Project Coordinator vs. Project Manager: What Is The Difference?

Are you confused about the roles of a project coordinator and project manager? Do they basically do the same job, and if not, what is the difference?

These are the questions I will answer in this article. So you’ll have a clear picture of these two important roles, where the boundaries are what exact type of work each role involves.

If your goal is to understand the different career paths in project management, you can also read here about what it takes to move from a project coordinator to a project manager position.

Project coordinator vs. Project manager

Let’s be honest, the roles of project coordinator and project manager are very similar and in the real world it can be difficult to tell the difference. One reason is that it is up to the companies to decide what kind of work they want to assign to a project coordinator or project manager.

Some (if not most) organizations even don’t have project coordinator positions at all while others only have project coordinators — who are effectively doing ‘project manager work’. That being said, let’s first talk about the similarities between both roles.

Both the project coordinator and project manager work in a project management environment where they make sure that a company’s projects are performed with success. That means making sure tasks are finished on time and in the expected quality. It also means staying within budget, therefore monitoring project costs is also an important responsibility.

What is the difference between the roles?

  • The project manager is a more senior-level role with greater responsibility. As a project manager, you are responsible for the project as a whole. Including the team, the tasks, costs, relationships with internal and external stakeholders such as suppliers, contractors, local authorities and so on.
  • The project coordinator usually takes over the administrative and “mechanical” tasks in a project. To relieve the project manager so that he can focus on handling communication, taking decisions, solving critical issues or coaching team members — you can call this leadership work.

A good analogy to explain the project manager / project coordinator distinction is to look at commercial aviation:

On the flight deck you have the captain and a first officer (called ‘co-pilot’ by most of us). The captain has the overall command over the aircraft and he is responsible for the safety of passengers and crew members. The first officer is assisting the captain in flight preparation and operation of the aircraft, for example by filling out forms, programming the flight computer and handling communication with air traffic controllers. In a similar fashion, responsibilities are split between project manager and project coordinator.

Whether a company offers project manager positions, project coordinator positions or both depends mainly on the nature and size of their projects. Project managers are typically hired for larger projects with durations of one year or more. Therefore, if a company mainly runs smaller projects — for example, setting up PC hardware for clients or doing design work — they may only have project coordinators to manage these projects.

What is a project coordinator?

The project coordinator is the person who helps to ensure that the project is properly organized and running smoothly at all times. The project coordinator’s job mainly involves supporting the project manager and carrying out administrative or communication tasks. Always under the supervision of the project manager. 

Further below you’ll find some examples of tasks done by project coordinators.

Before we move on, I wanted to share some comments with you. See how people working in PM describe what a project coordinator does.

“I’ve found that the coordinator is more of a technical admin assistant than anything. In construction anyway. They are not really making important decisions and instead are organizing and directing information to others.”

“The project coordinator mainly coordinates between the documentation team, the development team and other stakeholders, communicated requirements and progress, organized meetings and assigned tasks.”

Some of the typical tasks performed by project coordinators:

  • Organizing team meetings, including room booking
  • Taking the minutes
  • Preparing and updating project documentation
  • Creating work schedules for team members
  • Following up with task owners
  • Creating Powerpoint slides
  • Preparing status reports
  • Gathering receipts and monitoring project costs
  • Handling calls for the project manager
  • Acting as deputy in case of absence of the project manager

Skills of Project Coordinators

In order for the project coordinator to be able to complete the above duties efficiently, they need to excel in particular skills.

One of the most important skills that every project coordinator should have includes organization. Why does the project coordinator need to be organized? Because working for a demanding industry with multiple responsibilities at the same time can get hectic. Therefore, staying organized helps to improve productivity and workflow.

Also, another important skill for a project coordinator is effective communication. The project coordinator also has to be a problem solver who has high attention to detail as well as excellent time management skills.

Also, if you are interested in reading a real-life story of what it is like to work as a project coordinator, then I recommend you read Liliana’s story: In the Shoes of a Project Coordinator — go check it out!

What is a Project Manager?

The project manager is the person who has the overall lead over a project. The job involves work within the processes of initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, and closing projects. Project managers are in charge of ensuring that a project is successfully delivered and meeting customer requirements and key objectives. And if a project is in trouble, they have to bring it back on track.

