by Moira Alexander

What it takes to be a great project manager

Dec 19, 2016
CareersIT GovernanceIT Skills

Project management certifications and training, in general, focus heavily on technical knowledge and project phases, but there's still so much more to being a successful leader. Do you have the necessary soft skills to be a top project leader? Here, Moira Alexander shares what decades of experience have taught her.

six big projects that went open source 1
Credit: Thinkstock

Many challenges confront today’s project managers — new technologies, remote workforces and a global market to name a few. To take a project from inception to finish can be grueling and you’ve got to have great dedication and skills if you’re going to be successful. But what sets apart good project managers (PMs) from the truly great ones? What does it take to go from being the manager of projects to a game-changing leader? Here are six skills the great PMs share.

Become a customer relationship management expert

Develop positive mutually aligned connections with stakeholders: The first thing any project leader should work on is developing a positive relationship or connection with key stakeholders and project sponsors within an organization. Simply jumping into a project and bypassing this step can elevate risks right out of the gate and could further increase communication gaps down the road. Being able to understand the perspective, experience and resulting behaviors of the primary players helps to create a platform for improved communication and reduces friction.

Develop an understanding of a specific business and its needs: It’s not important to know every detail there is to know about a customer’s industry; however, making an effort to research key facts, norms and challenges demonstrates sincere interest as it relates to potentially unique business needs. After all, how can you sell any company on the benefits of your skills as a PM without understanding potential challenges, opportunities and impacts to their business? Once you are able to clearly articulate that you understand their obstacles and their needs, it’s less of an uphill battle selling the benefits of a project and alleviating fears.

Pay attention to the big picture, but don’t miss the details: The ability to see the broader picture yet not skip over the details is another skill that enables good project leaders to become great project leaders. Being able to connect the dots from start to finish, all the while keeping the higher-level end goal in sight is a valuable skill that offers organizations peace of mind. Organizational leadership simply doesn’t have time to ensure project leaders are on top of things. These leaders rely heavily on a project manager to understand their business needs and goals, and also navigate project tasks and milestones with minimal guidance.

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Don’t just manage teams — motivate and influence them

Be an effective project leader by leading people, not managing them: Teams need to be able to rely on a project manager to provide them with sufficient guidance when needed and to excel in areas like motivation and communication. As a PM you can’t be everywhere or do everything, and this highlights the need to trust the knowledge, skills and abilities of team members. Establishing trusting relationships with stakeholders and team members provides smoother navigation through difficult situations and creates a greater degree of transparency.

Help to build respect among teams and stakeholders: Projects offer opportunities for a diverse set of individuals to bring unique skills, experiences and ideas to the table and helps to build better solutions. Problems often arise when individuals are in conflict and demonstrate a lack of respect for difference or override the contributions of others. This is where tact and skill as a project manager can alleviate tension and encourage team members to refocus on what’s best for the stakeholder(s), rather than remaining self-focused. A strong PM is always able to shed light on key factors and help individuals to see the merits of both sides. The need for mutual respect should be expected and communicated from the start, and ground rules and applicable consequences should be laid out to avoid disruption and lost productivity.

Influence individuals and teams to optimize their contributions. A large part of the role of a project leader is to influence each team member to give their best regardless of personal views, obstacles, and conflicts. Influence is both an art and learned behavior that is often undervalued and overlooked. It’s important to note that influence shouldn’t be confused with manipulation. The real value in positive influence is the ability to translate this soft skill into action that results in a win-win for the stakeholders and team. Further, it’s imperative individual team members and the team as a whole not only understand their role and how it fits within the project goals, but also that they are committed to continuous improvement for optimal results that benefit the customer.

[ Related story: How to choose the right project management tools ]

Putting it all together

Companies are increasingly seeking well-rounded project leaders who exhibit the technical know-how and leadership prowess required to see things and execute from different vantage points. A project manager who has the underlying training combined with these core soft skills can uniquely position him or herself to stand out in their field, achieve optimal results and become a sought after thought leader.

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