What are the characteristics that make a good project manager?

In my last post, I looked at some of the characteristics that I believe make for a good project manager.  But once I’d started, they kept coming and I’ve spent quite some time since that post, thinking of other things I could have included.

To be clear, none of these things will guarantee that someone is a good project manager.  Nor will their absence mean the PM won’t be great.  But, when I think about the really great PMs I’ve worked with (and there have been many), these are some of the qualities that stick out.

So, if you are hiring a project manager, or thinking of becoming one, here are three more of the things you might wish to consider.

 Take pride in your work, but don’t be precious about it

One of the defining characteristics of projects is that they end.  In some cases, this is a relief.  In others, it can be a moment of great sadness as you bid farewell to colleagues and relationships that have built over months and even years.  But all projects end, and you will often need to quickly move on to something that may be completely different.

Really good project managers take great pride in their work, but realise that it is of a moment. At any given time, projects are susceptible to being paused, cancelled or changed beyond recognition.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy and relish the work you are doing today.

Some projects create something that is only ever intended to be temporary, or to have a specific lifetime.  I remember years ago, pouring blood, sweat and tears into a Citrix upgrade only to feel somewhat disillusioned five years later when the project came round again to upgrade the version I had originally installed, effectively replacing all my hard work.

Even before that, understand that the work is not yours. The role of the project manager is to corral others into producing great and necessary things.  It is an oversight and leadership role – the work (and, indeed, the credit) almost always belongs to others.

Ultimately, then, there is simply no place for ego in project management.  Where there is, it is often rapidly disabused.  So, take pride in your work – you must.  It would be a pretty miserable existence if you didn’t.  But don’t be precious about it.  Understand that things – people, work and projects – all move on someday.

You are comfortable in ambiguity/chaos

The role of the project manager is to bring organisation and structure where there is very little, or possibly none.  You must therefore make your peace with the fact that, particularly at the start of any given project:

  • Things are likely to be chaotic;
  • You will not fully understand all of the things that are being said to you (or possibly any of them);
  • Everyone will have a different idea about what needs to be done (or no-one will have any idea about what needs to be done) and will look to you for guidance, even while you’re still figuring it out yourself;

Each of these things can be intimidating in a new role.  Taken together they can be downright overwhelming.  I often think that if, on day three of a project, I have a pretty good understanding of things, then I should worry as I haven’t understood them at all.  If you are not overwhelmed, you haven’t understood.  So, you need to be comfortable with:

  • Being scared, but knowing it will make sense soon;
  • Being the stupidest person in the room. Regularly.;
  • And for different reasons;
  • Not having a plan – until you make the plan;
  • Keeping (often quite senior) people, at arm’s length until you can figure it all out;

Better yet, if this is the sort of thing you actively enjoy (and I know there are some strange people out there, like me, for whom this is true) then project management is for you.

 It’s not just “being organised”

I have to say, I shrivel up like a walnut when I hear the words “I think I’d be a good project manager, because I’m very organised” (and it’s surprising to me how much I do hear these words).  I’m not saying project managers don’t need to be organised – they do.

But it’s a bit like saying “I think I’d be a good meteorologist, because I know what rain is.”  Or “I think I’d be a good doctor, because I’ve done a first aid course.”  Both statements might be true, but they entirely miss the point.

Being organised, on its own, will not help you to:

  • Motivate a team when they are feeling embattled;
  • Understand why one risk is more detrimental to your project than another;
  • Negotiate with contractors and suppliers;
  • Decide on a course of action when several are available;
  • Take responsibility when things go wrong;
  • Identify when a member of your team is having a bad time;
  • Compare a cost plan with a project schedule and make sure they align;
  • Articulate a requirement in a way that both the customer and the supplier understand;

…all of which are just part of the average day for a project manager.

Being organised is a good thing, obviously it is. But it is not the same as project management.

Though, as an aside, I am increasingly wary these days of anyone who declares themselves organised.  Really organised people don’t say (or often even think) that they are organised.  If you have a number of systems and charts and post-its and ring binders and Excel documents and to-do lists and notebooks and so on and so on, the chances are you’re not very organised at all.  You just have the trappings of being organised.  Having stationery is not the same as being organised.  Good organisation is invisible.

So those are my next three.  What would you add to the list?  Let me know in the comments!

Image by Pixabay
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One Thought on “Anatomy of a Project Manager (Part 2)”

  • Thank you for acknowledging and commenting on these three characteristic topics. All projects bring chaos to the forefront, I see a project mangers as the the ring master, trying to keep chaos from expanding, getting lose, and terrorizing the team. Will it be there, yes, but we must tame it! Also thanks for the great comments on being organized! Spot on!

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