What makes a great project manager?

What do great project managers do that other people don’t?

That was one of the questions I asked the WIC Community list recently as I researched an article I was writing.

Knowing that WIC, as a community, includes many great project managers, I wanted to hear what WIC list readers thought about great project management skills.

I asked these questions, as well:

Can great project management skills be taught, or are they just natural for some people (i.e., “you have to be born that way”)?

If project management excellence can be taught, how do you think these skills can be learned and developed most easily?

The answers came flying in.

These were primary characteristics of great project managers that contributors identified:

– See the Big Picture, and shift easily between the Big Picture and detail of the project
– Strong people skills and emotional intelligence; able to build consensus and deal well with all members of the team, including the most challenging ones

– Set up a project well, such as by creating and communicating clear expectations, articulating why the project is important to customers of the work and to the business, and breaking big projects into do-able, assignable tasks

– Able to ask people to make commitments to achieve team and individual goals, and then follow up well to ensure that commitments made are commitments kept
– Align disparate people and resources to meet business objectives on time and within budget
– Synthesize multiple streams and sources of information effectively
– Knowledgeable in the type of project they’re managing
– Process-oriented
– Have good problem-solving skills
– Observant
– Adaptable
– Juggle well

Here are a few of the additional thoughts and observations that contributors provided about what distinguishes great project managers from the rest:

– Great project managers are very organized. They’re able to see and be guided by the “big picture” of the project.

“If you can’t ‘see’ the whole project form the beginning…it becomes just a series of tactics. Project management, when delivered most effectively, is strategic,” one writer explained.

– Staying calm and keeping the team calm in the face of deadlines and difficulties makes a big difference.

“A good project manager takes the ‘angst’ out of the process, calms down the players, steps in and lets them make their own contributions without worrying about how it is all going to fit together,” said one contributor.

“They have “grace under fire,” explained another.

– Great project managers communicate well with a wide variety of people with many communication styles.

“Great communication skills, high emotional intelligence, persistence, and a big ‘J’ at the end of the Myers-Briggs profile are key,” explained one person.

“They’re committed to the success of the project as well as the people involved. They develop strong and effective relationships with people – not just the project plan and milestones.

Answers varied when it came to my question about whether great project managers are born or made.

One person believes that all project management skills can be taught and learned. More typical of the responses, however, was the belief that some great project management skills can be taught, while perhaps 25% of great project managers’ abilities are innate.

What, then, did the WIC Community list contributors see as the best way to develop strong project management skills?

Most described this as being a combination of learning on one’s own, such as by reading or taking classes, and then supplementing this with coaching or mentoring.

jan@jgrichardsresults.com' About Jan Richards

Principal of J. G. Richards Consulting, Jan helps companies improve profitability and revenue as they decrease business complexity and costs. This occurs in many ways, including: streamlining business operations; project management for major change and process improvement teams; coaching leaders of major change programs; creating long-range visions and strategic plans. A WIC Board member, Jan oversees WIC's strategic initiatives and mentoring programs.

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