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Is Portfolio Management the Career Move You’ve Been Looking for?

Portfolio managementProject managers who want to move more into a strategic delivery role don’t always have that many choices. Career paths tend to only lean towards larger, more complex and strategically important projects or programme management.

If you are you looking for the next step in your career, have you thought about moving into portfolio management?

What a portfolio manager does

Portfolio managers are senior business leaders. It’s still a project delivery role, but it’s operating at a much more senior level, and you aren’t hands on in any project unless you are called in to troubleshoot. In a portfolio management role you are likely to be responsible for a team of project and programme managers, with portfolio management being an additional responsibility to the line management of those offices. I’d argue that this is where most of your effort will be, so if you can get the line management of the delivery teams handled by someone else, that would give you more time to focus on the strategic elements of the job.

As a portfolio manager you might head up a division with a significant amount of project management work, or you could be a Project Management Office (PMO) manager or a project sponsor.

Of course, every portfolio manager has a slightly different focus and sphere of operation tied back to the business culture and the environment they operate in. If you haven’t had this role in your business before you’ll probably get quite a lot of latitude on what you actually do day-to-day – many portfolio managers can shape the job to fit their interests and skills, as long as the other key responsibilities are also met by people in the team.

Depending on the organisation and project, you could also find project managers leading significant, strategic, critical and complex projects at this level.

Positions at this level carry a significant amount of influence over strategic direction and policy. Does this  sound like something you’d be interested in, so far?

Some of the key responsibilities of a portfolio manager include:

  • Taking responsibility at the highest level for the successful completion of complex projects. That would include allocating the correct project manager and supporting team members. You could also be the project sponsor for significant high-profile projects with far-reaching impact, political sensitivities or business criticality and high-risk dependencies across the business.
  • Choosing the standards, approaches, methods and tools for projects or the division, including taking the decision about what certifications your project managers and team members should have.
  • Ensuring that all project management best practices are followed, including effective change control and risk management.
  • Monitoring and controlling the complete set of projects in the portfolio, with a special focus on resourcing across the business and managing the budgets.
  • Managing the expectations of everyone on the project, from executive sponsors to end users, including key suppliers (ones that are used across multiple projects or programmes – you wouldn’t get involved at an individual project level) and other relevant third parties.

It’s a busy and significant role that would appeal to project managers who want to move into a position that’s strategically important and yet still uses a lot of the core skills they built in a project delivery job.

How to move into portfolio management

First, you need to be in a business that puts emphasis on portfolio management. While you can incorporate some of these elements into your job if you manage a PMO or a large division, it’s going to be far more effective if you have the support of the exec.

That’s something to work on first! But assuming you’ve got that within your business, and there’s an awareness of the value that project management best practices and strategic execution can have on business success, then you need to look for ways that your project and programme management experience lends itself to the strategic awareness and critical thinking required in the portfolio role.

There are also qualifications you can take that provide you with the tools, skills and frameworks required to be able to work in a portfolio management position, so it’s definitely worth mentioning this to your manager if you want to take your career in this direction.

Finally, there are more jobs in the portfolio office than portfolio director. You can move into the area of portfolio management through a position in the PMO, or by taking a sideways move into a management role in the portfolio office. Once there, you can build your skills, check out how you feel about the roles on offer (as it’s quite a different outlook to the role of a project manager) and think about what you need to develop in order to get the top job one day.

Resources for learning more

Here are some books about portfolio management that I can recommend. They are useful further reading if you want to learn more about what it takes to run a successful portfolio.

Executing Your Strategy: How To Break It Down and Get It Done by Mark Morgan, Raymond E. Levitt and William Malek (Harvard Business Review Press).

Strategy isn’t something static any longer. This book talks about how to ensure your company’s strategic portfolio fits within the changing business landscape and flexes dynamically with you as it needs to. The authors set out a six-step approach to making sure that your strategic projects are the right strategic projects, and that they are carried out in the right way.

Taming Change With Portfolio Management: Unify Your Organisation, Sharpen Your Strategy and Create Measurable Value by Pat Durbin and Terry Doerscher (Greenleaf Book Group).

This was the first book about portfolio management that I read and it’s a comprehensive overview of what it is and how it works. Billing itself as a “definitive” resource, you’ll certainly find a lot in here to help you understand how successful portfolios should operate in a world of constant change.

Strategic Project Portfolio Management: Enabling a Productive Organisation by Simon Moore (Wiley).

This is the shortest of the three books and the easiest introduction, without being shallow in its coverage. It includes pointers on what to do and, importantly, what not to do. Aimed at executives, it will give you the background to be able to talk knowledgeably about what portfolio management can do for your business and how you can get there.

Have you considered portfolio management as a career move? Let us know your thoughts on this challenging role in the comments.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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