When it comes to project manager skills, what’s most important? If you want to excel in the field, should you be working on technical skills, people skills, something else? And are there some skills that are touted as the be-all and end-all of project management that might actually not be that necessary?
We asked six project managers what they considered to be the most — and least — important project manager skills.
This is our third blog post in a five-part series on the role of a project manager. In the previous post, we asked our PMs for their insight on project management certifications. In the next post, we ask PMs how they got their first project management job. This series has also covered project management responsibilities and software. Thank you to our project managers for participating in this series!
What are the essential project manager skills?
There was some overlap in the essential project manager skills we got from our PMs — and some important differences — but there was one common answer among them all. Soft skills are essential to the work of a PM. More specifically: people skills. Cornelius Fichtner, president of OSP International, and host of The Project Management Podcast explains: “The only project where you don’t have a conflict is when you are just one person. Your ability to get [a team] all together and pull in the same direction, I think that is the number one essential skill that you need as a project manager.” A project manager role is essentially a leadership role; one of your main responsibilities is to be the last line of defense for a project. You are making sure a team executes on the vision for a project. Doing this means getting everyone working together as smoothly as possible and that requires a certain amount of social skills. Especially when you sometimes have to act as a middleman between your team and a client.
But people skills aren’t just about what you can get the people on your team to do. In order to be a great project manager, you need to show empathy and have the ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone else. As Laurent DuBerger, an agile coach at Element AI and former project manager at GSoft explains: “A PM must be able to understand their client’s needs. They also have to be able to understand how their team works and how their employees feel. So empathy, or to speak more broadly emotional intelligence, is a key factor for being a good project manager.”
That understanding, that ability to imagine someone else’s situation thoroughly, helps project managers when establishing and executing on a project’s vision. They know what their team is capable of, and how that matches up with a project’s requirement.
Social skills won’t do much if a PM can’t leverage them effectively with proper communication. Whether it’s the written word, running an effective meeting, or just knowing which communication channel is appropriate in which case. Olivier Hebert, a Team Lead and Release Train Engineer at Desjardins, points out how crucial communication skills are: “As PM, you must gather people behind your vision of the project and be able to communicate how you plan to achieve it so that everyone feels engaged. When trust is created, great things can happen.” Getting teams aligned depends on getting everyone on the same page, and you can’t do that without accurate, effective communication.
Communication goes beyond writing and speaking, though. A huge part of being a skilled communicator is knowing how and when to give the floor to someone else. For Elizabeth Harrin, who has over 20 years of experience managing projects and is the award-winning blogger behind RebelsGuidetoPM.com, that’s a crucial skill: “Being able to communicate goes hand in hand with being a team leader. Your team will be more successful if you can create an environment whereby information is freely shared and communication channels are open both amongst themselves and with others.” That’s where a project manager’s skills to communicate can be different from a designer or a writer. Instead of just making sure their communication is accurate and effective, a project manager needs to keep an eye on and improve communication channels across a whole team.
A project manager is ultimately the person who keeps a project moving forward. While you definitely need people and communication skills to make that happen, you also need to keep people organized. A project manager’s desk might be cluttered, but their project shouldn’t be. “You’re relied upon to keep track of the details and maximize everyone’s efficiency: assigning tasks, follow-up, cost control. Others will ‘check out’ and be happy to let you manage it,” says Alexander Nowak, a marketing and business strategy consultant who managed marketing projects for five years. These administrative small rocks get pushed around and start piling up when the rest of the team is busy executing on their tasks. That makes it the PM’s responsibility to deal with administrative tasks before they pile up, and keep a project organized as it races towards the finish line.
No matter how great a project manager’s vision and organization skills might be, projects don’t always go according to plan. In fact, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. And where does everyone turn when this happens? The project manager. That’s why the ability to adapt to change and remain flexible is crucial for a PM: “The ability to adapt is very important, because every project is different. It never, ever goes according to what you planned at the beginning. That’s what it means to be agile; it’s being able to adapt to change,” DuBerger explains. A project manager isn’t someone who hangs back after the initial vision is established. They have to guide teams through troubled waters.
