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12 Essential Things a Project Manager Should do: How are you doing?

12 Essential Things a Project Manager Should do: How are you doing?

Most of the articles on this website are highly practical. They are about how to ‘do’ Project Management. But it seems time to write something a little different… Perhaps something a little more thoughtful. I have been considering what it takes to be a Project Manager. And I have come up with 12 essential things that a Project Manager should do… That you should be doing.

We’ll Look at…

12 Essential Things a Project Manager Should do: How are you doing?

Personality Traits of a Project Manager

Personality is a funny thing. Some aspects seem to be fixed through our lives, while others seem to emerge and evolve. Some people are well-suited to be a Project Manager. Others want to be a Project Manager. So they work hard to acquire the traits they need. Therefore, you can easily think of how to be a Project Manager as a set of personality traits.

But there’s a problem… I have known many exceptional Project Managers. And there is little in the way of commonality among their personality traits. So, while it’s easy to come up with a ‘theoretical ideal’, for every PM that meets that ideal, I be we’ll find another who diverges from it in one or more ways.

By the way when thinking of personality, it’s useful to think of the Big Five Personality traits:

  1. Openness to new experiences and ideas
    curiosity and inventive vs cautious and consistent
  2. Conscientiousness
    diligent and organized vs carefree and careless
  3. Extroversion or Introversion
    outgoing and energetic vs solitary and reserved
  4. Agreeableness
    social and caring vs thinking and logical
  5. Neuroticism
    nervous and sensitive vs resilient and confident

Notice, by the way, that I remember them with the acronym OCEAN.

But, because personality is such a poor predictor of Project Management success, there is another perspective…

Things that a Project Manager Should Do

We are the sum of our habits. The things we do often enough make us into the people we are. And others around us see us the way they see us because we do the things that we do. And, if you do something often enough, it starts to become a habit. So you can acquire many of the personality traits of a Project Manager, simply by doing what Project Managers do.

But I do want to make one important point…

The way you do the things a project manager does is entirely a matter of personal style. Or perhaps it is a matter of your underlying personality. Either way, though, there is plenty of room for you to do things the way you choose and still be a successful Project Manager.

In an organization that does a lot of projects, the diversity of styles among its Project Managers is one of the best ways to guarantee that its people will have the best possible chance of learning well.

So, Are you Doing Everything a Project Manager Should?

Let’s get down to detail. What do you need to do, to be a Project Manager?

I will start with the most obvious things. These are the traits or actions that most easily come to mind. But then we’ll move onto some of the things that can really make a difference. And I don’t mean a difference between a ‘bad’ Project Manager and a ‘good’ one. I mean the difference between:

  • someone who does projects, and
  • a Project Manager for whom Projects are the way you do things

I have divide my assessment into three main sections:

  1. Obvious things a Project Manager Should do
  2. Essential Extras a Project Manager Should do
  3. Extras that Create the Shift for a Project Manager

In each of them, I have selected my top four tips.

The Obvious Things a Project Manager Should do

So, my first four traits are almost the defining features of a Project Manager. They are how we think about the world.

Indeed, they are the things I would expect to come up with most often, if this were a survey question – especially among less-experienced Project Managers. But just because they are obvious, it does not mean they are any less important. Indeed, they are fundamental things that a Project Manager should do.

Focus on Progress

If you are a Project Manager, you must see it as your mission in life to get stuff done. Project Managers see the world as a set of interconnected tasks – often with deadlines. And what matters above all is doing them. Not just that, though, but doing them on schedule, on budget, and to specification.

It’s not enough to do things: we must do them well.

If you are a Project Manager, you must see it as your mission in life to get stuff done. #PM Click To Tweet

Planning

Another aspect of the core Project Manager mindset is planning. We don’t dive in feet first without thinking through what we want to happen, and how we can make it happen.

As a Project Manager, planning will be a step in everything you do. It will start to come as naturally as breathing. Your mind will:

  • Split big jobs into small tasks
  • Start to see logical sequences]
  • Instinctively think about who can best do each
  • Want to estimate how long things will take

We have lots of articles and videos about different aspects of planning. But a great starting place is our article: Project Planning Process: Navigate the Many Steps You Need or our video: Project Planning Process – How to Build Effective Project Plans | Video.

You will also start to get better at anticipating what may happen next, which brings us nicely on to the next trait…

Risk Awareness

Project Managers are naturally risk-aware. It isn’t that they like to take risks any more than other people. And neither is it that they are more risk-averse. Both personality traits are useful – although, perhaps, within different cultures and delivering different types of projects.

It is simply that, as a Project Manager, you will find yourself thinking in terms of risks, and how to handle them. Risk management is a sub-discipline of Project Management and one that will come easily to you, as a Project Manager. You will find yourself:

  • spotting risks,
  • weighing them up,
  • coming up with plans and strategies

and, at your best…

  • taking proacative steps to handle the risks.

Take a look at our master guide to Risk Management and all our other articles on risk: Ultimate Guide to Project Risk Management.

Juggling

A Project Manager needs to juggle multiple things. But this is not the same as multi-tasking. You do not want to try to do two or more things at the same time. What you need to be able to do is hold a mass of inter-connected tasks in your mind, and swap from one to another effectively.

Project Manager - as Juggler and Plate-spinner

To do this, I find it easiest to think of having a number of different hats to wear. You can only wear one hat at a time, and you need to actively change hats to take on a new task. This means you will always be aware what task you are focusing on.

Indeed, sometimes you may even find yourself managing multiple projects. If you do, check-out our article: Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects or our video: How to Manage Multiple Projects | Video.

