Accountant, gatekeeper, therapist, and data analyst. A project manager’s job description can often look like a combination of many distinct roles. If you’re looking to get started in the field, this long shopping list of required project management skills can be overwhelming.
While you may feel like you’re suddenly expected to know everything, that simply isn’t the case. Instead of trying to learn bits and pieces of countless jobs, we recommend mastering the following essential project management skills.
Continue reading to find out:
- The six project management skills you need to succeed in 2021
- Resources to help you learn and perfect these talents
- Tips and tricks for mastering these essential project management skills
Set your time tracker, and let’s get started.
Leadership has nothing to do with your position or power. Being a skilled leader means you’re able to motivate your team members towards a common goal. While this requires some level of control, it’s not controlling. A respected leader is ready to make decisions in the best interest of their team — and the business.
A task without a leader is destined to fail. Before any new project is launched, it’s important to set clear roles and responsibilities amongst team members. The role of the leader should naturally fall to the project manager.
When the project manager is the designated leader, it helps avoid awkward scenarios where collaborators are unsure of who’s in charge. These types of situations waste a ton of time, but make individual team members feel directionless. Not a good look.
As the leader, your job is to ensure all team members have the tools required to do their jobs properly. Patty can’t decide who should be in the creative brainstorm? That’s your job. Ryan and Tessa keep going back and forth about which campaign theme to go with? You’ve got to help steer this ship.
To help you flex your leadership muscle, we’ve curated the following list of resources:
- Why It’s Important For Leaders to Let People Know What They’re Thinking (Forbes)
- Top Ten Skills for Leading Millennials (Unito Blog)
- What is Your Project Management Leadership Style? (ProjectManager.com)
- How to Lead (and Survive) a Cross-Functional Team Project (Unito Blog)
Poor communication skills aren’t just annoying — they’re bad for business. Any good project manager needs to know how to communicate effectively across teams. This means sharing information in an efficient way and being an engaged listener.
You’ll be working with countless individuals and teams, so it’s also important to recognize each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and communications methods.
The following tips can help you build a solid foundation for your communication skills:
- Start every project with a 15-minute conversation. While email and instant messaging are undeniably useful, it’s important to sit down in-person or on the phone with team members. A quick 15-minute conversation can help provide context for a project, and clear up any confusion. Doing this also opens up the lines of communication between different team members and stakeholders, which can work wonders for your productivity.
- Pay attention to what is not being said. Watch for body language, omissions, and actions from team members. There’s a lot of information and communication packed into nuances and subtle gestures that can help inform working decisions.
- Listen. It seems simple, but project managers need to know how to listen to their team members. If someone is telling you that the timeline for a task is too short, it usually is. Remember that you’re not the one executing tasks, so listen to concerns with respect and full attention.
- Share information clearly. Context is key when it comes to sharing information. Consider whether the document or info you’re sharing with a team member will help them understand the project, or will simply confuse them even further. Nobody wants to have to sift through tons of information to find the one nugget they actually need to complete their task. If you’ve ever read an academic paper, you know how great the introduction and end summary are. Provide your team members with summaries of information so they can spend less time untangling key data and more time actually completing their work.
For more resources on effective communication, check out the following list:
- The Art of Communication in Project Management (Project Management Institute)
- How to Build a Practice of Effective Communication Across Your Team (Unito Blog)
- What is Project Communication Management? (Wrike)
3. Emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) goes hand in hand with effective communication skills. It’s your ability to monitor, assess, and act on your emotions and the emotions of those around you in an appropriate manner. If you pay attention to the emotions and feelings of your team members, you’ll gather a lot of data that can help you communicate more effectively.
Well-developed emotional intelligence can help you build relationships between teams, negotiate more effectively, make meetings more efficient, avoid or resolve disputes among team members, and more.
For example, if you kick off a new campaign with a team brainstorm, you should have the EI to not invite a critical director. Not only would this be an ineffective use of their time, but your team members may be less likely to communicate their risky ideas with a more senior (and more blunt) member of the organization in the room. Take time to consider how certain actions will make different people feel — and how this can affect communication.
