7 Skills You Need to Master as a Project Manager

Krystal Tolani
February 19, 2019

7 Skills You Need to Master as a Project Manager

Being a great Project Manager means wearing a number of hats. Not only do you have to ensure a project executes on time, in the budget, and within scope, you will also serve multiple roles: negotiator, decision maker, team-builder, mentor, schedule-maker, risk-evaluator, budgeter, and task manager. Each of these roles requires skill and practice.

Below, in no particular order, are seven skills you want to master when as a project manager.

1. Leadership

Arguably the bread and butter of project management, leadership is a skill you wouldn’t want to miss in a project manager. There are a number of smaller skills that go into being a good leader, some of which you may have already. What they essentially boil down to is being a cheerleader, coach, and referee to your team and being able to balance these three roles.

Good teams are made up of people that are motivated, skilled, and accountable to themselves and others. A good leader creates an environment where this can happen.

Leaders that cheer their team on and provide  “feel good” vibes will have happier teams. Not only do happier employees make the workplace a more enjoyable place to be they’re also beneficial for the bottom line – one study reports that happy employees are 20 percent more productive than unhappier employees. Another way you can ‘cheerlead’ your team is with humor. According to an article on Inc.com, “leaders with humor can build stronger cultures, unleash more creativity, and even negotiate better deals.”

As ‘coach’ you are responsible for the success of the team. This means knowing your team inside and out and devising a plan that works to individual strengths. It also means providing support and mentorship to those that may need help.

Finally, as ‘referee’ you are the final decision maker and mediator of disputes. You ensure that the project runs smoothly and have to be able to tactfully call people out if they aren’t doing their share of the work.

Being a good leader also means practicing what you preach. For example, if you ask your team to be punctual with status reports, you should also be punctual in kind. Leading by example not only makes you a credible manager but also sets a precedence for those you lead.

Some may argue that leadership skills are something you’re gifted with or not. While this skill set does come to some people more naturally, everybody has the potential to learn and improve their abilities in this arena. You may be able to seek out a mentor at work. If that’s not possible, biographies and interviews of leaders you admire can be a valuable (and sometimes entertaining) way to glean insights. You can also opt for something more neatly packaged, like subscribing an online course or training.

2. Communication

Communication makes up a massive part of your job if you’re a project manager. It’s on your shoulders to understand and be understood by your team, higher-ups, stakeholders, clients, and anyone else involved in the project.

Not only does communication mean conveying information clearly and succinctly, but it also means choosing the right medium for your message. A good rule of thumb is to match the communication method to the level of importance of your conversation. Texts and emails are ideal for conversations of low importance. Voice notes or phone calls are good for conversations of medium importance as you get the added benefit of communicating tone. In-person meetings or video calls are ideal for highly important topics, as you’re are able to convey both tone and body language. In terms of selecting the most appropriate method for your message, think about who you’re communicating with and how they would receive the message best.

In addition to communication method, another factor to consider is communication frequency. When it comes to project management ‘early and often’ is a good maxim to follow. Frequent contact between project managers and their team members sets a foundation for a good working relationship. This increases the likelihood of project success. This motto is a win-win as it reduces any unpleasant surprises for clients and stakeholders down the line and the number of uncomfortable conversations you may have to have with your team as a result.

Communicating early and often with your team is just as important. It aligns everyone with the common goal and helps keep track of next steps. From the project kickoff to the project post-mortem, it’s wise to have a plan in place. This ensures that meetings have a clear start and end and that all important points get addressed. Making communication a habit is a great way to avoid any complacency when it comes to staying in touch with your team. Scheduling a daily meeting to recap progress and map out future action steps helps get people in the groove of communicating early and often.

3. Risk Management

Effective risk management is what separates mature project managers from those who have just started out.

Risks are often not immediate concerns, and as a result, can be viewed as something benign. Project managers with more experience will be able to identify risks and put a mitigation plan in place.

Mitigation plans should include the probability of the risk occurring, its potential cost, and assign a risk ‘owner’. This way you’re able to gauge the severity of each risk and ensure its tracked. These plans should be part of the larger project plan and routinely tracked. This ensures that your action steps are proactive and not reactive.

