Project managers are in high demand worldwide. With the acceleration of the pace of change, businesses are channeling their investments into projects (as opposed to maintenance or routine operations). Executive and HR decision-makers increasingly recognize the need for qualified, skilled Project Management professionals.
But not anyone can adequately fulfill the many missions of a project manager. In fact, project management is a multi-faceted activity that requires a full stack of complementary skills.
Here is an overview of the key competencies — both technical and soft skills — that make a great project manager and potentially a great program or portfolio Manager.
What Does a Project Manager Do?
Let’s start by exploring the missions and responsibilities of your typical project manager. They are in charge of ensuring successful completion of a project within a specific deadline, a specific budget, and a specific scope.
More precisely, a project manager is responsible for:
- Project initiation: Defining the scope of the project as well as the expected outcomes and the success metrics, mapping the constraints and requirements;
- Project planning: Upon project approval, creating a clear, phased plan for project execution, taking into account variables such as cost and risk and including key project milestones;
- Guidance for project execution: Ensuring that project team members have access to all the resources (tools, skills, documentation, etc) they need, aiding in solving possible conflicts or issues, fostering a collaborative and conducive work environment;
- Control and monitoring: Monitoring progress against objectives with focus on milestone and cost/budget control, updating plans as needed;
- Project completion and submission.
Key Skills of Project Managers
Organized scheduling and task management
Few skills are as crucial for a project manager as the ability to create clear and realistic project schedules. Based on the timeframe defined for the projects and the goals to be achieved, project managers will map a list of activities, deliverables, and milestones along a timeline. Project scheduling usually benefits from dedicated tools such as Gantt charts — graphical depictions of project schedules, including dependencies and milestones.
Once everyone aligns on a clear schedule, project managers manage resources and tasks along the course of execution to ensure on-time, in-budget, in-scope project delivery. This is akin to managing a “super to-do-list” with many interconnected variables that are constantly evolving. Hence the need for rigor, meticulousness, discipline, and great attention to detail.
Analytical skills for cost, quality, and risk management
Every project should stick to a predefined budget. Sometimes, this is easier said than done. Project managers first need to ensure that the budget is realistic considering the needs and requirements of the project. If so, another responsibility is to monitor costs and expenses throughout execution and to detect potential problems or discrepancies early on in order to take timely action.
Cost overruns are not the only type of risk weighing on projects. Technical, organizational or market risks are just a few of the contingencies that might derail a project and prevent it from delivering the expected value. A key role of project managers is to anticipate what can be and to respond swiftly and smartly to the unanticipated.
Finally, quality management is often overlooked as a project manager skill. Wrongly so. The ability to deliver a product or service that meets the requirements — and therefore the client expectations — is mission-critical in project management. Striving to keep a project on schedule is just pointless if the end result is subpar or off the mark.
In addition to (at least) basic knowledge of commonly used financial metrics and quality standards, this requires analysis skills. A great project manager is able to observe patterns and detect trends, to investigate complex matters, and to discern relationships or interdependencies in order to turn problems into solutions.
This goes hand-in-hand with critical thinking and the ability to stay objective and form unbiased judgements when analyzing an issue or situation.
Communication and leadership
Hard skills are not all there is to a good project manager. According to the Project Management Institute, project managers are “organized, passionate and goal-oriented who understand what projects have in common, and their strategic role in how organizations succeed, learn and change.”
Chief among the soft skills required from a best-in-class project manager is communication. Project managers coordinate the work of project teams. They will track project progress, give status updates, alert team members to any issue or delay, review priorities and communicate the revisions. Additionally, they also act as the “contact person” for everyone associated with the project: internal stakeholders, vendors, contractors, and even possibly clients.
Hence the necessity for a project manager to be able to articulate clearly what is needed for successful completion of the project. This often includes negotiations (managing changing stakeholder or project owner demands, solving the conflicts and disputes that inevitably arise among people, finding arrangements with resource managers and with other project managers to optimize the utilization of shared resources, and more) and therefore requires strong interpersonal skills and a capacity for empathy.