A Project Manager needs to juggle multiple things. But this is not the same as multi-tasking. #PM Click To Tweet

The Essential Extras a Project Manager Should do

The next four characteristics of being a Project Manager are not quite as obvious as the first four. But I would like to think that many new Project Managers would spot them and see how essential they are to your role.

Generous

The first extra Project Managers should do is to be generous with your time. People are the essential component of a Project, and if you do not make time to listen, understand, and influence people, your projects will fail.

You need to make time for your immediate team members. Because a big part of your role is to motivate them, to encourage and support them, and to help them learn and develop through their roles on your project. When this starts to come more naturally to you, you will start to see a big shift in how easy it is to manage your projects.

And, of course, because your stakeholders will determine the ultimate success (or not) of your project, you should certainly be generous with your time with them.

But, there is another sense in which generosity is important. When a team member asks for something, like some personal time, or for some extra resources, you will have a choice. You can take a minimalist approach of standing on the rules and guidance, and not incurring extra costs. Or you can be generous and helpful. One will, in the short term, save a bit of time or money. The other will build long-term loyalty and enhance motivation.

Effectiveness

A Project Manager knows that projects don’t just happen in a random, haphazard way. They need to follow a process. This is what makes the job of Project Management effective, repeatable, and professional.

You will find yourself first understanding intuitively how the project process works. Then you will start to use it easily. And, eventually, it will become second nature. Everything you do will follow a basic project process of:

  • Defining what you need to do
  • Planning how you will do it
  • Getting it done
  • Finishing off in an orderly way

Enthusiasm

Whether you call it enthusiasm, passion, commitment, or boundless energy, there is something about a true Project Manager that makes them keep on going when others find their energy is starting to flag.

I think there are three components to this:

  1. First, I’ve found that most Project Managers seem to have a lot of physical and mental stamina. They can motivate themselves to keep on going, through the tiredness and tedium.
  2. But perhaps more important is the second thing. They can find their motivation. They can see what the project is for and generate an enthusiasm to complete it. Indeed, for many Project Managers, the achievement of finishing tasks is, itself, motivating.
  3. And, the very best among us have the extra talent of communicating this vision and motivation, and drawing commitment and stamina out of their teams. And, critically, they do so in a way that people enjoy, rather than through any unsavory or coercive means.
For many Project Managers, the achievement of finishing tasks is motivating #PM Click To Tweet

Determination – or Grit

A closely related trait is determination, or resilience, or grit. This goes further than having the energy and enthusiasm to carry on. It is about the ability to summon up that energy in the face of setbacks and adversity.

It is pretty easy to keep going when everything happens the way you want it to. But when things go wrong, that will test your character. Will you just give up? Or will you get yourself together and look for a new route through?

The Extras that Create the Shift for a Project Manager

The final four traits are not obvious… Until someone points them out to you. And then, you realize: ‘yes, of course!

What they do is create the shift from playing with projects to being a professional Project Manager. For me, it is about identity:

  • Are you someone who does projects?
    In which case, maybe you don’t need to work on these.
  • Or are you a Project Manager?
    In this case, you need these four.

They are the four things that create the shift to being a Project Manager. These are things a real Project Manager should do.

Observation

A Project Manager should notice things. They can see the big picture and grasp the whole of a large and complex project. But, at the same time, they can also notice – and care about – the tiny details. 

If you understand that the details matter, you may just make a Project Manager.

So, do you have a habit of spotting small mistakes and those little things that are as easy to fix as to leave alone? And maybe you are also like me… I have a compulsion to always point them out, or to do something about them.

Are you like me? I have a compulsion to point out small errors, or even do something about them. #PM Click To Tweet

Calm

Some people are naturally good at this – others of us have to train ourselves. A Project Manager needs to be able to stay calm under pressure. Especially, when:

  • there is a lot going on around you
  • there is a crisis and things are changing rapidly
  • everyone needs your attention

Can you stay cool and make a careful response? Can you prioritize among competing demands and make swift but reliable decisions? All this is important in Project Management.

Optimism

There are two reasons why a Project Manager needs to be optimistic.

  1. The first is so you can keep going when setbacks strike.
    But frankly, determination can achieve that, even if you are starting to believe that all is lost. It’s the second one that matters most.
  2. Both optimism and pessimism are contagious.
    People will take their emotional cues from you, so being optimistic will help others around you to stay positive when you most need it.

And there is a bonus too: we like optimistic people. We identify them as charismatic and influential. Who wouldn’t want a bit of that?

Eeyores, on the other hand… Nobody really enjoys being around them.

Optimism and pessimism are contagious. People will take their emotional cues from the #PM Click To Tweet

Curious

The last trait a Project Manager should have, that I want to identify, is curiosity. A Project Manager needs to keep learning and adapting. And you cannot do that unless you are insatiably curious.

Our organizations are changing and so too are their needs. Project Management methodologies are evolving, and the kinds of projects we are called upon to deliver are changing. If you are not committed to continuous professional development (CPD) then someone else will learn what you don’t know and be able to do your job better than you can. Lifelong learning isn’t a luxury for a Project Manager, it needs to be a way of life.

That’s why we put such a wide variety of content on this website, on our Project Management YouTube channel, and on our sister YouTube channel, Management Courses.

What have I missed?

This survey is a personal perspective on what a Project Manager should do. It isn’t intended as a step-by-step, ‘how to’ type of article, like Ten Critical Things to Learn about Project Management. Neither is it a set of essential rules. Rather it is a set of traits to develop. And of course, once you have developed them, then you can turn your attention to becoming a good Project Manager.

For the full range of skills, please do take a look at all of our core Project Management courses.

But before you look at some of our other articles, are there any essential traits you think I’ve missed? If so, use the comments below to let me know and I promise to respond.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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