20 Traits of Highly Effective Project Managers

By Mary Pratt and Moira Alexander – CIO.com

To be a truly great project manager you must be a strategic business partner fully vested in organizational success — and be able to roll with inevitable setbacks. Here’s how elite project managers stand out.

To thrive, project managers need to have and hone a complex combination of technical, business, and interpersonal skills. Leading project management organization the Project Management Institute attempts to decode what it takes to be a successful project manager with its PMI Talent Triangle, comprising Ways of Working (formerly Technical Project Management), Power Skills (formerly Leadership), and Business Acumen (formerly Strategic and Business Management).

To thrive, project managers need to have and hone a complex combination of technical, business, and interpersonal skills. Leading project management organization the Project Management Institute attempts to decode what it takes to be a successful project manager with its PMI Talent Triangle, comprising Ways of Working (formerly Technical Project Management), Power Skills (formerly Leadership), and Business Acumen (formerly Strategic and Business Management).

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot packed into each of those three areas. Effective project managers must know how to define the scope of a project, identify necessary resources, and schedule those resources — all part of the technical aspect of the job. They must also manage stakeholders and ensure projects align with business goals — skills that fall under the other two talent buckets.

But as lengthy as the PMI’s list of required skills is, experienced project leaders say that’s not enough to rise to the top of the profession; highly effective project managers bring even more to their jobs.

They’re curious, flexible, and adaptive — and they learn from and they know how to right their mistakes, says Marion Thomas, a fellow of the UK-based Association for Project Management, a Chartered Project Professional (ChPP), and founder of Extraordinary PM, a training and mentoring firm. They’re also empathetic, persuasive, and visionary, and they know how to play to their own and others’ strengths, she says.

Other professional project managers agree, noting that the most successful PMs are those who know the academic parts of the job — that is, the elements that are taught — but they also bring a finesse to the work.

So, what characteristics distinguish the most effective project managers? Longtime project leaders list the following key traits and skills as vital to succeeding at a high level.

1. They serve as a strategic business partner

Top-level project managers bring to their roles higher-level strategic leadership skills in addition to technical management skills. This provides significant advantages for organizations of all sizes, as there are complex factors, both internal and external, that can negatively impact projects of all types. Project managers who deftly deal with such factors — whether they’re legal restrictions or scheduling complexities due to remote and distributed work teams — and know how their projects fit within overall strategic goals are best equipped to make decisions that are best for the project and the organization as a whole.

“A project exists because it responds to a need of the business. That might be due to trends impacting the business or a challenge in running the business, but without understanding that, it will be hard for the project manager to deliver a successful project,” says Karla Eidem, a Project Management Professional (PMP) and PMI’s North America regional operations manager.

2. They possess extraordinary organizational skills

Top-notch project managers are highly organized individuals. “But it’s not just about making a list and sticking with it,” says Hema Tatineni, vice president of the Strategic Programs Office at CopperPoint Insurance.

They do indeed know how to plan, but more importantly they understand how their project plans and resources are intertwined with other goings-on within the organization. That organizational capacity enables them to adjust their plans and resources when needed.

“It’s easy to say, ‘This is my plan, these are my dates,’ and then work through to it one day at a time. But if one task gets moved, then it impacts others upstream and downstream because there are interconnectivities between projects. Being organized means knowing the interdependencies, and how to reorganize your plan as things come up,” Tatineni says.

3. They are flexible

Similarly, highly effective project managers are flexible, so they themselves aren’t flummoxed when project plans need adjustments — something that happens increasingly more often in the modern digital world.

“They have to have that adaptability and that flexibility to be able to say, ‘Yup, we have something else that’s now a higher priority, so how do we change our course?’” Tatineni says.

4. They have ‘extreme awareness’

Barry Cousins, a distinguished analyst and research fellow specializing in project portfolio management, project management, and organizational change management at Info-Tech Research Group, says top project managers possess what he calls “extreme awareness of resource capacity and utilization.” That awareness is needed more today than ever before.