Effective management allows you to better account for risks before they turn into full-blown problems. Reducing the probability of potential risks enables your team to have smoother-running projects.

If you’re newer to the field and want to develop your risk management skills, a good place to start is by asking your team what potential problems and risks they see. Each member will have a macro view over a part of the project and will be able to clue you in on areas of risks that you may have overlooked.

4. Time Management

Time management plays a big part in project management. What this skill essentially boils down to is effective prioritization and planning. Often, important tasks get trumped by more urgent tasks and failing to allocate time to these tasks can be a  detriment to the project.

Time management as a project management skill can be broken down into four different, but overlapping categories:

    • short-term time management
    • long-term time management
    • personal time management
  • team time management

Prioritization plays a big part in personal time management. Making time for the essential but non-urgent tasks, such as risk management and mitigation, is an important part of ensuring the overall health of the project.  An easy way to start prioritizing these essential tasks is setting aside some time each day, week, or month to focus on these non-pressing but vital tasks.

This ties into short-term time management. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same can be said about nearly all projects you will work on. However, it is the consistent inching forward that moves you across the finish line into project completion. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, managing your time wisely and consistently on a daily basis means that your weeks and months will be managed properly, too. This gives you a better shot at sticking to the project schedule.

Long-term time management is what we typically associate with project management more than short-term or personal time management. Long-term management involves breaking down the project into a series of goals and mapping them out onto a timeline. Once the goals and timeframe have been set, you will need to allocate resources and delegate tasks.

Talent makes up a fair portion of said resources, which is where team time management comes in. Keeping track of tasks and workflows is essential to ensuring that there aren’t any bottlenecks. Using Gantt charts and encouraging your team to actively communicate progress are good ways to ensure you’re ahead of the curve.

5. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves assessing issues from different vantage points and formulating the best solution. This is a powerful skill with far-reaching applications, honing it can help ensure that you’re not only working hard but also working smart.

Most of us respond and react in ways we have done in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing – if something has worked well in the past, why change it?  One downside of this mentality is that it can sometimes mean that we run on autopilot and use catch-all responses for situations that demand a unique response. If you have already reached this point, it is important to take a step back and acknowledge when you have reached this point. Use your critical thinking skills to evaluate what made you reach this point and brainstorm ways to jump out of this rut.

Critical thinking skills also contribute to a number of other skills mentioned in this article; an objective and clear thought-process will help you communicate more effectively, identify risks that may seem more benign, make better decisions, and negotiate more successfully.

Here are some things you can do to up your critical thinking game:

    • Ask questions!  Figure out what you know, how you know it, what you need to know in order to go forward, and any pre-existing assumptions you may have.
    • Be aware of your thought process. Our conclusions to things may be influenced by cognitive biases and schemas. By being mindful, you stand a better chance of making a more objective decision.
  • Think for yourself. While it is a good idea to seek out multiple opinions, in the end, the onus is on you as project manager to make the final call in any given situation.

6. Negotiation

In order for a project to work smoothly, you need to have your stakeholders on-board with the plan. Stakeholders may have competing interests and it is your duty to align these interests so the project can be completed.

A project manager that can negotiate well can get what they want for the benefit of the project, without damaging relationships with whoever she or he is negotiating with.

Preparation is key when it comes to negotiation. It’s not only vital to understanding your stakeholders’ interests and paint points, but also the limits of your own time and resources. Conducting a SWOT analysis is a good way to lay this out visually.

Getting a better idea of common goals and restrictions will help you develop an inventive solution that is win-win.

7. Planning

Planning is the core of project management. Without a plan of action, there is no guarantee that you will be able to finish on time, in the budget, or within scope. Planning is not only listing out action items, but it’s also bringing together the right people together, arranging tasks in the right order, monitoring progress, and making adjustments as needed.

Planning encompasses both the macro and micro goals of the project. Similar to time management, for long-term planning project managers need to break down the entire project into smaller, more manageable goals. From there, you will be able to create statements of work, estimates, timelines, resource plans, and briefs.

Looking to learn more about project management? Check out our piece on the Rise of Digital Project Management and the Difference between Agile and Waterfall Methods.

About the Author

Krystal Tolani

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