10 Characteristics a Project Manager Must Develop

Project Managers must develop skills that are beyond technical and processEarly in my career, I was asked to assist our firm’s recruiting efforts on several college campuses. I was truly enjoying the breather from my project responsibilities – that is, until I suddenly realized that we were hiring “kids” who were smarter than me, and for half my salary.

I knew that I would soon not be able to compete with them from a technological or methodology perspective. So, I made a major career decision right then and there. I pivoted from the system development ranks into project management. My technical skills and project knowledge had served me well to that point, and I continued to lean heavily on them as I began to develop necessary leadership skills to take on project management responsibilities.

In a previous article, “10 Surefire Approaches to Leading a Project Team”, I focused on ten techniques that Project Managers can use to manage and lead a project team to deliver a project successfully:

  1. Communicate
  2. Set the example
  3. Delegate; don’t micromanage
  4. Be consistent
  5. Explain why
  6. Be transparent
  7. Build relationships
  8. Reward accomplishments publicly; counsel in private
  9. Enjoy the work
  10. Manage conflict

In this article, I focus on the characteristics that I believe Project Managers must develop within themselves to use these approaches effectively. Contrary to what many in IT leadership have told me, these are not characteristics that “you either have, or you don’t.” Emphatically, no! These are characteristics that can – indeed, must – be developed to be able to effectively lead and manage a team to success.

  1. Be a great communicator.
    In an article entitled, “Why IT Should Focus on Soft Skills”, I advise IT professionals to specifically develop competencies in public speaking, writing, meeting facilitation, listening, their ability to read people, and client interaction. I also urge them to seek training in these areas from persons or entities that are steeped in the demands of IT project work, to stay away from generic instruction in these areas. I have been at the receiving end of such instruction. I also provide this instruction as a service of my consulting practice. There is an unmistakable difference when comparing the generic to the “been-there-done-that”.

    Why be a great communicator? Because the ability to clearly articulate the overall project goals and objectives, as well as the day-to-day tasks and activities required to reach those goals and objectives, is the most critical skill that a Project Manager must master.

    Bar none.

    A great communicator does not just display the mechanical proficiencies of a speaker, writer, or facilitator – as essential as these are – but more importantly excels at the nuances of adapting one’s communication style to the team, active listening, being transparent, being inclusive, being clear and specific, conveying empathy, exhibiting open body language consciously, receiving and giving feedback, and many other such communication competencies.

    As if all of that weren’t daunting enough, the Project Manager must master communication with one’s supervisors and executive management, project stakeholders, client executives, client subject matter experts, and suppliers. These all require different approaches.

    I list this characteristic first because projects are about people first, and the ability to communicate well has the greatest bearing on the success of the project.

  2. Be organized.
    Project Managers are master jugglers of everything from managing the daily tasks and activities to acquiring and releasing project staff, negotiating anything and everything, managing the budget, approving project celebrations, and hundreds more of such activities. If a Project Manager is not organized, he will fail. If a Project Manager is organized, he will set the example for his team to likewise be organized and work effectively and efficiently to project success.
  3. Be a problem-solver.
    Projects by their very nature are a constant battle of righting the ship, of avoiding the potholes, of taking detours – whatever cliché you wish to insert. Projects are a constant source of challenges and problems. Whatever the situation, the Project Manager must develop her creativity and capabilities as a skilled problem-solver. She must be able to roll up her sleeves alongside her team, not only to set the example of how problem solving can work, but to involve the team in the solution.

    I was once requested to spend two weeks with a team that was in serious trouble with regard to their delivery timeline. They were facing significant penalties and loss of profits. We developed a solid plan of how to avoid the penalties and mitigate the losses, using several techniques such as crashing the remaining schedule, negotiating trade-offs with the client, and others.

    The IT provider’s senior executive flew in to review our plan. He asked a few questions, then grabbed a dry-erase marker and completely filled a 12-foot x 3-foot whiteboard. He upended our plan (Note: I say upended, not threw out) with a bold approach that we all quickly signed on to. While I pride myself on my problem-solving ability, this high-level executive rolled up his sleeves and took us to problem-solving school.

  4. Be a decision-maker.
    Additionally, a Project Manager must be a decision-maker. Early in my career, one of my managers imparted the following wisdom, “Make a decision. To not make a decision is to make a decision.”

    That has stuck with me for my entire career. Every time I was tempted to analyze a situation into a state of paralysis, I would remember this advice and make a decision based on the information available to me. Even if the decision proved to be wrong it was right, because we could make course corrections as we moved forward. The important point: as we moved forward. Maybe that’s what my grandfather was trying to teach me when he said, “Nemůžete řídit zaparkovaný auto” (“You can’t steer a parked car”).

