Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
September 14, 2021 · 11 min read

The Ultimate Project Manager Career Path Guide: How to Become a Senior Project Manager

The Ultimate Project Manager Career Path Guide

Navigating the project manager career path can often feel like looking at a map without any compass directions. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it turns out you’ve been holding it upside down the entire time.

That’s because few organizations have processes, guidance, and support in place to take you from project manager to whatever comes next (senior project manager, product owner, lead, etc.)

Throw in the fact that many of us stumble (or are thrust) into project management rather than approaching it head-on, and you’ve got a situation where everyone wants to move up, but no one knows how.

In this guide:

Whether you’re working at a young startup with unclear processes or a massive company with a defined ‘career ladder,’ you deserve acknowledgement for your hard work.

This isn’t a guide on how to become a project manager. If you’re here, you’re already working in the field and are ready to take your career to the next level.

Instead, we’re going to cover everything you need to know to make your next step–from the typical career path you might follow to the real-world skills you need to get noticed.

The ‘typical’ project manager career path

It can feel challenging to move up as a project manager because there is no ‘typical’ project management career path.

Every company has its own goals and unique ways of judging project managers. Plus, in many cases, project managers are forced to wear too many hats, making the difference between roles or titles murky at best.

However, if you’re lucky, your company does have resources available to you. They might even have a career ladder (aka a leveling framework, career map, role guideline, competencies) that looks something like this:

The ‘typical’ project manager career path

For each step up the ladder, you’ll be expected to build your skills and take on more responsibilities. Again, if you’re lucky, your company’s career ladder will tell you precisely what you need to do to hit their expectations.

Here’s an example from fintech company Wise:

Product Manager Sr. Product Manager Group Product Manager Product Director
You create dashboards for monitoring progress, and your team is actively measuring and optimizing project impact. You can effectively diagnose customer problems and bring clarity and structure to solutions. You can apply judgment to ensure plans and impact are proactively addressed by known threats and opportunities in the global industry. You own and move the metrics of a large product area (i.e North America or banking).

But what if you’re not so lucky?

If you don’t have any clear guidance on progressing from one position to the next, you need to create your own career path.

While the project manager role varies across companies, once you start to look at publicly available career ladders, you begin to see a pattern emerge:

Stage 1: Technically competent. You know and practice project management skills and can execute projects on budget and to a deadline. You also see the importance of a project management tool like Planio and how to use it to keep your team motivated and on-task.

Stage 2: Strategically aware. Everything before + a deeper understanding of the customer and an ability to connect their needs to the product roadmap.

Stage 3: Team leader. Everything before + leading cross-functional teams or working successfully with external vendors on your own.

Stage 4: Owns and delivers on business goals. Everything before + a strong influence on company strategy, ability to get buy-in from stakeholders, and produce measurable results.

Stage 5: Product visionary. You are the product and dictate every other project team’s overall strategy and KPIs at the company.

If there is no ‘typical’ project management career path in your company, create your own.

While this breakdown starts to show a clear progression, there’s one section that’s hard to nail: the jump from project manager to senior project manager.

What makes a ‘senior’ project manager?

Maybe you’ve been consistently shipping projects on time and to budget. Or, you’ve started to take a more active role in strategic conversations and even led a few larger cross-team projects.

At this point, you know you’re doing more than just managing projects. However, the next step isn’t clear.

You know you want to ask for more responsibilities, challenges, and a higher salary. But how do you go about doing that?

In more practical terms:

At a high level, project managers are judged on two factors: ability and influence.

You need both the technical skills to manage a project, build out schedules, and track progress and the soft skills of communication, negotiation, and leadership to manage your team.

Those skills (and the expectations around them) change drastically as you move from a junior to a senior role. Here’s a quick breakdown to give you an idea:

Skills Project Manager Sr. Project Manager
Collaboration and communication Able to clearly articulate tasks to teammates. Creates harmony and clarity across their teams and the organization through exceptional communication (especially writing)
Decision making Can handle day-to-day decisions with little help from stakeholders. Always looking for opportunities to reduce scope or prioritize impactful projects. Empowered to make decisions independently.
Leadership ‘Source of truth’ for their project team. Seen as a leader across the organization and is actively sought out for advice and mentorship.
Impact Keeps team accountable to their KPIs and project goals. Understands larger business goals and consistently ships projects that help improve key metrics.
Adaptability Recognizes changes to scope and knows who to talk to for support. You have clear processes for most situations (scope increase, market changes, new competitor products). Can switch teams or projects with short notice.
Execution Gets their daily work done consistently and efficiently. Keeps their time aligned on vision and goals on a longer timeline (6–12 months).
Planning and goal-setting Knows how to set team goals that are motivating. Sets OKRs and roadmap for their teams and creates clear plans with a defined business purpose and outcomes.
Vision Understands the organization’s larger goals and mission. Creates a strong shared vision of the future across their teams.
Ownership Owns the day-to-day tasks of their team. Remains accountable in all situations and takes responsibility for their team’s successes and failures.

How long does it take to become a senior project manager?

There’s no clear answer to how long it should take to become a senior project manager. However, at a minimum, you’re probably looking at 3–4 years of practical experience before you’ve got a good shot at more senior roles.

But just like every factor in the project manager’s career path, that timeline can change depending on your situation.

Here are a few ways you can speed up the transition to senior project manager:

How to take the next step on your career ladder in 7 steps

Taking your next big step on the project manager career path takes work, commitment, and purpose.

How to take the next step on your career ladder in 7 steps

As much as you’d love your work to speak for itself, it’s rarely enough. Instead, you need to be more proactive if you want to move up in the industry. Here are a few best practices for how to successfully navigate your career move.