In general, project managers carry out the same tasks as project coordinators. However, their focus is on those tasks that require more responsibility and authority.

Some of the typical tasks performed by project managers:

  • Creating the project schedule
  • Putting together a project budget
  • Building a project team and keeping the team motivated
  • Getting approvals from supervisors and other stakeholders
  • Evaluating risks involved in a project and managing these risks
  • Communicating with senior management
  • Reviewing work results and project deliverables
  • Giving updates to executives (via steering board meetings)
  • Making decisions
  • Dealing with unexpected changes and issues during the project lifecycle

Skills of Project Managers

The project manager needs to have skills that are similar to a project coordinator. However, due to the seniority of the role and the more responsibilities it entails, the project manager should have strong leadership skills. For example, coaching team members to increase the quality of work or to improve communication within the team as well as helping to resolve any problems that keep the team from moving forward.

Project managers also must be excellent communicators, because communicating is what they basically do all day — via email, phone, instant messaging, notes etc.! And they have to communicate with people from all levels — from the software developer up to team leaders and middle management up to the executive level, and maybe even with the CEO.

Another skill area for project managers is planning skills: The ability to turn a vision into an actionable (and feasible) project plan, detailing out the steps that need to be taken in order to achieve the project goal.

And — even though this is not a skill per se — we should mention it: Project managers must be able to endure high levels of stress throughout a longer period of time. This is because projects nowadays have very tight deadlines and the workload can be brutal.

Read also:

How You Can Move From Project Coordinator to Project Manager

If you are currently in a project coordinator role, this is an excellent springboard for becoming a project manager. However, you cannot expect this move to happen automatically without your contribution. You actively have to expand your skills and of course be on the lookout for job opportunities.

Here are some tips to help you accomplish the transition:

Tip #1: Grow your skills (In the right areas!)

While you are still in the project coordinator seat, try to grow your skills in those areas relevant for project management. We have mentioned leadership and communication skills as two essential skills every project manager must have, so you should focus your skill development on those areas. What is the easiest way to grow your skills? Observe project managers around you performing the day-to-day tasks and copy their habits (especially with regards to communication and leadership).

Then apply what you have learned by changing your management or communication style and your approach to things. The key point is: You cannot ask to be made a project manager unless you actually think and act like a project manager! Your working style must reflect strong soft skills and you must be able to communicate effectively across all levels. Plus, you need to show that you are actually capable of resolving conflicts and maintain a cool head at all times.

Tip #3: Ask for more responsibility

If you feel you got what it takes to handle more duties, then do not be scared to ask your boss to assign you to more tasks. For example, ask your boss to let you cover for the project manager who is currently on annual leave! Or you can offer to coordinate a group of activities from start to finish, for example a customer workshop or a user training.

Tip #3: Get Certified

There are several project management certifications that you may consider to increase your chances of getting a promotion. One of the most respected certifications is the PMP or “Project Management Professional” issued by the Project Management Institute (PMI).

The good news is that you can even undertake the PMP certification while still being a project coordinator. You don’t have to be a project manager to apply for the certification. All you need is a certain number of hours having performed project management-type work in the five process groups. See the PMI website for PMP requirements (external link).

Tip #4: Apply for project management jobs

Whether in the same company you are working as a project coordinator or another one. When you feel that you got what it takes to be a project manager, then prepare your resume and get ready for your dream job!

Conclusion

By now, you should have already understood the difference between the duties and the skills of a project coordinator and a project manager. In a nutshell, project coordinators do most of the administrative tasks, whereas project managers are responsible for the success of the entire project as well as ensuring no risks and obstacles are getting in the way.

Also, if your plan is to progress from a project coordinator to a project manager role, then make sure to sharpen your soft skills, do not be scared to request more responsibilities from your boss, consider getting project management certifications, and get your resume ready for project manager job applications.

Alaa AlSaffar

Alaa is currently studying towards her MSc in Project Management at the University of Liverpool. She has a multi-diverse background that extends from medicine and engineering to creative arts and performance. Her vision is to integrate creativity with technicality, art with science, as she has an eye and a mindset for both equally. She is passionate about creative and innovative project management, which encourages curious and novel approaches and ideas.

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