1. Neither try to be a jack of all trades nor a one niche specialist
Find the balance between claiming to have too broad and too narrow a skill set. Make your experience look too wide and you come across as a jack-of-all trades. You may be able to deliver any project, but present yourself as a jack-of-all-trades and you will not be credible for anything but relatively junior project roles. Customers don’t have general projects – in their eyes, every project is special and needs a specialist. On the other hand, make your experience look too narrow, and when someone wants an expert they may come knocking at your door, but the chances are that this will not be often. When a less specialised project is available, your highly specialised skills can actually put potential employers off using you. So, you need to think about how to describe yourself as sufficiently broadly skilled to appeal to a variety of roles, but sufficiently focussed to be regarded as capable of meeting the challenge of this customer’s projects.
2. Think from your customer’s viewpoint
Always think from your customers’ viewpoint. What do they want and how can you best position your skills? Occasionally, you will be lucky and find that there is a role with a perfect match to your skills. More frequently you will see jobs advertised that you know are not right for you. But in between these two situations lie hundreds of projects – not exactly what you have managed before, but close enough. When faced with this situation ask yourself two questions:
•Can you really deliver the project?
•Can you convince the customer that you can?
These are two very different questions. The first is about your skills and competencies and only you know the answer to it. But it is the second that determines whether you get a job or not. To answer it, you need to assess what the customer is looking for. Put yourself in your customers’ position. What would make you hire someone like yourself?
3. Sell with your CV
If you are struggling, how can you make yourself more attractive to customers? This is all down to how you market yourself. A well written CV is a must. Don’t look at your CV as a list of what you have done. It is a sales document, and it must be tailored to the opportunity you are chasing. The very same experience can be presented in various ways, by focussing on different aspects of your work. I have one central massive CV which lists everything I have ever done. But its just a reference document. When I am approaching a new customer I thin it out and focus only on those aspects of my experience that are relevant to that customer. If I put too much in my CV the customer thinks I’m a jack-of-all-trades, if I put too little the customer thinks my experience is not deep enough.
4. Qualifications count – but credible experience counts more
The right qualifications and accreditations can really help. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that with some qualifications the floodgates of work will open. Customers want intelligent and practical people, not those with a hundred and one qualifications and accreditations. Having a specific qualification may be essential but it is never enough on its own. Customers are looking for a proven ability to deliver projects relevant to their business, and are mostly interested in track record. A few credible past employers who will willingly provide strong, pertinent references will help you more than any qualification. I know some very successful project managers without a single recognised qualification - I don't recommend this, but it shows the importance customer place on relevant experience over qualifications.
5. Find similarities between what you have done and what is being asked for
The best way to develop the right sellable skills is to have a track record in successfully delivering projects in a field. What if your experience is not an exact match? Present your skills in the most compelling way relevant to the customer’s need. Stress the similarities between what you have done in the past and what is being asked for now. If you have worked in telecommunications and the customer works in retail banking, don’t point out how different the industries are, but stress how similar they are. They are both extremely regulated environments, are highly competitive, have growing customer service expectations, outsource extensively, are capital intensive, and are both dependent on and spend significant amounts on technology. Better still stress the similarities between projects you have done in the past and the precise project the customer wants done now.
6. Use your customer’s jargon – and open yourself up to new industries
We all hate other people’s jargon and love our own. When you want a new job you need to swap these preferences. Make yourself rapidly familiar with the jargon of an industry. There are some real differences between industries, but fewer than initially appear. I have worked in the public sector, telecommunications, media, financial services, manufacturing, utilities, health sector, and mining. Yes, there are real differences, but one of the main differences is language. The barrier to entry into some specialisations is primarily learning the jargon. If you are jumping industry, work hard to pick up the jargon quickly. A good way to start is just to talk to a few people in the industry - preferably people you can ask the "what does that mean" question.
I hope you find these thoughts useful. Every situation is unique and there are no tips that will always work, but these have worked pretty reliably for me. There is a lot more you can think about in preparing for interviews and new jobs. If you want more ideas to help you present your skills to align with your client needs try the first few chapters of my book The Management Consultant, Mastering the Art of Consultancy, (especially chapters 1-3). This book will be especially useful to contract and consulting project managers.
As a final thought - what is it that customers are looking for in a project manager? Experienced recruiters and interviewers know the world is messy and projects never go exactly to plan. When these people recruit of course they are looking for someone who will setup and deliver a smooth project, but they are also looking for someone who can reliably solve problems when they inevitably happen. Given this thought when you do get an interview think about how you have solved problems in difficult circumstances as much as how you have delivered perfect projects. There never was a perfect project.
Well that's my tips - what are yours? Any comments are appreciated, but let me know what has worked well for you and what has not been so successful. If you want to find more tips on being a project manager (as opposed to project management approaches) - you will find more in my books The Project Manager, Mastering the Art of Delivery, and The Project Management Book