“A lot of people are struggling, and virtually all of them report that they have fewer hours to deliver to projects than expected. There’s more officially recognized demand for their time than they have time to deliver,” Cousins explains. Project managers who recognize this reality can more accurately anticipate the hours people will be able to dedicate to project work and are therefore more successful in scheduling and setting the right deadlines.

“Savvy project managers in the modern era have immediate implicit awareness of the capacity around them, so then they’re going to know right off the bat when their projects are going to fall short,” Cousin adds. Furthermore, they’re more comfortable alerting business leaders to that situation because they’re able to quantify the shortfall.

5. They have highly tuned stakeholder management skills

Project managers work with numerous stakeholders from various departments within and outside their organizations, and those who manage those relationships best understand each stakeholder’s perspectives.

For example, some stakeholders may be more risk adverse than others, or more resistant to change, or more prone to panic when problems arise. Veteran project leaders say managers who can identify and empathize with those perspectives can tailor their communications, plans, and training to address each stakeholder’s unique points of view.

6. They understand who has authority

Organizations today have distributed authority, so project managers must know who has say over what pieces — whether they’re dealing with 10 different IT architects who each control a piece of the IT environment or 10 different executives who have responsibilities for separate areas of the enterprise that are impacted by a project.

“The savvy project manager knows to give them all room to succeed,” Cousins explains. That means staying on top of what each person’s realm of authority needs for the project to succeed, identifying who has ownership for what pieces, and knowing which person has true authority and can get others to line up behind him or her.

“It often requires getting to know people who are at a layer of the company that you don’t play in — getting to know executives when you’re a project manager, and it’s about managing your network,” Cousins says.

7. They have a knack for picking the right tools

Project managers can use various methodologies to move a project forward. They can use different controls to mitigate risks. They can use different software applications to track project progress. Each tool or technique has its pros and cons, and one may be better suited for some situations than another. Understanding those points is essential.

“The ability to use the right tool at the right time in the right situation, that can make sure there’s speed of execution and that goals and objectives can be met,” Eidem explains.

8. They are somewhat clairvoyant

Project managers don’t need ESP, but they do need to be able to see around corners and predict various possible futures as they move through projects. This enables them to come up with contingency plans to stay on track and thus line up resources and assure others that they’re in control.

Tatineni worked with one project manager who demonstrated his forward-thinking capability when a business leader asked him during a meeting whether an upcoming holiday would impact a milestone that was already at risk of being missed.

“The project manager said, ‘Good point, and we have already planned a meeting to talk about that,’” Tatineni says, a message that helped reassure the business leader that the project manager had the situation under control.

9. They credit others

Rather than try to be a jack-of-all-trades, good project managers know to leverage others’ knowledge and skills on the team. And they know that the contributions of others strongly impacts their own effectiveness. So highly effective project managers encourage all members to participate and contribute at their highest levels — and readily share credit for well-done work.

10. They motivate others

Project managers must motivate workers over whom they have no direct influence yet who can make or break a project. To do this, project managers must have strong communication skills as well as the ability to influence and persuade, project experts say. They must be able to instill confidence in the minds of stakeholders and sponsors to keep going forward, even if there are changes in the project’s scope. The ability to motivate also requires demonstrated respect for team members, stakeholders, and sponsors at all times, and the ability to articulate how the project, despite any difficulties or frustrations, will deliver value when completed.

As Thomas says, “Extraordinary project managers need to know how to engage people in the ‘why of the project.’”

11. They are fully vested in success

Highly effective project managers believe in their work, and they are fully vested in seeing a project through, from initiation to close — and even to post-production success. This mindset helps achieve the best results throughout the project. Such PMs are completely involved in all professional aspects of the project, its activities, and its people.

John Paul Engel, president of Knowledge Capital Consulting, says engagement, resilience, and the ability to maintain a high level of both client and team satisfaction are the keys to generating results.