    The ability to make decisions, whether in a consensus-building or authoritative manner (depending on the situation), is a necessary skill that a Project Manager must hone, and one that he can use to set an example for his team.

  5. Be an empowering delegator.
    I tend to think of delegation as art rather than science, though the first rule of delegation is neither. Just do it! Just delegate! Stop micromanaging!

    To me, the art of delegation – delegation that empowers the team members rather than just loads them up with work – is to balance the importance and complexity of the task with the readiness of the individual to perform the task.

    Sometimes that’s not always apparent. When I was a young developer, I was assigned the most menial of tasks: to document a client’s entire computer system to make it more maintainable. This included opening every program to document the code itself. I wondered which of my firm’s managers I had offended.

    This was the worst engagement of my young career. However, as I found out later, it launched me on a path of steady promotions that followed. My manager had wanted to test my stick-to-itiveness, and I thankfully delivered to her expectations.

    Matching team members to tasks, developing individuals’ competencies and confidence, empowering staff to make decisions without always having to check in with their lead, are all critical aspects of the art of delegation.

  6. Be an emotionally intelligent leader.
    Develop a high EQ (emotional quotient, more commonly called emotional intelligence). The greater the management responsibilities, the more important EQ becomes – more important than even IQ. Research shows that “90% of top performers are also high in emotional intelligence” (TalentSmart).

    Project Managers with a high EQ are self-aware. They have a keen understanding of their strengths, opportunities for improvement, belief system, emotional behaviors, and motivations. With this self-understanding, they are able to self-regulate or exhibit self-control in situations that may require pausing before responding or avoiding emotional triggers. They are intent on salvaging goodwill with the team and the client. Empathy is one of their greatest strengths as a leader, as are social awareness and the ability to read a room.

    EQ is one of the greatest characteristics of Project Managers in their ability to influence and motivate a team to high performance. In the words of Simon Sinek, speaker and best-selling author, “When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”

  7. Be open.
    Similarly, with openness. Project Managers that exhibit great communication, high EQ, and sincere openness at all times, are extraordinarily successful as leaders. Being open and available to team members to be able to ask for clarification, or confide in them, or just “shoot the breeze”, goes a long way in fostering that all-important trust relationship on a project team.

    On several consulting engagements, my clients provided me an office with a door. I hated the door with a passion and kept it open (unless dealing with a confidential manner). I wanted no barrier between the team and me. I wanted them to be able to pop in at any time for any reason.

    Openness goes beyond just being available. It also conveys a sense of vulnerability. The team needs to see the human side of the Project Manager. Project Managers get hurt feelings too. Project Managers don’t like bad news, but they must be open to receive it. Project Managers have bad days and they work through them despite the issues. Project Managers maintain their professionality through it all.

  8. Be a developer of self.
    A Project Manager never stops learning. Heck, even after I “retired” (which I affectionately describe as having stopped full-time, on-client site, multi-year consulting engagements), I continued to hone my PM skills. The characteristics I describe above would keep most Project Managers in learning mode for their entire careers. One never becomes the perfect communicator, the perfect example of organization, the perfect decision-maker, the perfect problem-solver, the perfect delegator, or the highest EQ practitioner. There is always room for further development.
  9. Be a developer of people.
    Project Managers who work on themselves instill the hunger for learning within their team members. Project Managers who provide opportunities for development and training of their staff cultivate happy teams that are loyal to their managers and motivated to deliver successful projects.

    Developing people isn’t always about formal training and certification. Some of my most notable strides in my development as an IT practitioner came from casual conversations with management, or peers, or team members about an aspect of my PM characteristics that I was attempting to improve. Some came from studying successful Project Managers as they handled a variety of project situations. Some came from direct questioning of those more skilled than me.

  10. Be a conflict manager.
    Inevitably, projects experience conflict. Project management, by definition, deals with challenges, tension, and propensity for projects to go off the rails, A Project Manager must learn to address conflict immediately and not let it fester. Conflict that is allowed to continue unchecked results in loss of productivity and unhappy teams. Issues where project schedules or deliverables may be negatively affected, or the cohesiveness of the team is threatened, or team members’ productivity is diminished must be dealt with swiftly, decisively, and with face-saving sensitivity.

    A good communicator, as noted in point #1 above, maintains a constant level of feedback with the team members – both positive and corrective. If conflict should develop regarding an individual’s behavior, and disciplinary action is required, the goodwill built up over time gives the Project Manager an avenue to tackle the issue head-on.

Project delivery is as much a people business as it is a technical or process business. Project Managers who do not develop the people aspects of their management skills are doomed to fail. These skills are seldom innate, and so they must be learned.

And learn them you must.

Footnotes

TalentSmart. “About Emotional Intelligence”, accessed September 15, 2020, https://www.talentsmart.com/about/emotional-intelligence.php


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