This has been a question that I have contemplated on a regular occasion. I am sure many of you out there have also tried to put a finger on it. It is not an easy question, and most could argue that “it depends”.
When I say “it depends”; there are obviously several different types of projects one could manage. It could be construction, information technology, or any number of different things. I can’t say I can talk from experience about building a skyscraper or managing a humanitarian effort. I can talk through my experience with managing IT projects over the last 14 years.
As Charlie Murphy once said about Rick James, “he’s a habitual line-stepper.”
I think this is a quality you look for in a PM. There is nothing wrong with “probing” and “pushing the limit”. The key here is that you need to understand the reactions and data you accumulate and adjust course. Towing the line allows you to push outside groups in ways that ensure that your project can be accomplished or remove untenable requirements. I recently delivered some Ghirardelli Chocolate to a team I was about to dump several weeks’ worth of work on and ask them to accomplish their tasks in a couple of days. Sometimes it is not that easy and requires less diplomatic relations.
I feel that commitment to service is important. This is a commitment not only to the customer but to the team that you are managing. You have to be an enabler. If you have been around Agile principles, a common term for this is “servant leadership”. In a lot of ways, project managers become an obstacle for teams to work around. The PM is constantly barraging the team with requests for status, timelines, and documentation. As a PM, you need to find ways to not be an obstacle, but instead be part of the process. Integrate yourself so you are aware of everything that is happening, and be able to plan, react and respond to things that might stump your team or put them in a bad spot. The team is worried about the work, and in most cases, they are not worried about something two or three steps down the road. The PM is the face to the customer, in most cases. I haven’t been to many meetings as a PM that do not result in more requirements or scope creep. “Project awareness” can translate into putting your customer in a position to succeed. As the PM, you should put project operational dynamics ahead of spreadsheets. PMs that do this are sought after.
You have to be resilient and devoted.
This goes without saying, but I know now that this is something you can’t test for, and something that is hard to find in a person. When rubber meets the road, and our timelines start to slip, or warnings of impending doom go unrecognized; most of us tend to go off the deep end (Chicken Little anyone?). How you cope with chaos and uncertainty is important.
I know I have had to learn to live with bureaucracy as I work within the Department of Defense industry. You have to learn to operate within the constraints of the environment and ensure that if you have something you depend on, and the lead time is X months out, that you have done everything in your power to complete the paperwork; or arrange the appointment or whatever is necessary, so that when that date comes, the finger can’t point back to you as the reason for a slippage. PMs that can do this will develop loyalty and trust with the customer and team. Loyalty and trust are keys to relationships that weather any storm.
Mentoring is an underrated attribute of a project manager.
I have had the great fortune to be working, and have worked, for people that are great mentors. It is vitally important that a foundation for doing business the right way and understanding how to be a leader is communicated downfield. Mentoring is how you share your experiences and knowledge of the playing field (see business processes) with your team; so you can make them better. In a way, you must always be training your replacement, but also, you must help people grow and better themselves.
Exhibit confident decisiveness.
As a PM you need to make decisions, and you have to be willing to follow them through until another decision is available to change course. Don’t be a waffler. Don’t be a flip-flopper. Your customer won’t believe in you. Your team won’t trust you. You must be able to look your customer or teammate in the eye and tell them what they want to know, or what they are supposed to do, and they execute that order with unquestioned certainty. There is always a caveat here; which is, if you continue to make wrong decisions you probably are not cut out for this job.
I realize there are a lot of other attributes that make up a good project manager and based on scenarios, different attributes are more important than others. Hopefully, my unique take on some of the key attributes that I feel are important can help you as you look to hire, fire, or recognize a project manager. I need to stress that project managers need a little love and support too; so don’t forget to give them a pat on the back when something goes right.