What goes into the ideal project manager? What are their skills and character like? If you are a project manager, what skills should you be seeking to develop?
It’s challenging to know because the subject can seem so broad. So confusing at times. It’s tough to know all that’s needed to manage projects effectively and skillfully.
While a simple blog post can’t exhaustively define the subject, here are twelve essentials to being—or finding—the ideal project manager.
(Knowledge of character qualities is only the first step; certification is a requirement for most organizations. Find out more from PMTI on whether or not you qualify for certification. You can aso get this certification in person and online.)
Skill #1: Leadership
What exactly is leadership? Hundreds of books have been written exploring this concept each trying to nail down exactly what it is.
Perhaps most simply, you can think of leadership as influence—specifically, the kind of influence that attracts people to follow your example, listen to you, trust you, and follow you. A good leader is someone others want to follow.
In the best cases, this influence stems from high moral character, not a charismatic personality or eloquent speaking ability, although those things can certainly help.
It involves trustworthiness, which means reliability, faithfulness, honesty, and lack of pretense. It means valuing the right things—choosing the long-term over the immediate, and often the difficult over the easy.
Most of all, it means sacrifice—setting aside your personal preferences, wants, and needs for the good of the people, whether they be parallel to or under you, and the flourishing of the project.
Leadership isn’t about the imposition of your demands on people by force. There is authority to it, but it is exercised wisely and with the right goals.
Chris Hadfield says:
Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about leading. This manifests in keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.
Skill #2: Communication
How many problems stem from lack of communication?
Misunderstanding, misreading, and the like frequently create tension, anger, awkwardness, and failure. This then creates a work environment harmful to unity, service, and the shared vision needed to accomplish the right goals.
Good project managers know how to write and speak well. They know how to explain things clearly and concisely, without confusing their listeners.
They know how to get ideas, concepts, and plans across to others—and they know how to communicate wisely and effectively when work isn’t up to par.
Communication also means having a proper filter, which can be defined by the old cliché “think before you speak”! Proper communication—honest, clear, concise, and effective—is one of the cornerstones of the leadership essential to a good project manager.
(For project managers, it’s a good idea to start with honing presentation skills, both in terms of theory and delivery. Besides not wanting people to fall asleep during meetings, you can’t motivate them if they have no idea what you’re talking about.)
Skill #3: Planning
Projects involve planning—surprise!
Projects big or small require multiple steps to complete them. Sometimes, these steps are mini-projects of themselves with many moving parts which must be completed before the next larger step can be taken.
This is where planning skill comes in. A good project manager must have enough of a grasp of the end goal and the pieces that make it up to know what to do when—and how.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but oftentimes good planning comes only with experience. This is especially true because life is rarely predictable or problem-free, and so good planning also takes into account reasonable variables, and potential failures, and has a reasonable way of responding to them before they happen.
Great project managers can see how different steps of a project will intersect and then plan accordingly.
You may be a charismatic leader and great public speaker, but if you aren’t able to plan effectively, you’ll fail terribly at project management.
Skill #4: Personal Organization
You can’t take others places that you aren’t. And if you’re trying to motivate people towards a goal that itself requires organized, thoughtful planning, you can’t very well do that if your life, office, and car are a mess!
Personal organization is essential because they carry over into how you plan and execute project goals. Personal discipline is a large aspect of this, as is proper scheduling.
If you constantly lose your bank statements, miss deadlines, and always show up late to meetings, brush up on your organization skills before you start telling others what to do.
If your life and work are out of control, you won’t be able to properly manage a large, complicated project.
Skill #5: Problem Solving
Proactivity is the watchword for effective problem solving.
Not everything can be foreseen and planned for, but many things can if you have even a bit of common sense and thoughtfulness! Plan ahead for as much as you can and think through alternate plans and responses in the event of failure.
Other components of effective problem solving include analysis—you have to be able to examine a problem minutely and thoughtfully to determine its root and how to fix it. You must have awareness of possible solutions and the ability to judge their effectiveness and viability.
You also must be able to define and articulate the problem and understand what a pathway to resolution would look like.
Finally, careful oversight, to oversee the implementation and execution of the solution and then analyze its effectiveness.
Closely related to problem-solving is risk management. PMTI offers a course in enhancing and refining your risk management skills. Find out more here.
Skill #6: Effective Decision Making
There are two aspects to this quality: “effective” and “decision making.”
Obviously, good decision making involves the ability to see the differences between options, their pros and cons, and the results that come from choosing one or the other. It does not include vacillation, self-doubt, or wallowing in concern!
But what is effective decision making? Simply put, it’s the ability to make decisions other people will respect and, ideally, follow. If you make a choice as a leader, ideally you will see why it’s important and the right way to go, but you want to make the decision in such a way that you can bring the majority of people on board, agree with your rationale, and be enthusiastic about implementation.
