What makes a good project manager

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The debate about project manager skills and competencies is well into its third decade. Thus we have lists compiled by a dozen or so organizations, academics, and consultancies expressing views on "the good project manager." What project manager skills, competencies, and characteristics do these lists agree on?

Technical or Industry Expertise

A baseline of technical or industry knowledge is what gets a project manager candidate in the door. Commonly, a project manager has an undergraduate degree in some technical specialty—and while that can mean engineering or computer science, with the broadening of the project management field, it can also mean a degree in marketing or one of the helping professions (health care, social work, education, law). Industry knowledge gained from work in a particular field, such as construction, information technology, or health care, is added to that baseline. Into this category also fall the technical aspects of project management: facility with project management software tools, for example.

Interpersonal and General Management Skills

But the bulk of the skills required—the skills upon which the role seems to succeed or fail— are those that are variously termed "Organization and People Competencies" (Assoc. for Project Management, U.K.), "Personal Competencies" (PMI), or "High Performance Work Practices" (Academy of Management Journal, 1995). PMI's list of project manager roles reads like a soft-skills wish list: Decision maker, coach, communication channel, encourager, facilitator, and behavior model.2 This last item was explored in research by Dr. Frank Toney of the University of Phoenix. In his book The Superior Project Manager, he states that "honesty" trumps education, experience, and even intelligence as a desirable quality in project managers.3

Thus, the "new project management" is characterized by a more holistic view of the project that goes beyond planning and controls to encompass business issues, human resource issues, organizational strategy portfolios, and marketing. The new project management places its focus on leadership and communication rather than a narrow set of technical tools, and advocates the use of the project management office in order to change corporate culture in a more project-oriented direction.

As a result, the role of the project manager has expanded in both directions: becoming more business- and leadership-oriented on one hand, while growing in technical complexity on the other. This puts both project managers and the organizations they serve in a bind. The title "project manager" often falls to an individual who carries a "kitchen-sink" job description that ranges from strategic and business responsibilities to paperwork to writing code: the "monster job."

The solution to this problem is being worked out in many best-practice companies where the implementation of enterprise-level project management offices allows the development of specialized project roles and career paths. Best-practice companies define specific competencies for these roles, and provide "a fork in the road" that allows individuals who are gifted strongly either on the art side of the ledger—as program and project managers and men-tors—to flourish, while allowing those whose skill lies in the science of project management to specialize in roles that provide efficiency in planning and controlling projects.

The Fork in the Road.

Because the project leader has been found to be one of the most (if not the single most) critical factors to project success, much effort has been devoted to understanding what project managers can/should do to enhance the chances of project success. Leadership, communication, and networking skills top the list. In spite of the importance of leadership characteristics for project managers, researchers and practitioners have observed that project managers in many organizations are seen by senior management as implementers only.4

Confusion of roles and responsibilities would be averted if these two very different roles—leader and implementer—were not both referred to as "project managers." Organizations can avoid this problem by determining beforehand who has the best mix of traits and skills to be a superior project manager, or the potential to become one, and by creating career paths for both technically-oriented project managers and leadership-oriented project managers so that senior management can fully appreciate the breadth of the roles necessary to the effective management of projects. Technical project managers tend to focus more on process while business project managers are more concerned with business results. Ideally, a balance between the two is required, determined by the project type, organization culture, and systems.5

And there are other roles that can be broken out of the "monster" job description, further streamlining the leadership work of the project manager. Many tasks that have long been part of the project management landscape feature elements of administrative work, for example.6 In addition, project managers must be "grown" in the organization through a series of roles that develop the individual in positions of increasing responsibility: a career path.

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Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

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