By Hussain Bandukwala, Consultant

Everyone starts from somewhere. When setting up a Project Management Office (PMO) for the first-time, one may not have prior PMO experience. In fact, one may have NO project management experience. Is that even possible? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” While it is uncommon, it definitely happens.

As my friend Russell St. Hilaire says, “You cannot become the PMO Leader by becoming a better Project Manager – because IT’S NOT THE SAME JOB!”  So, what career path do you take? Is there a sure shot way to get there?

There are two broad approaches to becoming a PMO Leader.

  1. The Conventional Way

With the conventional approach, a business analyst could become a project manager and then a portfolio manager before earning the role of PMO leader. Alternately, one could be a PMO analyst or a consultant (doing project management work) who becomes a program manager and then eventually a PMO leader. There are multiple career progression opportunities. I haven’t even discussed some other roles one may use as a starting point like software architect or designer. Even though this is a conventional journey, there’s no exact mapping to the role of a PMO leader, as there are numerous starting points and paths of progression.

What these conventional paths have in common, is that it usually takes a long time – measured in years – to progress upwards through the ranks to the coveted PMO leader role, and the path is often fraught with the dangers of office politics.

  1. The Non-Conventional Way

Depending on the needs of an organization, one may jump into the role of a PMO leader straight from an operations role because one would know the INs and OUTs of the company really well, who to work with, what to work on, and how to get things done. Similarly, one may be frustrated with the ad hoc manner that projects are being managed in an organization, taking it upon oneself to rectify this by creating a PMO.

One rarely encounters  the non-conventional approach in large, established firms. These organizations usually have past experience setting up PMOs and apply what they learned from previous attempts to create a  sustained, scalable PMO. Typically, large organizations also have the resources to hire someone (consulting firms or experienced individuals) or promote someone with the right mix of skills and experience from within to fix issues in process, structure, and all things PMO.

It is more common to see a PMO being set up for the first time in mid-sized or small companies experiencing tremendous growth. The reasons for putting a PMO in place could vary but all have the general theme of bringing order to chaos. Hiring experienced consulting firms to assist in establishing a PMO may not be the best option financially and there may be a limited budget to attract the most qualified external candidates for the job. Monetary reasons aside, it is crucial to put someone in charge of forming a PMO who understands the pulse, culture and dynamics of an organization. Positioning someone from within, who has the interest, inclination, and working relationships, is the best bet for organizations to get a PMO set up successfully. With this, having project management knowledge or experience becomes a definitive plus but not a show stopper.

Take the case of one PMO leader I know:

  • Part of a small company witnessing turbo-charged growth
  • Had a new CTO who wanted to see a PMO set up
  • Had no project management experience but some training (had taken a five-day crash course on project management)
  • Had strategy consulting experience working within the firm
  • Had a strong knowledge of the company’s culture

With the right support structure, this person was able to start quickly and effectively, establishing a successful PMO.  This PMO leader had followed a non-conventional path to a successful and interesting career. Now, which path are you going to take?