What are the characteristics that make a good project manager?
As the new year gathers momentum, two exciting things are happening:
- Companies emerging from the stagnation of the pandemic are investing in projects again and hiring Project Managers left, right and centre; and
- More people are considering a career change than have done for decades and many of them will be turning their heads towards project management.
What do these two groups have in common? They would both benefit from understanding what makes a good project manager. Understandably, (rightly, even) not all hiring managers have a projects background, even if they require PMs to work for them. And people considering a career in project management should be interested to know the traits required to make a successful career of it.
So, if you are hiring a project manager, or thinking of becoming one, here are three of the things you might wish to consider.
Being comfortable with confrontation
No-one enjoys confrontation (ok, some people do – and they should definitely avoid project management). But you need to be comfortable with having your ideas challenged, as it will happen frequently. The purpose of project management is to bring multiple different disciplines together to work in unison towards a common goal. Some of these will be in conflict with each other (either naturally or because of the personalities involved) and it is part of the job of a project manager to mediate these conflicts and identify a way through. There will also be those, over the course of a project, who fundamentally disagree with the approach that is being taken and will not miss an opportunity to tell you.
There is huge satisfaction to be gained from resolving the conflicts and confrontations – it is a genuinely attractive part of the job for many (myself included). But it’s not necessarily for the faint hearted and will require deep wells of patience, charisma, logic and diplomacy.
Things to ask: would you accept occasional confrontation as a necessary part of your job? Do you consider conflict to be a necessary evil which must unfortunately be dealt with or a challenge for which your personality is perfectly suited to resolving (even if it can be a little draining sometimes)?
Pausing, then reacting
Working at an airport gave me a true understanding of what it means to work in an ‘operational, live environment’. It also made me appreciate two fundamentally different skillsets that exist.
There were a number of people who worked ‘in the operation’ – that is, on the business frontline day in, day out. Their role was to deal with incidents as they arose, be it an angry passenger, flight cancellation or an aborted take-off, and deal with the incident as it unfolded. They thrive on intense periods of fast problem solving and decision-making that are vital in the moment and then quickly pass. Their overarching imperative, however, is to maintain a status quo – resolve the situation back to “normal operations”.
I think this requires a different mindset or set of skills from those needed for project management. Projects do not happen ‘in the moment’ but instead take place over a defined period with an outcome that is intended to be different from the status quo (or, more accurately, to establish a new status quo). There are clearly stated goals within project management and whereas it is essential for someone in an operational incident to react quickly and affirmatively, often it is important for a project manager not to react immediately to every issue that is raised, but to pause and understand each issue in the context of the wider goal. Individual issues happen all the time across the life of a project and the trick of project management is to take each on its merit, but keep your focus on the wider, long-term goals. In other words, keeping your focus on the ‘bigger picture’. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same, you’ll be a project manager.”
One final point: to be absolutely clear, I’m not saying one mode (operational or project) is better than the other, nor even that you can only be one or the other. We have to be in both modes at different times. But it is about preference. I think I would be less successful and certainly not as happy in an operational role, because I am less suited to that mode of working. It is about identifying the mode in which you are happiest working.
Things to ask: what is your default behaviour – do you react quickly to situations, making rapid decisions as things develop; or do you prefer to wait until you have enough information to make a call, preferring to see individual issues in the context of a wider narrative.
Thriving on variety
“Every day is different” gets used to describe so many roles it seems to have lost all meaning. And this is almost always passed off as a Good Thing.
But not everyone enjoys having to change their plans from one minute to the next. And it can be exhausting to constantly switch from one subject to another. Typically a project manager may be running multiple projects at once, or one large project that will have multiple disciplines within it. So you might find yourself jumping from the finer points of data restructuring to an overview of a department’s training plan by way of a presentation to the Senior Leadership Team on benefits realisation from the project you completed three months ago. Often with very little time to catch your breath/clear your mind/grab a coffee in between!
I love this aspect of project management, but I often have days where I struggle to stick to one issue and see it all the way through before something else pops up competing for my attention. As a result, diary management is also a frequent challenge for project managers.
Finally, it is worth considering that, as much of our day-to-day involves meetings and updates, it can quickly be demoralising for those who prefer having a diary clear of meetings to “get on with things”. Those days happen, but they’re few and far between.
Things to ask: do you like your working day to be predictable or to follow a particular format? Once you have a plan for the week, does it bother you to have to continually adjust it? Or do you enjoy rolling from one potentially unrelated issue to another?
Those are just three things to consider. Tune in next month for more!
Image by Pixabay
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