How to Be the Best Project Manager You Can Be

How to Be the Best Project Manager You Can Be

If you are a Project Manager… Or if you are going to become a Project Manager… Then I don’t doubt that you want to be the best Project Manager you possibly can.

In a world of mediocrity and averageness, it is pleasing that nearly every Project Manager I meet aspires to do their job well. So I’d like to share with you my insights about the seven things that will make you the best Project Manager you can be.

What being the Best Project Manager You Can be is Not about

Before we go into how you can become the best Project Manager possible, it is worth saying what I believe is not necessary…

Core Project Management Knowledge Base

Flick through any book on Project Management and you’ll see a list of core project management knowledge. Here are some examples…

The PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBOK Guide)

The Project Management Institute‘s PMBOK Guide is organized around 10 Knowledge areas. These cut across 5 process groups and contain numerous ITTOs (Inputs, Tools, Techniques, and Outputs). The 10 Knowledge areas are:

  1. Integration Management
  2. Scope Management
  3. Schedule Management
  4. Cost Management
  5. Quality Management
  6. Resource Management
  7. Communications Management
  8. Risk Management
  9. Procurement Management
  10. Stakeholder Management

The APM’s Body of Knowledge (the APMBoK)

By not opting for a simple framework in its new 7th Edition Body of Knowledge, the APM ironically creates the broadest array of core skills. It places many of the things I am going to talk about on a par with the basics that PMI refers to.

As I have said before, this body of knowledge represents subtle thinking that takes practitioners way beyond their early learning of the basics.

PRINCE2

PRINCE2 has 7 Principles, 7 Themes, and 7 Processes. The Themes most closely match the idea of core project management skills:

  1. Business Case
  2. Organization
  3. Quality
  4. Plans
  5. Risk
  6. Change
  7. Progress
PRINCE2 Methodology

Mike Clayton’s 8 Steps

In my basic book on Project Management (How to Manage a Great Project), I set out 8 steps that define what you need to do, as you move through your project:

  1. What Do You Want? (Project Definition, Scoping, and Quality)
  2. Does it Stack up? (Business Case and Budgeting)
  3. Who Cares? (Stakeholder Engagement and Communication)
  4. How Will You Get What You Want? (Planning and Scheduling)
  5. Who Will Help? (Resourcing and Team Management)
  6. What if it Goes Wrong? (Risk Management)
  7. How is it Going? (Monitoring, Controlling, and Reporting)
  8. How Did it Go? (Handover, Closure, and Lessons Learned)

Knowing all of this stuff will make you a competent project manager. Knowing it well and applying it effectively will make you a good project manager.

But, to be the best project manager you can be, you’ll need more. These are just the barriers to entry for our profession.

Qualifications and Certifications

How to Be the Best Project Manager You Can Be

Qualifications and certifications are valuable to you, as a professional, without a doubt. But, I don’t think that qualifications, certifications, nor exams will make you the best Project Manager you can be.

So what is the value of qualifications and certifications?

  1. Firstly, gaining a qualification will usually involve a significant amount of study. If you do this well – that is, not doing it just to complete your exam – your knowledge and understanding of Project Management will increase.
  2. And second, the process of all of this study will expose you to all of the ideas I just listed. Getting to know all of this knowledge well is crucial.
  3. Finally, if you want to convince others that you are a good Project Manager, your accreditation or certification provides supporting evidence of your learning and your experience.

None of this takes you beyond the level of a competent project manager, and I do hope that isn’t the best project manager you can be!

Experience Alone

If you want to become a good Project Manager, what you really need is experience.

This is the biggest driver, not just to becoming a better Project Manager but also to building your career and becoming eligible for many of the professional certifications that are available around the world. Membership of most professional bodies is assessed, at least in part, on your portfolio of experience.

So it is learning and experience that are the primary building blocks for a good Project Manager.

Learning and experience - and learning from experience - are the primary building blocks for a good #Project Manager Click To Tweet

What being the Best Project Manager You Can be is about

So, if learning and experience are the primary building blocks for becoming a good Project Manager, it is learning from experience that will make you the best project manager you can be.

