What PMP® Certification Can and Can’t Do For You

It’s well established that in most of the world, the PMP® credential is crucial for employment, especially for younger project managers. Of course, passing the exam is no guarantee, to either the holder or to the employer, of a successful project.

So what expectations should the new credential holder and his or her employer have? As with everything, when making the significant investment needed to gain the PMP credential, it’s wise to be sure to have realistic expectations regarding the hoped-for rewards.

What is realistic? Here is an example. Physicians undergo some of the most rigorous and lengthy vetting of any career group. Inevitably, and because of the precarious and unpredictable situations in which they find themselves, most physicians discover an uncomfortable fact. Although their intent may be to do no harm, sometimes they are forced to guess, and sometimes those guesses turn out wrong, with unfortunate impact on patients.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that no project management credential can guarantee project success, any more than the most complete and elaborate surgical toolkit can guarantee patient survival. Indeed, the things gained in project certification are most accurately described as tools. Sometimes the project may be doomed by a wrong guess at some point on the part of the project team. Other times the cause can be incorrect judgment or inadequate knowledge. There are (many) times when a project is destined to fail from the beginning. Pursuing it in these cases is futility and folly because neither the project sponsor nor the project manager has realistically evaluated the goals or the plan.

Of course, in some cases, an insightful project manager may be able to help avert such a debacle. While far too many projects do fail to achieve their objectives, many of those could have been successful if the proper “hard” and “soft” skills had been in place. In the remainder of this article, we’ll examine these two types of skills and their importance. In the absence of both, project success is unlikely. In fact, you will find, in the message board space, considerable discussion about which skill must come first.

What the PMP Credential Process Can and Cannot Measure

As mentioned, certification, credentialing and licensing varies from one field to the next. For physicians, and rightfully so, the path to the Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree is long, arduous and quite expensive. Not only are years of formal study required, but students must survive many examinations targeted to different purposes. Years of practice follow under the observation of more experienced doctors. The product of this extended training, an M.D. emerging from a residency program, is largely a known quantity, with experience of all kinds won at great expense.

Registered Professional Engineers (RPEs) also undergo a long and rigorous preparation, because jobs that call for RPEs often involve critical human and environmental safety factors. Lengthy critical evaluation by professional peers is, of course, included in the training.

In the case of journeymen in the skilled trades, formal training and years of apprenticeship are essential parts of the process.

Project management spans the complete spectrum of business endeavors. There are no unions, and no professional licensing is needed. The cost of the degree of qualification required for MDs and RPEs would be prohibitive for project managers. However, one thing is certain. A career path that leads to large, mission-critical projects, while perhaps having the PMP credential as a gatekeeper in the beginning, requires significant and progressively demonstrated experience in managing real-life projects.

Hard Skills

The term “hard skills” refers to knowledge of processes (corporate and PMBOK®), work breakdown structures, budgeting and software tools (scheduling software, etc.). Everything but knowledge of software tools is covered by the PMP examination.

Soft Skills

Critical soft skills include communication, team building, negotiation, general people skills, decision making and motivation techniques.

People skills include the ability to relate well to others, obtain their best ideas, gain team-wide acceptance based on decisions made, and build team morale so that the team members are willing to work with you or at least agree to follow your leadership in the expectation of success. These abilities amount to a tall order for many and certainly don’t come naturally to everyone. Some people never gain them at all.

An important aspect of people skills is emotional intelligence. This quality helps in understanding how people perceive you and adjusting your approaches and presentation accordingly.

While courses about developing people skills are easy to take, the changes actually needed involve truly developing as a person. In order for a course to bring about real and useful change, the student must invest serious attention and personal effort.

As an example, one of the tenets covered in the examination is the idea that the project manager must be “large and in charge”. He or she must be decisive and able to make tough, timely decisions in often-stressful situations. Most successful exam takers are aware of this necessity and answer the exam questions appropriately. But suppose that the exam taker is naturally quite passive in everyday conduct. If this person follows his or her natural tendencies in real-life project management, the “large and in charge” quality may be lacking. The result can be a project out of control in scope, budget, schedule, or quality.

Another example of a soft skill that can be covered in a course more easily than it can be put into everyday practice is time and task management.

Further soft skills a good project manager should master include:

  1. Decisiveness
  2. Action orientation (not procrastination) when making decisions and implementing them
  3. Good organization
  4. Knowledge or fast learning of software tools of choice

Which Skills are Most Essential When Starting Out?

This is a common question. Is it preferable from an employer’s standpoint to start with a person with good people skills, certify him or her and then provide experience? Or should one begin with an otherwise qualified project manager and attempt to develop the people skills?

The answer depends on whom you ask. It seems fairly obvious to the author that if the people skills are present, the technical project management knowledge can always be learned. The opposite is not always true.

One thing is true for most individuals. Enough practice in soft skills will indeed enhance a manager’s people relations, even if not overnight.

However, in spite of the recent recognition of the primacy of emotional intelligence, some surveys are indicating a new emphasis on hard skills in recruits. Go figure.

So the Recipe for Being a Successful Project Manager Is?

  1. Gain a credential. We’ve discussed elsewhere on this site that in much of the world, this means becoming a PMP. For the most part, this step will take care of your “hard skills.” Getting the credential means that you are indeed an experienced project manager, even if you are still a work in progress.
  2. Understand yourself objectively – your strengths and weaknesses. You can do this by taking evaluations such as the Meyers-Briggs personality type test and also by soliciting feedback from several people who have worked with you. Emotional intelligence – clearly understanding yourself and others in life situations and adapting your behavior as needed – will be your friend here.
  3. Take courses and read extensively in the areas of your weaknesses.
  4. Gain experience, experience, and more experience. In addition, be sure it’s the right experience. As they say, only perfect practice makes perfect. In the spirit of total quality improvement and kaizen, continually strive for better performance.

Finally, if your personality type doesn’t really lend itself to strong leadership, the knowledge you gain from attaining the PMP credential will still serve you well in various roles essential to project management, such as scheduling, design and maintenance of project metrics, and the like. Alternatively, depending on your personality type, the Certified Associate in Project Management® (CAPM) credential may be more appropriate for your needs.

As you can see, obtaining the PMP credential guarantees neither you nor your employer that you are ready for prime time in managing critical projects. What can you do to improve your odds of success? The most important point is to identify any gaps in capability, and address them through reading, coursework, or anything else you can think of. That way, your credential has the best chance to be just the ticket that sends you to the top of the profession.