Proper decision making is inspirational—it attracts and draws people to the rightness of the choice and creates within them the desire to see its implementation—especially because the right decision is necessary to the success of the project.
Skill #7: Time Management
Money can be recovered, things can be replaced, but time never can be.
Whether or not the project has a deadline, good use of time is non negotiable and essential to project success. Good management of the time of the project members starts with an example of good time management in yourself.
Discernment is necessary for determining which tasks and goals are good, and which are best and essential. The lion’s share of time must be given to the good and essential each day, and ideally should be tackled first.
If you endlessly waste time, you won’t make progress on the things that matter and you’ll find yourself and your team falling far behind on your project.
Skill #8: Negotiation
Good project managers are responsible for bringing together diverse people with potentially competing interests and priorities under a shared vision to accomplish a necessary goal.
This, of course, requires good negotiation skills. Your managers, your staff, third-party suppliers, and others must all be negotiated with for the project to be completed well. Experienced negotiators know when and on what to compromise. They can also read people and communicate well about what they’re willing to compromise—and draw firm lines when necessary on the other hand.
Much like with good time management, good negotiation involves knowing what is less important and what is the priority, and being willing to work with people effectively to accomplish that priority.
Good negotiating also entails humility—sometimes people won’t be willing to give in unless they see you really need them and what they offer you. Be humble enough to ask for help, and strong enough to offer it.
Skill #9: Sound Judgment
Many of the other skills already discussed flow out of this one.
Sound judgment is the ability to evaluate skills and priorities in the context of the project and work to see those goals accomplished. More deeply, it’s the ability to have deep insight into the nature, value, and worth of a thing and to make decisions on that basis rather than emotion, impulse, or irrationality.
The impact of this quality on project management is obvious. If a person does not know how to value or identify the right things or if he or she does not know how to best communicate these ideas to others in a way that will be heard, then disaster is imminent!
Good managers know what is worth saying, doing, and dwelling on—and then do it!
Skill #10: Team Management
If sound judgment is the root of many of these qualities, team management may well be the fruit.
Good team management brings together these different skills as well as others in the effective, gracious, and decisive oversight of the team towards a goal. But more practically, effective team management involves knowing people well enough to identify their competencies and their weaknesses, as well as how well they would work together in different groups. It’s also crucial to know who to delegate which task to.
Setting manageable goals, overseeing conflict resolution, giving constructive feedback, and doing everything necessary to make the team’s work effective goes into good team management.
One expert put it like this: “Leadership is about inspiring others to walk with you; team management makes sure your team has the right shoes.”
Skill #11: Expertise
You need to know what you’re talking about if your management will have any staying power and effectiveness—not to mention for people to take you seriously!
You must know about the area of work you’re involved in and how to communicate that to others. You must be able to succinctly and clearly explain your goals for the project, and how clients’ and suppliers’ skills, goods, and services are integral to that project.
You must know about the platforms, programs, and resources your team is using, and all of their strengths and weaknesses. You must know how your project’s completion fits into the overall progress of the company’s or organization’s larger goal.
Most importantly, good expertise involves an almost insatiable desire to learn and grow. There is always something else to know, some further piece to include in your mental furniture, some nugget of insight or wisdom that can make your life or work more effective and meaningful.
Have the humility to constantly learn, and the confidence to share what you know in a winsome and insightful way.
Skill #12: Vision
This may well be the backdrop of all the other qualities. Vision, like leadership, is difficult to define succinctly.
Perhaps it is more easily described than defined: Vision is knowing where you want to end up, and the best way to get there. Vision is seeing things—realities, concepts, problems, opportunities—other people may not readily see, if at all.
Vision is the big picture—what you’re here to do, and how that fits with the larger purpose of things. One can even say it like this: Effective, inspiring, and powerful leaders are visionaries. They have insight into life and circumstances that others do not, and which equips them to be at the head instead of in the crowd.
Get a vision for your project’s end goal and then get to communicating it with passion to those around you.
Project managing in a sense is fundamentally relational: It’s rooted in a good, service, or product that will be used by people (ideally to enhance their quality of living or some other noble goal).
It’s worked on and created by people, and those people must relate well to you, your superiors, and outside influences to be effective and fruitful.
Good project management involves knowing people and knowing how to motivate them towards good things—by teaching them and inspiring within them a passion for the vision you have, and motivating them towards their essential role in accomplishing it.
Being a better human being will make you a better project manager. Perhaps that’s the most fundamental key to the whole thing.
Yada is not just the leader of the Project Management Training Institute (PMTI). He helped to write significant portions of the project management standards worldwide. He is helping PMI right now in reviewing, directing, and leading the development of the 7th edition of the PMBOK(r) Guide to incorporate the most monumental changes to project management standards in 35 years. He shares his wisdom with readers via the PMTI blog.