It is learning from experience that will make you the best project manager you can be. via @OnlinePMCourses Click To Tweet

This means three things, to me:

  1. Honing your skills in all the core areas, so that delivering on them becomes fluent, artful, and highly effective.
    Becoming the best project manager means doing the basics to a consistently high level of excellence.
  2. Identifying those additional skills and attitudes that don’t feature among the core project management processes.
    Becoming the best project manager means doing more than just the basics.
  3. Finding out what your priorities really are – which likely means changing your perspective over time.
    Becoming the best project manager means being able to select the right priorities for the situation.

The Project Management Triangle

No… Not the Time-Cost-Quality Triangle. There is another important triangle for us. This is the triangle that describes what Project Management is.

Project Management Triangle - the Three Components of a Good Project Manager

In my mind, Project Management consists of three things:

  1. Getting things Done.
    Which requires tools, techniques and methodologies.
  2. Being Organized in how we do it.
    Which requires the systems and processes that impose structures and control on our projects.
  3. The Personal Skills that a Good Project Manager needs.
    Which is what often distinguishes a good, from an adequate Project Manager.

One of the important things to notice is that these three components balance what are often referred to as ‘hard and soft’ Project Management skills: being organized and getting things done on the one (hard) hand, and the ‘soft’ personal skills on the other.

We will see these dimensions crop up, as we go through the seven keys to being the best project manager you can be.

The Seven Secrets of Being the Best Project Manager You can Be

Let’s build on the framework of the Project Management Triangle. I’d like to suggest that, to become the best Project Manager you can, you will need to cultivate experience, skills, and real depth in seven arenas.

And by the way, I also think you will need to be able to demonstrate these in any Project Management job interview. Or, at least you will need to be able to show how you have a plan to develop your abilities in these areas.

1. Task Management

This one should come as no surprise. The ability to identify, sequence, prioritize, and allocate tasks is central to most people’s understanding of Project Management. You will often see ‘delegation’ described as being an important skill for good Project Management. I am not so sure. Delegation is all about giving your work to other people. A Project Manager will rarely delegate their Project Management role. What you must do, is allocate the Project tasks to your team members and collaborators.

Delegation

Delegation is giving complete task authority to a team member. Once you handover the task with complete instructions, it’s their responsibility to complete it. Delegation can help to increase team morale and engagement. But before you delegate, you need to check:

  • Does the team member have the required skills?
  • What can they learn from the task?
  • How busy are they?

Once you delegate the right tasks to the right person, they will often surprise you with the quality of their work. And you may well get a faster turnaround time than if you’d taken on the same tasks yourself.

Discipline

Another important component of task management is discipline. Projects are extended pieces of work. They are often hard too. So your ability to knuckle down and persevere, even when you would rather do something else, is a huge asset.

Finally, you need to be organized. A good Project Manager will be comfortable with systems and procedures. Not just this, though. You need a facility for creating and imposing appropriate processes. Because it is these that make Project activities efficient, and they also contribute a lot, to getting your quality right.

In summary, the task management skills you’ll need to become your own best Project Manager are:

  1. Identifying and sequencing tasks
  2. Prioritization
  3. Task Allocation
  4. Discipline
  5. Structuring: creating systems and processes.

2. Intellect

All of the best Project Managers I have known can think quickly. They can process a lot of information, and reach fast but accurate conclusions. This ability helps them to stay in control in a fast-moving Project environment. Of course, the very best of them do not t quickly – they prefer to take their time, and consider deeply before making a decision.

Decision-making

Not surprisingly, good decision-making is a fundamental part of good Project Management. This requires a host of skills, like:

  • Knowing when a decision is needed
  • Involving the right people
  • Taking account of other people’s opinions
  • Assessing a large amount of data
  • Applying rigorous thinking

Problem-solving

Projects are often a series of one problem after another. So, equally important is the ability to solve problems.  To be good at solving problems, a Project Manager needs to think clearly and in a structured way. You will also need to be good at harnessing the brainpower of a diverse team. This means drawing together your team, briefing them, and facilitating a conversation. And, of course, a good Project Manager will be constantly challenging your team. You will push them harder to tackle tougher problems… and then solve them.

