10 traits of highly effective project managers

To be a truly great project manager has taken on new meaning in 2020. You must be a strategic business partner fully vested in organizational success — and be able to roll with inevitable setbacks. Here’s how to stand out from the crowd.

planning / organization / strategy / development / project management / notes
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Every project manager knows to execute projects on time and on budget. And good project managers also take pains to meet project requirements consistently. But truly great project leaders go above and beyond. Among other things, not only do they execute projects within scope; they are accountable, strategic business partners fully vested in organizational success.

Much has changed in 2020. Managing projects has become more complex as a result of COVID-19. If you're looking to stand out and take your project management career to the next level, the following traits of highly effective project managers will show you the way. Coupled with the necessary technical skills, these attributes will place you in higher demand as a project manager, providing a strong foundation that will enable you to adapt to the continually changing dynamics of a project while putting your stakeholder's needs first above all else.

1. A strategic business partner

Project managers who can offer higher-level strategic leadership skills, not just technical management skills, provide significant advantages for organizations of all sizes. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, there are far more complex factors, both internal and external, that can negatively impact projects of all types. Such factors include triple bottom line (economic, ecological, and social outcomes), legal and legislative restrictions, remote project issues, and international and cultural factors — not to mention significant resource constraints and delays.

Factors such as these create additional hurdles that a project manager must contend with. If you don't have a strong understanding of how your project fits within the overall company-wide strategic goals, you significantly hamper your chances of delivering effective outcomes. Executive project management offices (EPMOs) focus on this connection and increase project, program, and portfolio success rates.

2. Stakeholder-focused

COVID-19 has devastated companies and individuals worldwide, making it difficult to focus on stakeholder needs versus personal and family hardships. Nonetheless, as professionals, good project managers can separate their personal needs from that of project stakeholders. They deliver their best job performance at all times, regardless of personal bias or needs. This is the level of focus that companies have come to rely on in the project management profession — and what makes top candidates stand out.

3. Generous with credit to others

The contributions of others strongly impact a project leader's effectiveness on his or her team. Highly effective project managers share credit for work well done and encourage all members to participate and contribute at their highest levels. Rather than try to be a jack of all trades, leverage others' knowledge and skills on the team. This simple but effective tactic will significantly increase the likelihood of achieving goals.

4. A skilled motivator

A project manager’s ability to communicate with and influence a variety of stakeholders is paramount to project success. After all, you need to find ways to motivate workers over whom you have no direct influence yet who can make or break a project. Instilling confidence in the minds of stakeholders and sponsors is necessary, particularly if and when there is a need to approach them with changes in the scope of the project. You must demonstrate respect for team members, stakeholders and sponsors at all times if you are to receive their respect in turn. It’s almost impossible for projects to progress in the right direction and on time without respect and motivation, especially from sponsors and stakeholders.

5. Fully vested in success

Highly effective project managers believe in their work, and they are fully vested in seeing a project from initiation to close. This mindset helps achieve the best results throughout the project. Be completely involved in all professional aspects of the project, its activities, and its people. Avoid overextending yourself if you want to maintain professional integrity and stakeholder satisfaction. 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.

6. Accountable and have integrity

Not everything on a project will go as planned. Mistakes are to be expected, but it’s important to always accept when you are wrong and to learn from your mistakes. Being accountable for your decisions and actions is vital, and sends a strong message to the rest of the team. Paul Dillon, founder of Dillon Consulting Services, agrees: “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. “Without the ability to be selfless, to put the needs and wants of others before your own, you will never get people to ‘follow you to a place where they wouldn't go to by themselves,’” Dillon says, quoting Joel A. Barker. “And that is why most people fail in leadership positions, I think, or can't do it at all.”

7. An effective communicator

Considering communication plays a significant role in managing projects, teams, and other stakeholders, it is the most critical skill. Communication doesn't just mean being a stellar facilitator, speaker, or writer; it requires good listening skills. Actively listening to what is being said — and not said — and taking context into account is of value. Listening to others' views and taking into account their experiences and knowledge helps to reduce potential conflict and risks due to blind spots and increases the likelihood of project success.

8. A well-respected leader

Although you cannot please everyone, having an established reputation as a well-respected leader typically means that you've earned it through hard work. If you're new to project management, this will take time. Working to become an effective communicator, vesting in the success of your stakeholders, and maintaining accountability and integrity, among other things, can help get you there faster. Once there, it is much easier to lead projects and teams more effortlessly.

9. An agent of change

If 2020 has taught us anything, change is inevitable and can be highly disruptive to all areas of business and personal life — and 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 — and working in the gray. 

10. Work in the gray

All of the previously mentioned attributes speak for themselves, but what truly sets a project manager apart is his or her ability to work in the gray. This is a must-have skill since the majority of projects, regardless of type, industry, size, or complexity, will have gray areas you will need to navigate at some point. 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 at JWS Consulting and Read Joyce, 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.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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