The job of a “project manager” is both self-explanatory and inherently murky. The responsibilities of someone with that title seem pretty darn clear: They manage projects. But that straightforward definition is wide open to interpretation, especially when you consider that a significant project likely has many people responsible for its ultimate success. What makes a great project manager? That is the driving question IT leaders should ask when evaluating the project management function in their department.
If I’m going to have a project management function, how do I ensure I’m hiring great PMs, and not those who are simply “good enough” (or worse)?
We asked a variety of technology and project management professionals that question. Unsurprisingly, there are some table-stakes traits in project management. You’ll need strong communication skills, for instance – best of luck to a project manager who can’t clearly convey information about the project, both out loud and in writing. But we dug a little deeper to identify the characteristics that great IT project managers tend to have – the types of characteristics that CIOs should seek out in their project management function, and that project managers themselves should actively cultivate in their own professional development. Here’s what we found.
1. Great project managers know the people well
An OK project manager can assign resources to tasks that need to be completed or move names around a whiteboard when planning deliverables. A great PM knows the people that are working on their project, not as “resources” but as, you know, actual human beings.
“Great project managers take the time to learn about their team members on personal levels,” says Bill Piszker, senior director, Global PMO at Sungard Availability Services. “Once they understand what makes each team member tick, the PM can use that to motivate his team and adjust work processes to better fit his team members. This helps the team constantly deliver high-quality products, which ultimately helps to maintain positive relationships with end customers.”
[ Competing for talent against companies with deep pockets can be a challenge. See our related article, 5 tips to recruit IT talent – without big league perks. ]
Indeed, a key piece of what sets apart an A+ project manager from a merely competent one is their ability to treat people as humans rather than human resources.
“Every manager who is responsible for other people and their work should have this trait,” says Akos Boros, project manager at Capturly. “Understanding the feelings of your team members will not just help you to solve the problems and clashes, but it will also help you to motivate your team members and create a better atmosphere in your team.”
2. Great project managers unify people and teams
Number one is a key stepping stone to number two: Great PMs bring people together rather than drive them apart. This is especially important on large-scale enterprise projects that involve significant change: These multi-month or even multi-year initiatives tend to cause anxiety, fear, and conflict, especially if people or teams see the project as an existential threat.
“Project managers of large projects have much more complicated stakeholder management issues because there are so many of them,” says Alan Zucker, founding principal at Project Management Essentials. “Consequently, their ability to develop relationships is critical, along with their ability to build and manage coalitions. Often on large projects, there are competing priorities and points of view.”
Gerald J. Leonard, CEO at Principles of Execution, notes that great PMs especially make time for naysayers and other folks who might hinder the smooth forward progress of a particular initiative.
“They are aware of those who are neutral and are unfavorable to their project and focus their stakeholder management to helping those resources see the benefit of the project to their personal and professional lives,” Leonard says.
3. Great project managers branch out
A negative portrayal of the typical PM might be as a paper-pusher: Someone constantly checking up on people and tasks but who’s not necessarily adding value. That might be reductive, but it’s also borne from staid, run-of-the-mill project management. There’s a way to ensure that image doesn’t apply to you: Branch out.
A great project manager is “someone who can and has done more than manage projects,” says Erik Lagerway, product manager at Dialpad.
It’s all the better if the “more” includes experience in other IT functions. Lagerway points to QA, network analysis, or field deployments as examples. In fact, this may be a particular differentiator of a great IT project manager from an otherwise solid PM who doesn’t really get IT.
“A great PM will go out of his or her way to learn about the work and/or technology the team is responsible for during the execution of the project,” says Ian McClarty, president at PhoenixNAP Global IT Services. “They strive to become part of the team, consistently providing value by identifying risks early and removing obstacles throughout the project.”
[ Great project managers know the tools of the trade. See Opensource.com's related article, Top 11 project management tools for 2016. ]
4. Great project managers plan on uncertainty
You’ll commonly hear terms like “great planner” and “well-organized” to describe PMs. Indeed, you need someone who can see the project, no matter what it is, from start to finish. But if they go on tilt every time something goes awry, that’s not helping the project. Great PMs adapt and adjust because they expect problems along the way.
“On large projects, there is much more uncertainty. Projects never proceed as planned,” Zucker says. “The project manager needs to be able to effectively lead in a dynamic environment and keep focused on the priorities.”
That’s absolutely true in IT, where projects hinge on both human and technology variability.
“Every day is a new challenge, especially in the tech world,” Boros says. “Unexpected problems – especially from the technology side – can occur every day, and you have to handle all of them and find a new solution with your team when it's necessary.”
5. Great project managers show a healthy paranoia
Great PMs sniff out that uncertainty and change by being, well, just a little bit on the paranoid side. And when they see a problem, they solve it instead of kicking it down the road.
“Most have a level of healthy paranoia concerning project timelines and budgets that drives them to reevaluate progress from many different angles and ask questions that often uncover issues that would otherwise derail their project,” says Sebastian Igreti, president at TechMD.
6. Great project managers know how to eat an elephant
There’s a semi-famous quote, often attributed to former U.S. Army General Creighton Abrams (though you can find earlier versions of the saying), about dealing with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle or situation: “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”
That means being able to break seemingly insurmountable IT requirements into manageable work.
“The key indicator to know whether a project manager will be successful in a large, complex project is how well the project manager can work with the team to create a work breakdown structure of the requirements, and develop a schedule that everyone buys into,” Leonard says.
It also means toughness. "It's having a strong mental fortitude during challenging times of projects,” says Piszker. “The ability to step back and see the larger picture will allow PMs to determine and prioritize the appropriate next steps to moving the project forward in a productive way.”
7. Great project managers think like entrepreneurs
Job descriptions are littered with phrases like “self-starter” or “highly motivated.” Yes, motivation is important in a wide range of professions, but it’s become a tired term. So let’s reframe a project manager’s motivation in a different light: The best ones treat their projects like businesses unto themselves.
Lagerway thinks of a great project manager – and its relative, the product manager – “almost as an entrepreneur-in-residence who is building teams within the company. Someone who is driven to build great products and manage teams to that end will be a great complement to a deserving team.”
Project management hiring: Bonus tip
Lagerway also shares some parting advice for CIOs and other IT leaders when it comes to hiring project managers: Don’t bother if you don’t think you could do the job, too. It’s a matter of being able to lead your leaders.
“If you can't become the PM yourself, don't hire one. A common mistake is to hire a PM with expectations that they will solve all of your team's coordination and execution issues,” Lagerway says. “Understand the reasons for hiring in the first place with a high degree of certainty that you know what the problem is that you are trying remedy.”
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Great article Kevin and good to see a fresh perspective on PM traits and not just the same old standard traits so often regurgitated.
I think your first 2 points are key - everything else is surmountable if a PM is good with people and can unify teams. A united, motivated team can pretty much achieve anything IMO