Problem-solving is at the heart of my analysis in this short video…

Foresight

Finally, a good Project Manager must display foresight. Clearly, you cannot see the future. But your ability to anticipate trends, and identify risks, will look like foresight to others. once again, this does not have to be a solo task. Bring others into it and harness their brainpower too.

In summary, the intellectual skills of a good Project Manager are:

  1. Fast thinking
  2. Good decision-making
  3. Problem-solving
  4. Challenging your team
  5. Foresight

3. Communication

People need to know what is going on in your project. So your ability to communicate clearly and quickly is vital. There are lots of good reasons why communication is so important. Good governance is one. You need to be accountable, and you need to show how your decisions and actions can be justified. Good communication also creates an audit trail, which is another part of good governance.

Information-sharing

Beyond this is the need for a good Project Manager to share information with colleagues and stakeholders. Colleagues need to know what is going on so they can make good choices. Because Projects are often complex, there is a premium on your ability to explain complicated things clearly and simply. This is about how you think and how you express yourself.

Stakeholders need to feel you are keeping them informed. If they don’t, they will replace good information with rumor and speculation. A lot of resistance to change is often based on this; rather than on facts.

As communication works in more demanding situations, you need tougher skills. Two obvious examples are the abilities to:

  1. persuade
  2. defuse conflict

Influence and Persuasion

Getting team members to help out will often need your persuasion skills. And so too will convincing stakeholders about some aspects of your project. And when things become pressured, conflict can be the result. A good Project Manager needs to be able to spot conflict in its early stages and defuse it before it escalates. If you do find conflict, you also need to be able to manage it downwards.

In summary, the communication skills of a good Project Manager are:

  1. Sharing information
  2. Expressing yourself clearly and simply
  3. Explaining complex things
  4. Persuasion
  5. Conflict management

4. Engagement

It is not enough to communicate well. You also need to be good at going out and engaging people. Stakeholder engagement is a central Project Management discipline. Bt the best Project Manager will draw their definition of stakeholders as widely as possible. You will engage with team members, collaborators, opposers, and supporters.

Beyond that, they will understand that Projects are highly political in nature. Most project managers will try to avoid gettig involved in the politics. But sadly, that is a political choice in itself. The best project managers know that they have no choice. So, to become the best project manager you can, you must learn how to play the game of ‘Project Politics’.

Network-building

Your first stop is network-building. To put it simply: get to know people. When you have started to do this, strengthen your relationships. Find common interests, do favors, be interested in people. For this, you need to be able to both ask good questions and listen properly to the answers. What makes people like you is often the sense that you pay attention to them, and you care about their concerns.

Negotiation

But it is simplistic to think that you can always meet people’s concerns and make them happy that way. So, one of the most central skills for a top Project Manager is negotiation. I often say (for example, in our post: Project Management Rules) that ‘Scoping is the Hardest Part of Project Management’. Negotiation is your tool of choice for scoping.

Negotiation is your tool of choice for #project scoping Click To Tweet

In summary, the engagement skills of a good Project Manager are:

  1. Creating and building informal networks
  2. Asking good questions
  3. Listening well
  4. Showing empathy and understanding
  5. Negotiating mutually beneficial solutions

5. Leadership

Project Management or Project Leadership?

The best Project Manager is a Project Leader.

A good #Project Manager is a Project Leader. Click To Tweet

But what do we mean by ‘leadership’ in a Project context? That’s a topic for a long article. Or some long articles…

Five Components of Leadership

For now, let me select five valuable components of leadership.

The first is that natural authority that lets you influence the actions of people around you. Yet when I use the word ‘natural’ with authority, I don’t suggest you were born with this ability. You can develop natural authority. You can earn it. People who have it from an early age simply learned these lessons at school and in their younger life.