That responsibility to the team when problems arise is something Harrin outlines: “When things don’t go to plan on your project you need to be able to pivot and flex as required, and bring your team along with you.” Being able to empathize with people and accurately communicate are skills that become more than crucial when a project hits a bump. Having these skills gives the project manager the ability to have accurate information that isn’t warbled by inadequate communication, and know exactly what their team is capable of. But if a PM can’t stay flexible and adapt to change, these other skills only come into play when everything’s going fine — which is never true for long.
Are any project manager skills overrated?
A project manager does not need to be skilled in everything a team contributing to their project is doing. Projects often rely on multidisciplinary teams, and it’s just not possible for a PM to keep up with everyone’s skillset. Thienpont explains: “We are the bandmasters in our teams. That means that while we’re not experts ourselves, we get to touch a lot of different fields and we end up understanding them.” Understanding a field is different than being skilled. If a project manager often works with a designer, they might pick up some design concepts, but they’re not going to be jumping into Photoshop themselves. Similarly, while a PM might need to know what is and isn’t possible for a developer under a quick turnaround, they shouldn’t be expecting to jump into the code themselves.
In our post on responsibilities, we outlined that while a project manager directs the flow of work within the team, they’re not executing tasks themselves. Knowledge can help with managing a project, but chasing expertise can get in the way.
While organization is crucial for keeping a project running effectively, certain areas of it aren’t as important as they might have once been. As Nowak explains when asked about overrated skills: “Can I say ‘organization’ again? With so many new and evolving tools for automation, tracking, even task diffusion, you don’t need to spend half a day staring at your Gantt chart anymore. A well setup project with good tools allows PMs to take a higher, more strategic view of projects than ever before.”
The work management tool is the ultimate weapon of the project manager; it keeps everything organized in a way that everyone on the team can see. Plus, tools like Jira have powerful reporting features that take much of the organizational work away from the PM. What should a project manager do instead? “Spend more time getting buy-in and finding efficiencies,” Nowak says.
For Hebert, it was important to distinguish between a project manager and a manager. When asked about overrated skills, he answers: “management, since PM do not usually have direct reports under them.” While a team’s direct manager might spend much of their time running 1-on-1’s, reviewing performance, and checking up on assigned tasks, these things don’t fit in with a professional project manager’s role.
Project managers keep projects on track. That means working across teams with multiple contributors and dealing with stakeholders. Project managers don’t have the bandwidth to examine and evaluate each team’s performance when they’re the project’s last line of defense. While there’s some overlap between the skills of a PM and a manager, there are areas where they differ. And that’s a good thing.
For some PMs, there were no overrated skills. Because projects — and, by extension, their managers — are so different from one organization to the next, any skill a project manager can add to their toolbox is important. As Harrin explains: “None of them! It’s such a rounded job. In some roles you won’t need everything you read about, but you may need those skills on a different project or in a different organization.” If a project manager plans to stay in a single organization across their entire career, they may be able to focus just on specific skills that pertain to managing particular projects. However, since project managers often need to transition between industries, any skill can be an asset.
Fichtner agreed, pointing out that this concept is directly represented in the organizations a PM works for: “Nothing is overrated. Being able to properly implement earned value may be highly important to a project manager in an environment where they work with the US government. Whereas somebody who works in a lean startup company, where all their projects are managed using agile project management, if you ask [them], they go ‘Oh earned value is totally overrated.’” Fichtner himself has managed projects in a variety of fields, from software, to grocery store chains, and even consulting with law enforcement. For that kind of career, it’s important to cultivate all the skills you can.
Level up your project manager skills
A project manager has to do a little bit of everything to keep a project going. But at the core of the project manager skills are people skills, like empathy and communication, and qualities like adaptability and organization. While project managers don’t need to be experts in the same things their contributors are, they can still benefit from knowing a little bit of everything.
In the fourth post of this series, our project managers will be answering questions about breaking into the field and how they got their first job. Until then…