as the CIO is responsible for all of the company's computer systems. (from


Most project management career guidance information also focuses on ‘getting into’ and ‘staying in’ project management profession. A profession that is dear to our hearts. The career guidance has less content that can help someone to perform beyond project management, reaching into the C-suite.

Instead of progressing into the corporate level most project professionals would prefer to turn into consultants. If you are not interested in moving up the corporate ladder, this is fine.

The purpose of this series of articles is to find the role of project management skills within the executive management and at corporate level. In this discussion we will try to uncap the career path of project professionals into the corporate level, high organisational levels that traditionally were not reserved for project professionals.

The Current Skills Demanded by the Market

The fast-changing markets agile skills, digital, leadership, strategic and business management are becoming a necessity withing the project management, challenging the view that it is a purely technical profession.

The President of PMI international spoke at Davos 2019: The project professionals must ‘stay relevant by focusing on the skills their employers need.’ Recent changes culminated into the development of the PMI Talent Triangle® that splits the Project Manager’s Skills set into technical project management, leadership, and strategic and business management expertise. Digital skills are also being included as one of the essential skills.

The current market trend has seen the need for leadership, strategic and business management skills, amongst other. This includes C-Level and corporate governance skills.

Terms like ‘Executive Project Manager’ and the ‘Chief Project Officers (CPO)’ have been observed in effort to define and acknowledge the need for project management skills at that level.

In The Crucial Role of a Chief Project Officer (CPO) in Companies Today (July 27, 2016) by By Rebecca Langdon (from, the CPO has the following responsibilities:

  • Ensure every project supports the right business goals
  • Link all projects into the business strategy
  • Drive efficiencies and linkages between projects
  • Manage resources requirements across the project portfolio
  • Make sure each project has an effective leader/project manager
  • Implement or oversee implementation of appropriation project management methodology
  • Oversee and control all changes to project scope
  • Project portfolio management

Alexandra Levit in The Newest Member of the C-Suite is a Project Management Guru (Sep 20, 2016) by also spells out that the Chief Project Officers (CPO) is the “The logical next step in project management’s evolution.” This position is at C-level.

The Pulse of the Profession® report titled Ahead of the Curve: Forging a Future-Focused Culture released in February 2020 mention organisational agility, technology & innovation and title-less function as the new trends driving The Project Economy®. This signify that the traditional project professional approach is dead. In order to stay ahead organisations are adapting new ways.

Transition from a Project Manager to an Executive Manager

The titles of project professionals performing at C-level varies by industry discipline; architectural, construction, engineering, insurance, finance, IT project, non-profit etc. The current trend put more focus on delivery not functional titles.

The primary difference between the Executive Manager and project manager is the focus. Executive Managers are responsible for meeting the overall strategic and business goals of the organization and the project manager is responsible for meeting the project’s goals. Executive Management must maintain a sharp view of the organization and a general view of each project to ensure convergence on objectives. Project managers, similarly, must maintain a sharp view of the project to ensure convergence on its objectives.

- Executive Management’s Role In Project Management © 2006 by Dr. Lew Ireland, ASAPM President

So, Project Professionals have to evolve into Executive Management by developing a Portfolio Management perspective and even wide view of the organisation. There is a call for project professionals to be broad minded and strategic in their approach to projects. Experience in managing enterprise-level projects gives project professionals an added advantage.

In his article Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, urges that project managers have all the skills and competencies to make it into the CEO’s chair, and assess some of the reasons why, currently, few Project Managers get there, and what they need to do to make it to the top of the career ladder. He also cautions that, “despite having very similar competencies, PM-only skills don’t make a good CEO, but project management experience should be a "must have" competency of many chief executives.” Project managers have the skills to become CEOs, so why don’t they? (by Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Nov 2016).

The Right Stuff (2006), (PM Network, 20(7), 64–70) mentions that many project managers find it not easy to make the transition to the executive levels of a company. Successful executives are known for their strategic vision and leadership, while project managers have a reputation for sweating the details. In the article Ms Anisha Mason and Dr Chris Towler provide some advice on the skill set required to make the transition.

As one progresses from Project Manager to Programme Manager to Portfolio Manager to Project Director; the title may no longer be project manager, but the functions and skill set will be project management based but become broader with each step.

Let’s think again;

  • Are there skills that project professionals exclusively bring to the table in C-level that others don't?
  • Are there any organizations or industries where C-level executives uses more project managements skills than other?
  • Does it depend on the organisation and the corporate culture? For example, Some industries that are project based, for example construction, IT, etc.

At the end, not all project professionals are cut for the C-level. The transition requires development of extra set of skills.

Transition from a typical project management to an executive is possible. Executive coaching is one way of doing it. The results of a research on the effects of executive coaching on project professionals are published in the article The Impact of Executive Coaching on Project Managers' Personal Competencies, (Ballesteros-Sanchez, L., Ortiz-Marcos, I., & Rodriguez-Rivero, R. (2019), Project Management Journal, 50, 306–321.) The focus of the coaching is to change the skill set of project professionals. Executive coaching is found to be a good way of developing project professionals’ competences into the C-level.

The article The Role of the C-Suite in Project Management (by the emphasises that project management skills are required at C-level and most of those in high level are in need of project management skills. It gives advice on how project professional can interact with the C-level executives who have no project management knowledge and bridge the natural disconnect.

Forbes in The C-Suite’s Role In The Transformation Of The Project Management Office (Forbes 2019) gave insights that the C-level is critical for the current transformation of the PMO saying “Today’s disruptive technologies are requiring project leaders to evolve and act and think more strategically. In fact, 92% of executives surveyed by Forbes Insights view the project management office (PMO) as a driving force as they transform their organizations using disruptive technology. And nearly 90% of respondents believe the PMO will play an increasingly critical part in digitally transforming organizations in the future.” The current innovative trends require the realignment of the project professionals and the C-level.

Powering the Project Economy™

The Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap 2017–2027 is the third assessment of project management employment and industry activity conducted for PMI by the Anderson Economic Group (AEG). It states that the global economy has become more project oriented. Hence the use of the term ‘project professionals’ instead of simply saying ‘project manager.’ This is the basis of the Project Economy.

Project managers are actually CEOs of projects. The future will most likely see more and more CEOs being drawn from the project professional, as organisations look for innovative skills to drive performance and at the same time stay relevant.

In order to improve the chances of climbing up the corporate ladder, project professionals have to develop extra skill. They include the ability to have a companywide perspective. The ability to deliver business results by maximizing shareholders’ value, measured in terms of Economic Value Added (EVA).

PMI members who “want to improve their chances to reach the highest levels in their own working environment, need the necessary governance skills.” (PMI SA Director Development Programme Handbook_1st Ed (Rev 6) March2019). Examples of well-known project professionals who made it to the C-level and board level includes;

  • Klaus Kleinfield, Siemens CEO from 2005 to 2007, established and led the Siemens Management Consulting Group (SMC).
  • Steve Jobs, the founder and CEO of Apple.
  • Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, was in 2004 appointed as CEO of Lego. He was an ex-McKinsey consultant, executing projects for clients. He managed to turn around this legendary Danish firm and save it from bankruptcy.

This shows that there is room for project professionals in the C-suite. Our skill set has to evolve with the current trends in order to reach the highest levels in our organisations.

Read the second part of the series: Corporate Governance Knowledge for Project Professionals: Linking Project Management and Corporate Governance

Read the third part of the series: Corporate Governance Knowledge for Project Professionals: Effective Corporate Governance in the Management of PMI Chapters