A lot of this is about you and your behaviors. People often want to emulate people they respect and are willingly influenced by them. Act as a role model for the behaviors you want from your colleagues. If these behaviors have integrity, and if they create success, others will copy them.

People also want to be inspired. So your ability to motivate people is a part of good leadership. One way to do this is to conjure a positive vision. If you can explain clearly, the ‘why’ of your project, this will motivate your team. While fear may get people started, hope keeps them going.

While fear may get people started, hope keeps them going. Click To Tweet

How else can you Motivate your People?

Another thing that motivates people is attention. Get to know everyone on your team. Take the time to find out what makes each person tick. And value them for their talents and enthusiasms. When you do this, you also build your ability to harness the diversity of your team. And the more diverse your team is, the better it will solve problems.

Individuality is one end of a spectrum. At the other end is collective behavior. As a leader, you also need to build a coherent team. Use simple team-building rituals like regular meetings, celebrating successes, and social events to make people feel your project is a shared experience. The strength of your team is different people working together.

In summary, the leadership skills you’ll need, to be your best Project Manager, are:

  1. Natural authority and influence
  2. Being a role model
  3. Inspiring and motivating
  4. Paying attention to individuals
  5. Building a team spirit

6. Attitude

What kind of attitude do people value? Above all, we like people who are positive. It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to be pessimistic. And it’s easy to give up.

We respect leaders who do none of these things. We find optimism and enthusiasm far more attractive. But this doesn’t mean blind faith. True optimism recognizes the challenge. But it exhibits a determination to succeed. Be open to opportunities and seize them when you can.

Of course, there will be setbacks. To be the best Project Manager you can, you’ll need to recognize and prepare for these. But even if they still come, you must also be resilient. You must have the mental toughness, and the positive determination to bounce back. No matter what your project throws at you, fight back.

Resilience: No matter what your #project throws at you, fight back. Click To Tweet

In summary, the attitudes of a good Project Manager are:

  1. Positivity
  2. Optimism
  3. Enthusiasm
  4. Determination to succeed
  5. Resilience

7. Character

‘Character is destiny’ said Heraclitus. Are you destined to be your own best Project Manager? If so, what character traits will help?

'Character is destiny' - Heraclitus. Click To Tweet

Above all, integrity.

Without integrity, you will never be the best project manager you could be. If do what you say you will, and speak honestly and fearlessly, people will respect you. Linked to this is how you stand by your decisions. You must take responsibility for your decisions. Blaming others, or blaming events, will never help you.

Stand by your decisions, but don’t stick to them. If the situation changes, you need the humility to accept this. And if that means an earlier decision was wrong… Then change your mind. This is one aspect of another valuable character trait: flexibility.  As a Project Manager, you need to adapt yourself to changing circumstances.

Flexibility

Too many people are resistant to change. But you must not be. Embrace new ideas and new ways of doing things. Evaluate them honestly and objectively. And if they offer advantages, make a change. This approach also illustrates another point. Pragmatism is a vital aspect of the character of a good Project Manager. Don’t stick to outmoded principles. There is a difference between core values and dogma. Your job is to get stuff done. And for that, you need a practical sense, and a willingness to do what it takes.

One last Character Trait: Calmness under Pressure

The final aspect of character is calmness under pressure. This has many practical benefits. Not least is that, when you are calm, you steady other people’s nerves. And you can also remain in control of your emotions. Rudeness, short-temper, and aggression are not character traits we value. Calmness prevents all of these, by giving you a choice.

Finally, if you are calm, you will think more clearly. You can therefore get more done. And that brings us back to where we started: task management. Isn’t that what Project Management is really all about? getting stuff done. Surely that makes a good Project Manager.

In summary, the attitudes of a good Project Manager are:

  1. Integrity
  2. Standing by decisions (but not sticking to them)
  3. Flexibility
  4. Pragmatism
  5. Calmness under pressure

One Final Point of View…

What do you think?

I have given you my seven essential keys to being the best Project Manager you can. What are yours? Use the comments below to share your thoughts. If you do, I will respond to every comment.

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 13 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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