5 Traits Of Outstanding Project Managers

What does it take to achieve project management excellence? Here are the traits you'll need to cultivate to succeed, regardless of your industry

The following is a guest post from Joana Müller, one of our team's talented project managers.

In my career, I have worked with many fellow project managers across various industries. My observations on how project managers can be the linchpin for the failure or success of a given project can be summed up in five traits essential to great project managers:

Able To Deal With Ambiguity

No matter how much we know about a project, there will be areas of ambiguity. Some phases of a project will have a lower level of definition than others, and eliciting understanding in those ambiguous areas is a slow and painful process. A good project manager will help the team navigate ambiguity while bringing the right people and subject matter experts to the table to gain clarity and definition.

A strong project manager should help the stakeholders define a clear mission for the project, a mission around which the team can scrum. With a common goal in mind, the project manager will help the team navigate their way to a cohesive set of project activities that will ensure project success.

Flexible And Able To Manage Dependencies

Change is unavoidable. As the project progresses through time and detail, the team will likely see changes to the original goals, activities and designs. The project manager plays a very important role in articulating those changes and rapidly reframing the work to align to the new goals. Failure to quickly adapt will create additional obstacles to success as well as undermine the commitment and spirit of the team.

A typical project involves multiple activities, both technical and non-technical. The project manager is the glue that keeps all these activities together. A good project manager needs to exemplify the ability to understand the big picture and connect the dots. Understanding the big picture provides the team with a clear goal in spite of activity changes. At the same time, the project manager needs to be able to connect activities and understand how those activities impact each other. This will provide the team with a quick impact analysis of change cascading effects and thus the ability to anticipate and understand the effort associated with a change in course.

Good At Negotiation And Consensus Building

A smart project manager understands that the success of a project depends greatly on the dynamics of the team and the stakeholders. During the lifecycle of a project, decisions are being made every step of the way. The project manager needs to bring stakeholders together and lead negotiations to build consensus. The ideal project manager will have a good understanding of risks and issues and will use this knowledge to steer the team and stakeholders towards agreed-upon decisions that are sound and manageable. Agreed-upon decisions allow the team to establish mitigation and remediation actions if something doesn’t go as planned.

Able To Manage Risks And Issues

One of the critical skills of a project manager is the ability to identify issues that threaten the project and handle them proactively. There will always be risks and issues that the team needs to deal with. How the project manager handles them will make the difference between failure and success, which means developing a deep understanding of the risks and issues and clearly defining mitigation action for risks to avoid having them turn into issues. When some risks inevitably become issues, a good project manager will work with the project sponsor, stakeholders and team to define a remediation plan and implement it. Proactivity and knowledge go hand in hand to ensure that the project team can successfully overcome these challenges.

Strong Communication Skills

Excellent interpersonal communication is the foundation of good project management. All of the above traits of a good project manager will lose efficacy if the project manager can’t communicate clearly and efficiently with the stakeholders and the team. Establishing a clear communication path for status reporting, escalation and decision making is a critical component of project success.

For a project manager, tailoring his or her communication style to the audience is a fundamental skill that will ensure alignment across teams and stakeholders. Communication with the project sponsor differs from the communication to the technical lead, for example. The message needs to be crafted in specific ways so each stakeholder understands what the content is, what is the specific impact to their area of work, and what action is required of them.

Being a project manager is a challenging, fast-paced, ever-changing role. It’s also a rewarding one, as you’re able to see your success reflected in satisfied clients, productive, collaborative team members and deliverables completed on time and on budget. Work on improving your skills in the above five areas and you’ll have a solid foundation for project management excellence, no matter your field.