12. They accept accountability

Not everything on a project will go as planned. Mistakes are to be expected. Standout project managers, however, accept when they’re wrong and learn from their mistakes.

“Integrity, decisiveness, good judgment, the ability to form a vision and execute it, confidence in your own competence” are hallmarks of highly effective project managers, says Paul Dillon, founder of Dillon Consulting Services.

13. They communicate effectively

Considering communication plays a significant role in managing projects, teams, and other stakeholders, it is one of the essential skills for effective project managers. Communication doesn’t just mean being a stellar facilitator, speaker, or writer; it requires good listening skills, too. As such, top managers actively listen to what’s said — and not said — and can take context into account.

They listen to others’ views and consider those individuals’ experiences and knowledge. That gives those managers a more complete picture of what’s happening, enabling them to head off potential conflict, reduce risks, and increase the likelihood of project success.

14. They build community

“I believe the ‘P’ in PM is for the people: You can’t do a project without a team. And the team might not report to the project manager, so you have to have collaborative leadership, problem-solving, and communication skills to activate your team. Without that you can’t really move the needle,” Eidem says. “But in a project, you’re working with people who might have different priorities and different understanding of the goals of the project, so it’s the project manager’s responsibility to make sure everyone is aligned and knows where they’re going.”

Thomas agrees, saying that the best project managers know how to build a sense of community among the teams as well as with the workers on the periphery of projects so that everyone is willing to work toward a shared objective. That may mean, for instance, getting to know the accounts payable staffers responsible for paying suppliers so there’s an existing relationship if any questions or problems come up that the project manager needs to address.

15. They build rapport

Top project managers are also skilled at developing strong rapport with those around them — even for short-lived projects — knowing that good connections and solid relationships lead to success.

“When you build rapport, there’s a shared understanding,” says Krista Phillips, a PMP holder and IT project manager. That shared understanding pays dividends. Project managers who take time to build up relationships are more likely to have others share information that could impact their projects, and they’re more likely to get help from others if they make difficult requests — such as staying late or coming in on a weekend to catch up.

16. They prepare the team for the journey

Most people want to know where they’re going and what to expect on the road ahead. That’s no different for project teams, Thomas says. Skilled project managers know how to prep them for the journey. They do more than lay out milestones and timelines; rather, they detail where they’ll hit tough stretches, when they’ll need extra support, when they can celebrate, etc. “It’s really about being able to articulate the path ahead,” Thomas adds.

17. They establish themselves as leaders

Well-respected PMs establish their reputations through hard work and a track record of success. That, of course, takes time. But once it’s earned, project managers can use past successes to help rally workers to new endeavors, build trust among stakeholders, and leverage past experiences to get through new tough spots — all of which helps create continued success.

18. They serve as change agents

Change is inevitable and can be highly disruptive to all areas of business and personal life; project management is no exception. Highly effective project managers understand this, embrace it, and build elements of uncertainty into their project plans. They also recognize the need to work closely with change management experts to help stakeholders adapt to change and better prepare for the future state of things.

19. They possess an even-keeled demeanor

Even well-planned projects run into problems, and even highly skilled project managers can hit significant setbacks. But the best project managers don’t display panic, anger, or despair even under pressure; they keep their cool.

“I think even-keeled is a good word for it,” Tatineni says. “You want someone who is rational, who can come in neutral even when temperatures are high.”

20. They can comfortably work in the gray

Another characteristic that sets great project managers apart from good ones is their ability to work in the gray. This is a must-have skill because most projects, regardless of type, industry, size, or complexity, will have gray areas to navigate.

Issues with external constraints and complexities, remote project limitations, conflict, and ambiguity — these and other uncertainties will almost certainly be encountered.

Joyce Wilson-Sanford, an executive coach, consultant, and writer, says the ability to approach change in an organization, to see when a project is in trouble or can cause trouble, and to not get rattled by delay or crisis or budget cuts is key. Project managers with high technical and high people skills is a tough combination to find, she says. And when you combine those with the ability to work in the gray, you are a very effective project manager indeed.

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