1. Plan your own career progression project

Treat your career progression the same way you would any other project. This means setting aside time to do research, make a clear plan, understand and mitigate risks, and then monitor your progress.

Here’s a simplified version of what that looks like:

2. Master your skills (and document the process)

A senior project manager needs to be a master of the fundamentals–from planning to execution to monitoring to closing out a project.

However, as you move up, the attention will shift from technical ability to how you work.

Focus on your communication and collaboration skills. Ask yourself, how would your teammates describe your management style? Are you a good listener? Do you communicate clearly?

Also, do you make their lives easier with project management tools? Or are you unorganized?

A tool like Planio can be your best friend as you can keep all team communication, tasks, and progress in a central location.

Planio Agile Board with colored priorities

One look at your project boards in Planio is often enough to show a hiring manager if you’re at the level they expect from a senior project manager.

This is also an excellent opportunity to audit and document your skills.

Hiring managers and leaders want to see a clear progression. Take the time to document what you’re struggling with and how you overcame it, so you’re writing the narrative of your career.

3. Go from ‘Doer’ to ‘Thinker’

As a project manager, you spend much of your time doing work, whether planning, running meetings, or monitoring progress.

But as a senior project manager, you’ll spend an increasing amount of time thinking about your work and how to improve it.

As Kane Wai, a manager at Deloitte writes:

“The Thinkers are the keepers of the gate. They are the ones that spend their time enhancing the way things are getting done, how to best implement project management methods and tools, and how to best communicate to the rest of the organization on how to deliver projects successfully.”

Get more proactive in defining processes and workflows. Look for problems beyond your own to solve. It can be hard to take time away from a project to ‘just think,’ but it’s an essential step in being seen as a leader.

4. Increase your scope

As a senior project manager, your world will expand far beyond a single project, feature, or team.

As former AirBnB project manager Lenny Rachitsky writes:

“Junior PMs focus on a feature, senior PMs focus on multiple products.”

This could mean thinking about multiple features instead of a single one. Or looking at how your project impacts others across the company. Senior project managers are expected to see the forest for the trees.

5. Systemize your approach to projects

The more you move up the career ladder, the less project management you’ll be doing. The day-to-day task management and project monitoring will be replaced by strategic thinking and leading.

To make space for higher-level thinking, you need to put some of your other work on autopilot.

If you don’t want all your previous hard work to crash and burn, you’ll need to develop systematic ways to approach projects that guarantee success.

A big part of this is building up your library of templates and workflows–the tools you know work and that you can ‘drop’ into projects without much thought.

Here are a few templates we’ve put together over the years that are a good starting point:

(You might also want to read our guide on How to Write Technical Documentation as well as our Project Manager’s Guide to Writing Well).

6. Get buy-in and build your authority

Influence is often the differentiating factor between junior and senior project managers. The ability to work with stakeholders and get buy-in on projects is a clear sign of leadership.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many resources on how to build authority in the workplace. And the ones you do find usually leave you with a pretty bad taste in your mouth.

Instead, start with some of these basic influence-building practices (that won’t make you question your morals and ethics):

7. Look longer-term

Lastly, you should be increasing the time horizon in which you plan.

Senior project managers deliver impact consistently. They’ve internalized the project management process to the point that they don’t have to think about what to do next.

Instead of getting caught up in the next week, sprint, or quarter, look out months at a time. Hiring managers want to see that you have a mindset built on long-term strategic thinking and vision. Not putting out fires.

Getting the job: Senior project manager interview questions

Whether you’re moving up at your current organization or switching to an entirely different one, there’s no getting past the interview process.

Especially for senior roles, companies want to see that you have the experience and insights to back up your resume.

Here are a few common interview questions for senior project managers to help you prepare:

Senior project manager interview questions

1. Collaboration

Question: “Tell me about a time you disagreed with someone on your team. How did you resolve it?”

What they’re looking for:

2. Decision-making

Question: “What’s the biggest ‘irreversible’ decision you’ve had to make? What was your process for deciding what to do?”

What they’re looking for:

3. Leadership

Question: “Tell me about a time when one of your teams wasn’t working well together. What was the problem, and how did you handle it?”

What they’re looking for:

It can be hard to take time away from a project to ‘just think,’ but it’s an essential step in being seen as a leader.

4. Impact

Question: “What’s been the most impactful project you’ve worked on. What made it so important?”

What they’re looking for:

5. Adaptability

Question: “Tell me about a time when one of your projects got off track. How did you get it back on schedule?”

What they’re looking for:

6. Execution

Question: “Walk me through a project you’re proud of that happened over a longer timeframe (3–12 months).”

What they’re looking for:

7. Planning

Question: “What’s your process for breaking down a large project into a clear plan?”

What they’re looking for:

8. Vision

Question: “What was the overall vision that was driving [past project]?”

What they’re looking for:

9. Ownership

Question: “Has there ever been a time when one of your projects was a failure? What happened, and what did you learn from it?”

What they’re looking for:

Remember, throughout all these questions, the hiring manager or CEO will be looking for not just what you’re saying but how you say it.

Communication is 90% of project management. The more you can practice your answers to these questions, the easier it’ll be to respond in a way that’s clear and concise.

Project management is still one of the best careers out there (and it’s only getting better!)

The project manager’s career path can be challenging to navigate. But it’s worth it in the end.

Not only do project managers have one of the best jobs in the world–working with people and seeing the impact they have on real users. But project management is only becoming more in-demand.

According to one report from the Project Management Institute, there will be 22 million new project management jobs by 2027. With a little bit of planning and a lot of hard work, one of the best ones can be yours.