Here are some resources to help you boost your EI:
- What is Emotional Intelligence? (ProjectManager.com)
- 13 Signs of High Emotional Intelligence (Inc.)
- Emotional Intelligence in Leadership (Mind Tools)
- Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers (PMI)
4. Critical thinking
Project managers can’t be ‘yes’ people. If a project manager agreed to every request from a stakeholder, they would have a very unhappy and overworked team.
A good project manager will know how to prioritize projects according to the business’ overall needs and goals. For this, you need to be able to see the big picture. Individual tasks are crucial, but only when they all support a bigger goal. Where is the business headed, and how is each task going to get it there? This is the kind of question you have to consider when prioritizing tasks and campaigns.
Critical thinking is also key when it comes to a huge part of your job: risk management. You can’t be looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s important to be realistic and proactive about possible issues that may arise. Before starting any project, ask yourself: what can go wrong? In allowing your brain to go there you’re already a step ahead of those who don’t even consider problems a possibility.
Here are some of our favorite resources to help with critical thinking:
- Agile Critical Thinking (Project Management Institute)
- The Role of Critical Thinking in Project Management (PMI Metrolina)
- Critical Thinking Skills for Project Managers (Projex)
- 5 Ways to See the Big Picture (ProjectManagement.com)
- How to Manage Risk in a Project (Wrike)
5. Time management
Imagine the chaos of a project manager who couldn’t manage time properly. If nothing else, a project manager needs to be a time management expert. Your core responsibilities include resourcing employees’ time, scheduling projects and tasks, and planning, well, everything. You need to know how long certain tasks take, a project’s lifespan, and how to create effective workbacks for all team members.
The first step in effective time management is to create a plan. Planning lets you build a set of actionable tasks and core sequence so you can prepare timelines for each stage of a project. Gantt Charts are a useful tool for this process. They help you monitor the project’s progress and give you a basis for scheduling. Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Gantt Charts for more information on these helpful tools.
Proper time management is also dependent on minimizing distractions for all team members. Anyone who has ever worked in an office environment knows that besides cute cat videos, meetings are one of the biggest time sucks. Part of your time management skills must include knowing when to have meetings, who to include, and how the meetings will be run. Sticking to an agenda is crucial if you want to stay on-time and on-task.
For more time management tips, take a look at the following resources:
- What is Time Management in Project Management? (Wrike)
- Project Time Management Process Plan (The Balance Careers)
- Six Time Management Tips for Project Managers (Project Smart UK)
If you already knew everything there was to know about project management, your job would be awfully boring.
All PMs need to have the capacity to look back at past projects and celebrate what went right — while recognizing what went wrong. No project is going to go off without any hitches, but these issues and roadblocks can provide valuable information for you moving forward.
A helpful and structured way to take a deep dive into a past project is by holding a retrospective. Popular in the agile project management method, a retrospective is a meeting with the project team where they look back at a recently-completed project. The goal of a retrospective is to reflect on the project and make improvements for the future. To allow for honest and constructive feedback for all team members, a neutral individual usually hosts the retrospective. Your team might have feedback for you as the project manager, so you want to ensure everybody feels empowered to share their ideas.
Once you have gathered information and feedback, you need to put this information to work. For example, if the team’s graphic designer found the timelines to be too short or didn’t feel the stakeholder provided enough information in the brief, it’s your job to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future. The ability to undertake objective retrospection will build trust with your team, and give you the opportunity to continually improve your skills. We could all use some time to reflect.
Build your retrospection skillset with these helpful resources:
- How to Lead a Successful Project Retrospective Meeting (Lucid Meetings)
- Dwelling on the Past: The Importance of Project Retrospectives (Smashing Magazine)
- Embracing Mistakes: Learning from Experience (ProjectManagement.com)
- What Lesson Did You Learn from a Project Management Mistake? (PMI)
There’s no denying it: effective project management requires a large set of skills. But with the essential project management skills we’ve outlined above, you’ll be ready with a core foundation that will grow with experience and real-world learnings.