Why ex-military personnel make great Project Managers: By former Naval Warfare Specialist leading the way in the industry

Posted on Saturday, August 20, 2022 by Faye CoppNo comments
david mcdonagh navy

To say David McDonagh, a former naval warfare specialist has achieved an incredible amount in the six years since he left the Navy is quite the understatement. From a rocky start into his transition, to a chance encounter with SaluteMyJob’s Managing Director, Andrew Jackson, who helped steer his focus to Project Management, David has well and truly found his feet.

From Senior Project Management positions, to gaining a Masters Degree, to becoming an Associate Director - with ambitions to become a Project Director - he is quite the inspiration. We spoke to David when he landed his first project manager role and here, we have a catch up, where David tells us more about his project management journey and offers some key advice to Service Leavers looking at Project Management as their next career.


David left the Navy in 2016 and like many transitioning personnel, he felt slightly out of his depth and entered the civilian market not entirely sure what he wanted to do. Following a more targeted approach, thanks to Andrew Jackson’s advice, and after completing several manager training courses including PRINCE2 foundation and practitioner, he landed a job as Project Manager with Turner & Townsend

“I feel extremely lucky to have secured the role with Turner and Townsend in the first place, like most transitioning Armed Forces personnel I felt slightly out of my depth and lost entering the civilian employment market and not entirely sure of what I wanted to do, but I did have an abundance of drive and motivation to succeed and turn my hand to anything, unfortunately, I now see this in others, and lack of focus on a particular specialisation is a common issue, it is very typical ‘Jack of all trades’, forces people like to be the people who can do anything (or try) and will be the first to volunteer which limits a civilian employers understanding of the individual’s area of interest and expertise,” said David.

david mcdonagh project manager


“I started with Turner and Townsend as a Project Manager and quickly had a thirst to grow, diversify my experience and be at the top of my game, I involved and aligned myself with the Chartered body for project management (the Association for Project Management) where I have now held the position of regional chairman for a number of years, this involvement and engagement with the profession enabled my wider understanding of, and engagement with other Project professionals which is my top recommendation, engaged with likeminded people and networks.”

During his time at Turner and Townsend, David attained a Chartered Fellow (ChPP, FAPM) status and pushed himself through Northampton University whilst doing his day job, securing a Post Graduate Diploma in Strategic Leadership and Management and a Masters in Business Administration. 

David had a smooth transition to a Senior Project Manager position with Northumbrian Water (NWG), after being seconded to them for a number of years, he described the people who he worked with there as ‘first class’: “I was given the chance and support to innovate with new untried and untested technologies which in the end turned into a really positive outcome for NWG, I was extremely emotionally invested in NWG because of the people, teams, culture and projects, if it wasn’t my drive for progression and diversification in what I do I would still be there, it felt like family, it felt like being back with my crew on the submarines which I have served on over the years, it was very hard to leave.”

David is currently an Associate Director at Atkins, working on Major Infrastructure Projects within a department called the Project Delivery Practice. He is still doing project management, but with more of a strategy and engineering focus, with a hand in line management and growing the business. He said: “I work primarily on Defence projects, but I still dabble in Water Utilities, as a comparison of what I did as a Senior PM to what I do now as an Associate you could say instead of the projects I work on being in the £10-100k/£5-10m bracket they are now in the £100’s of millions to £bn’s bracket with lots of complexity, risk and multiple cross-functional project teams and stakeholders, it’s very challenging, but also exciting stuff.”

david mcdonagh project manager


David believes ex-military personnel are well-suited to project management, as in most cases, ex-military types tend to be calm and composed and they understand the appropriate times to raise the tempo to achieve the aim. David added: “We are also generally good at organising stuff, communicating effectively with a broad spectrum of stakeholders whilst building and motivating teams, and we love a good process, pretty much all Project Management is built on a process, you quickly learn not to be constrained by this though, I tend to take the good bits from across all Project Management practices and methodologies and apply it where it works, the old saying of ‘if the shoe fits, wear it’ is very true in projects, you have to be very adaptable and open to constant change, some people within civilian industries are very resistant to change, it is your job as a Project Manager to instil the vision of the project and the benefits it will bring to those blockers, another reason that ex-military are a good fit for Project Management.”


David advises to stay focused, align your CV and current skills to Project Management - and what is really key is to understand your transferable skills. He explains: “I know it is ingrained in ex-military types to be the person who can do everything, unfortunately, a civilian employer doesn’t understand that, align your CV and current skills to Project Management, if you organise stuff, translate that from military speak to civilian speak, stay away from military terms, jargon and stay away from three-letter acronyms. No civilian understands that you were a Staff Sergeant or a Petty Officer, you need to translate that to you being a Senior Manager in charge of X doing Y to meet demanding timelines and constraints.”

Although ‘quals are good’ - David said they are not the end of the world: “If you demonstrate your transferable skills well you will get your foot in the door, being Project Management focused I have aligned myself with the Chartered body, the Association for Project Management, you can gain a lot of info and insight by just registering on the website at no cost, the information there will give a perspective of a Project Management and associated qualifications career path, maximise the use of your ELCAS credits, I used my last lot of ELCAS for a Post Grad Diploma in Strategic Leadership and Management topping up to a Masters in Business Administration, I love a bit of Strategy and Leadership, it’s what I’ve been taught and known since I was 18.”


And what is next for David? “I haven’t stopped pedalling since I left the Navy, gaining quals, growing my experience, building my network, involving and engaging with the Project profession at a greater level, it has been definitely like the swan scenario, graceful on the surface, but under the water mad panic paddling as fast as possible, now I am approaching what I would say is my current career goal of reaching Project Director I need to chill out a bit I think!”

Read our Ultimate Guide to get into Project Management for more information - and apply for project management rolestoday!

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