What Makes a Good Project Manager? (7 Top Assets)

Good Project Manager

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 a good Project Manager.

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 go into making a good Project Manager.

What a Good Project Manager is Not

Before we go into what makes a good Project Manager, it is worth saying what I believe is not necessary. I don’t think that qualifications, certifications, nor exams make a good Project Manager. 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 what is the value of qualifications and certifications? 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. And second, 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.

So it is learning and experience – and learning from 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

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.

The Seven Secrets of Being a Good Project Manager

Let’s build on the framework of the Project Management Triangle. I’d like to suggest that, to be a good Project Manager, you will need to cultivate experience, skills, and real depth in seven arenas. And 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 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 required skills?
  • What can they learn from the task?
  • How busy are they?

Once you delegate right tasks to 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.

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 of a good Project Manager are:

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

2. Intellect

Every good Project Manager I have known thinks 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.  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

Projects are often a series of one problem after another. So, equally important is an 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 brain power 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 solve them.

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 brain power 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.

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 thing and how you express yourself.

Stakeholders need to feel you are keeping them informed. If they don’t, they will replace good information with rumour 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 persuade, and to defuse conflict. 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. A good Project Manager will draw their definition of stakeholders as widely as possible. You will engage with team members, collaborators, opposers and supporters.

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 favours, 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.

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 good Project Manager is negotiation. I often say (for example, in last week’s 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?

A good 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 future long article. 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 behaviours. People often want to emulate people they respect and are willingly influenced by them. Act as a role model for the behaviours you want from your colleagues. If these behaviours 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. On 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 behaviour. 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 of a good 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. 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 recognises 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. A good Project Manager needs to recognise 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 a good Project Manager? If so, what character traits will help?

'Character is destiny' - Heraclitus. Click To Tweet

Above all, integrity. 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.

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 tat, 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

What do you think?

I have given you my seven essential secrets of being a good Project Manager. 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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