Experience vs. certification: What makes a good project manager?

Fri, 2015-10-30 13:00 -- admin
Project managers are made, not born, but how can you make them in the first place?

Project managers are made, not born. This might sound silly at first, but it's true that managing corporate projects isn't something that everyone can do. Of course, some project managers have the innate ability to lead teams and inspire hard work, while others are great communicators and explain processes and benchmarks clearly. However, those individuals still must develop skills to become the best at managing business initiatives.

Fostering the talent to become a project manager takes time. Some professionals spend their days taking classes while others simply worked their way up the food chain with blood, sweat and a few tears. And herein lies the question: What is better for project managers, experience or certification? There are many approaches to take when answering this question, so let's take a look at what both camps have to say.

"Certifications provide knowledge, while experiences equal competencies."

For clarifications' sake
Certification and experience couldn't be more different. As David Williams, general manager of Engineering Education Australia put it in a conversation with Sourceable contributor Marc Howe, getting certified in project management means that individual has the "knowledge" required to successfully lead a team. On the other side of the coin, Williams said that experiences equal competencies, since working on projects for a long time will build practical, demonstrable skills. In this regard, certifications and qualifications are not mutually exclusive, which is an important fact to remember.

In the project management space, certifications are very popular, and the variety of courses and classes offered are endless, with education options including everything from project planning and resource management to collaboration and leadership. But what are these certifications worth?

The Fast Track contributor Alexandra Levit provided a few reasons why project managers should hold certifications. Primarily, Levit argued that when project leaders have tangible proof and objective support from training organizations, they will be better respected by colleagues, co-workers, project team members and hiring managers. Much like a college degree, a certification, at the least, demonstrates the ability to absorb knowledge and a drive to complete tasks.

There is no denying the value of technical skills in regard to project management. Those with certifications in project management display a level of competency that others might not have, and this will cause many to trust their leaders. After all, they've been certified in this and teammates haven't.

Experience and certifications are two pieces of the project management puzzle.Experience and certifications are two pieces of the project management puzzle.

However, experience can only be earned with time, not bought or given. And when looking at the value of qualification over certification, sometimes it's easier to trust someone who has been there and done that numerous times. After all, with experience, project managers know things that cannot be taught and absorbed in classrooms.

Jerry Madden, former associate director of flight projects at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, compiled a list of 128 lessons that he learned in his long career that mostly consisted of managing projects. A number of the ideas listed are benign platitudes, but there are just as many thoughtful, interesting and otherwise unteachable messages. For example, Madden wrote, "Wrong decisions made early can be salvaged, but 'right' decisions made late cannot." That is something that even with a knowledge of, it's hard to practice without experiencing the results of doing the opposite in a real-life scenario.

Strike an equal balance
Clearly, there are benefits of certifications and there are pros to on-the-job experience, and in that regard, the best advice to project managers and other professionals is to acquire a balance between certifications and qualifications. While there is no right order to which comes first, both will be required to successfully complete projects, and as a result, many hiring managers and executives will look for employees that have managed projects in the past as well as taken courses with respect to the technical aspects of project management.

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