What are the traits of a successful project manager?

Successful project managers come in all varieties, but they all have some common traits that contribute to getting the job done. Lawrence Oliva explains what those traits are.

Lawrence Oliva, PMP
Lawrence Oliva, PMP

Some project managers are more successful than others. Using experience and knowledge learned the most expensive way -- in the school of hard knocks -- successful PMs share some similar abilities.

That is not to say they are all alike. Successful PMs I have met come in all shapes and sizes, are men and women, and can be junior or senior. Each is a different person with a unique style and approach toward their projects and project teams. They all have a sense of humor, as well as an honest appreciation for the hard work their teams perform. And they all have some common traits that contribute to getting the job done.

In general, these traits can be grouped into soft skills such as leadership, communication, and negotiating and hard skills like finance, building technology, and using technology.

Leadership: In terms of soft skills, successful PMs understand what motivates people to work hard, invest their personal time and sweat into the success of the project, and do everything possible to get the job done. Leadership is a difficult and seldom appreciated task, but successful PMs know that without people, the project cannot be performed.

Being able to explain the context of a problem, its consequences, and possible solutions in a logical manner is a core competency of successful PMs.
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Communication: PMs are often in the position of bringing bad news to management and stakeholders -- groups that usually have high expectations for success. Being able to explain the context of the problem, its consequences, and possible solutions in a logical manner is a core competency of successful PMs.

Negotiating: Obtaining the resources needed to implement the possible solutions often requires the hard-nose negotiating skills found during intense union contract talks. Successful PMs have been burned too many times struggling with second-tier resources or "almost adequate" budgets, and they know it is worth the extra effort and expense to obtain experienced and knowledgeable resources and realistic schedules.

Finance: Fluently speaking to a CFO about profit and loss budgets or to a supplier about unit product costs priced in Chinese yuan enables successful PMs to build professional financial credibility. Knowing where to control costs or increase revenues is critical during investment decisions that could affect the project.

Building technology: PMs need to be fluent about building technology in order to know when high-risk technical efforts are being proposed or when schedules are being inflated. Having a reasonable level of technical competence also builds professional credibility with the engineering team, management, and client. Experience gained through the heat of battle is vital when making instant decisions about what to do when faced with major technical obstacles or crisis situations.

Project management resources
How to estimate project completion times

Using metrics to monitor software projects

Motivated teams lead to more successful projects

Using technology: If a PM builds technology, he should feel comfortable using it to do his job. Staying connected with the team and project is a full-time job regardless of business travel, different time zones, or attending a child's baseball game at a local park. Successful PMs use technology -– such as Blackberry PDAs, webcams, and Web 2.0 applications -– as much as possible to save time and have a life outside of work.

Successful PMs apply and leverage the time-proven traits their mentors -– other successful PMs -– taught them. Sharing that knowledge is an important trait the most successful PMs take seriously.

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About the author: Lawrence Oliva is a senior consultant and program manager with CH2M HILL, a global engineering and program management company. Based in the Washington D.C., area, he currently leads mid- to large-size IT programs for federal government and commercial clients that have unique technical challenges that require risk management, earned value analysis, cost/schedule forensics, biometric security, and "Green IT" implementation experience.


This was first published in October 2008

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