European project managers: Learning the ropes on the job

This article delves into uncovering the essential skills of successful project managers, addresses the scarcity of documented insights in the field, and explores the significant role of collective advocacy in advancing European project management.

Giulia Parola | Jun 24. 2024

Have you come across Consortium, Partnership, Grant, and Subcontracting Agreements? You probably have, and you ought to be familiar with the pivotal role these contracts play in EU project management, as they define the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of the parties involved, ensuring clarity and accountability throughout project implementation. However, there's much more to know (or learn) if you are (or aspire to be) a European project manager.

Understanding the skills of a European project manager

In my last article, I discussed the emergence of two pivotal roles within the ecosystem of European projects. The project designer oversees everything before the project materializes, while the project manager's significance comes to the fore upon the realization of a successful project proposal.

European project managers require a range of critical skills to effectively fulfil their role. Consider the most important ones:

  • Analytical skills: Capability to comprehend and derive meaning from the project proposal; Ability to identify and solve problems as the project progresses.
  • Interpersonal skills: Ability to collaborate and work within a culturally diverse and primarily virtually-based team.
  • Communication skills: Fluency in English; Ability to effectively communicate within the project team; Proficiency in producing clear and concise reports through writing; Public speaking proficiency to engage external stakeholders relevant to the project.
  • Financial and technical skills: Knowledge of financial reporting; Proficiency in budget management; Technical aptitude in the project's specific field; Familiarity with collaborative software or similar.

Pathways through practical experience

It might come as a revelation—or perhaps not, if you're already one—that the majority of European project managers are self-taught. This means that these essential skills are predominantly acquired through years of practical experience. So, if you take a moment to reflect, you'll likely find yourself traversing a myriad of memories: attending numerous transnational partnership project meetings, participating in virtual sessions, and engaging in cluster meetings. And let's be honest, for first-time European project managers these events might also have involved countless insincere nods and smiles, with mental notes hastily jotted down while pretending to grasp the content. However, alternative paths to learning exist as well.

Formal educational opportunities for European project managers

Given the complexity of the European projects ecosystem, various organisations, including universities, training centres, and small and medium enterprises, have recently recognised the need (and commercial opportunity) to offer educational programmes in this field.

Participants in such programmes gain knowledge about the specific objectives and content of various funds, as well as the intricacies of related calls for project proposals. Furthermore, these programmes equip students with the necessary skills to navigate the complexities of project drafting, ensuring compliance with EU regulations and effective organisation, management, and implementation of projects. Oftentimes, educational offers of this type, such as the Master Programme in European Funds and Funding Projects Expert by the University of Bologna, go beyond the realm of traditional academia and embrace a more practical approach. Even when offered by universities, they tend to involve collaboration with institutions, businesses, or training centres that have expertise in EU affairs and project management. They may also offer networking opportunities, guest lectures from professionals in the field, and access to relevant resources and materials.

Yet, in a recent study my colleagues and I conducted involving interviews with 34 European project managers, none had undergone a formal training programme in European project management and only one reported possessing an official project management certification. It's worth noting that this certification was not specifically focused on transnational partnership projects. So, how are on-the-job learning and, more rarely, formal training programmes working out for European project managers?

Field insights into managing European projects

In 2023, I sent out a survey to 90 project managers responsible for projects funded through the EEA & Norway Grants asking to share three words that they believed encapsulate the nature of relationships within their transnational partnership projects. The purpose was to gain insights into the underlying management practices at play. Among the responses, 18% of project managers mentioned the word ‘trust’ as a defining characteristic of their consortia. Additionally, 13% of respondents highlighted ‘collaboration’ as a key element, emphasising the significance of working together. Another notable word used by 7% of project managers was (good) ‘communication.’ Other words that were mentioned, albeit by a smaller percentage of respondents (4%), included ‘commitment,’, ‘friendly,’ ‘professional,’, and ‘work’.

So, it seems that all European project managers have to do is establish trust and foster communication to enhance collaboration, which is, and I guess you would agree, easier said than done. Because most European project managers are self-taught and there is a general lack of literature on the topic, the specifics of how to achieve this remain a bit of a mystery.

How European project managers share and learn together

One way this happens is when they come together to exchange information, share their expertise, and establish best practices. These initiatives are self-motivated collective actions that can take different forms. One recent example of this type of initiative is the LinkedIn group called the Project Managers Community of Practice T-hub. This virtual community serves as a platform for European project managers to support one another, address inquiries, shape a unified perspective on the profession, and work together for advocacy.

Additionally, there has been an increase in creative initiatives, such as The Grant Podcast and the European Projects Festival, among others.

When European project managers write

Occasionally, though not very often, European project managers choose to document their knowledge and experiences in writing, aiming to share insights for the benefit of others. Consequently, a significant portion of available literature comprises practitioner-oriented publications, such as handbooks authored by project managers for project managers. One example is a handbook by Léargas, an Irish non-profit managing national and international programmes in youth work, education, and training. This source, drawing from discussions and inputs of experienced project managers, covers four key topics crucial for effective project management in a transnational context: building a transnational team, managing such a team, embedding quality management in transnational projects, and developing transnational project outcomes.

In a similar vein, yet with the additional aim of tackling the lack of scientific insights, I authored my book, which represents the only academic research on managing collaboration within European projects, significantly enriching its content. The book's key concepts originate from academic research published in a peer-reviewed journal, delving into the dynamics among managers in European projects. Moreover, it utilises data from project records and other sources, including surveys, interviews, and focus groups with project managers, to explore various aspects of European project management.

Tip: Having a mentor can really help you navigate this world. But remember, broadening your horizons by connecting with others and reading up is key. Even your mentor won't have all the answers!

Managing European projects demands a nuanced understanding of tacit knowledge, often acquired through practical experience rather than formal education. This article has highlighted the essential skills required for successful European project management, shed light on the scarcity of documented insights in the field, and underscored the importance of collective advocacy for its advancement. While formal training programmes are emerging to address this need, much of the expertise remains untapped and is often shared informally among practitioners. As European project management continues to evolve, recognising the value of both collective and written knowledge sharing, will play a vital role in shaping its future trajectory.

This article is written by Giulia Parola, experienced Researcher & Project Lead.

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