by Jennifer Lonoff Schiff

7 nontechnical skills every project manager needs

Jun 14, 20166 mins
IT LeadershipIT SkillsProject Management Tools

Project management experts discuss the soft skills one needs to manage projects and project teams successfully.

To be a good project manager, especially if you are in IT, you need a certain amount of technical know-how. You also need a variety of nontechnical abilities that can help you navigate the challenges inherent in project management, from scope creep and delays to conflicts among team members.

Here are seven soft skills every project manager needs:

1. Listens. “With every successful project comes a project manager who listens,” says Jelissa Brooks​, project manager, Creative Juice, a graphic design & Web design agency. “Listening is the key to learning and engaging with both your clients and your team. Listening allows you to ask the right questions to get to know your client and clients’ needs, which is crucial when developing a scope and plan that helps deliver a product that meets client expectations with minimal project revision.”

2. Organized. To be a good project manager, “you have to be organized,” says Jose Tijam, senior project manager, Health Net/Centene. “There are a lot of moving parts in projects, and that’s why organizations need project managers. Keeping track of a multitude of tasks, issues, decisions, action items [and] milestones, while ensuring resources remain accountable, is a skill good project managers must have.”

“A top skill project managers must possess is organization,” says John J. Glick, owner, Glick Brothers Roofing. “When you have a large amount of projects going on at one time, it is important to keep information about the project accurate and up to date. As the project manager, it is your job to make sure everything runs smoothly,” he explains. “Having all of the projects details laid out correctly allows the rest of your team to get the project done in a timely manner and as promised. Not only will your clients be happy with the results, but your company and its services will receive a positive reputation in return.”

3. Proactive. “Project managers need to be proactive,” says Rosie Brown, creative project manager, Sterling Communications, a tech PR agency. “This word is thrown around a lot in management books and performance reviews, but this is an essential skill for those in charge of leading and organizing account teams, programs, and everything in between.

“There’s nothing more dangerous to a project’s well-being than a project manager who has become complacent,” she states. “Project managers with initiative don’t wait to be asked for schedules, budget breakdowns or status updates. Instead, they light the way for their teams and are always prepared to tell them what’s ahead.” 

4. Detail-oriented. “The detail orientation that drives your spouse/significant other crazy will make you tremendously successful as a project manager,” says Charles Studt, vice president of marketing for Redbooth, a project management and collaboration platform. “Your ability to let no detail too small fall through the cracks while understanding how they all fit together is what keeps the project on track. But conversely, don’t let the details overwhelm you so that you lose sight of the big picture business outcomes your project is intended to produce.”

5. Communicates effectively. “It would be difficult to cite anything other than communications skills as the most important to have in a good project manager,” says Tijam. “Most projects are complex, and the ability to communicate with different audiences and team members is imperative to any project’s success.”

“A project manager’s primary role is as a communicator. No skill is more important,” says Ted Carlson, program manager, The Nerdery, which provides custom software design and development. “Clear, consistent communication [is essential for project success]. Artful project managers make it a priority to understand their various project members and stakeholders, and they tailor communication style and channel to best fit and reach those audiences – [and] keep everyone informed.”

5. Delegates. Good project managers know, “you cannot do everything yourself,” says Ginny Woolridge, PMP, ArcherPoint, which specializes in business solutions built on Microsoft Dynamics NAV. You have to “delegate work to others… [and] know [your] teams’ strengths, as well as their current workloads, in order to delegate properly.”

6. Anticipates problems. “As a PM, you always need to anticipate what could go wrong, what your clients needs, or what your team is going to be taking on next,” says Rachel Bogan, director of product management, Work & Co, a digital design and technology company. “If you don’t [think several moves ahead and] have a little bit of fear that you may miss something, you probably will.”

“The best project managers are three steps and three days into the future and anticipate things that may go wrong and how to change paths to avoid risks, or at least divert as much as it is within their power to do so,” says Woolridge.

Good project managers “are proactive problem solvers who anticipate project changes, communicate concerns, adjust their course and keep the project on the rails,” says Carlson. “When timeline or budget or feature changes inevitably occur, projects managers who panic will turn ripples into tidal waves. Skillful project managers adjust their plans, offer options and plot a new course to success.”

7. Flexibility – and keeping calm under pressure. “Maintaining flexibility is also important,” says Tijam. “Projects can get derailed. Successful project managers [know how to] adapt… and rein in the project.”

“Scope changes, feedback isn’t always as positive as you’d like, and sometimes you just have to go back to the drawing board,” says Pete Shelly, lead project manager, Huemor, a design and marketing agency. “No matter how much planning we do, a little chaos is inevitable in a high-pressure industry with tight deadlines and astronomical client expectations. Being able to roll with the punches – [and maintain] your composure – helps your team feel more at ease so they can do their best work.”