10 skills you need to become a great project manager
C-suite members say that strategic thinking, communication, and risk management skills are among the most important for a project manager to hone to be successful on the job.
Project managers must exhibit a broad range of talents to bring teams together and help organizations reach goals. This often comes down to great collaboration and people skills, said Marty Brodbeck, chief technology officer of Shutterstock. "The skills to be an effective project manager are universal in nature for everyone across all industries," Brodbeck added. "They are skills that can—and should—be worked on and developed in various ways across your career."
Working different project management jobs in the tech sector can help widen the scope of the types of projects you manage, as the field offers a range of different topics, Brodbeck said. However, it's not essential to work in tech to become a strong project manager, he added.
Here are ten skills you will need to become an effective project manager, according to members of the C-suite.
Empathy is the most important skill for any customer-facing role, according to Justin Gray, CEO and founder of LeadMD. "As project management serves two masters, the customer and the internal team, an empathetic mindset is all the more critical," Gray said. "If you can effectively put yourself in someone else's shoes, you will do everything better—time management, expectation setting, logistics—everything
2. Team empowerment
Team empowerment is one of the most critical skills of an effective project manager, according to Gabe Fenigsoh, research manager at Cardwell Beach. This concept was described in detail in the book The Empowered Manager by Peter Block.
"It means the ability to foster freedom, creativity and autonomy in a workforce rather than top-down hierarchical micromanagement," Fenigsoh said. "It means recognizing the distinct skills and strengths of the group and fostering, rather than hindering, innovation. And most critically, it means pushing those we work with to take agency and ownership rather than settling for the safer route of what the author terms the 'patriarchal contract,'" which emphasizes the power of authority.
Andres Tovar, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Noetic Marketer, said that his company's projects have been successful due to empowering employees this way, through either agile or traditional project management. "Your employees feel important and feel they are working on something of value," Tovar said. "They may have amazing ideas, and by empowering them they might be more confident about their ideas." This also helps motivate your co-workers, and creates a better synergy between the PM and the team, he added.
3. Subject matter expertise
"The best PMs are the ones who thoroughly know their subject matter and their team inside out," said Ethan T. Schmidt, a certified project manager and the CTO of GymBull.com. "Of course, not everyone is an absolute expert as soon as they start a project, but the best take the time to learn during the initiation and planning phases."
Many people say that often, the planning is more important than the plan, Schmidt said. "But this can only be effective if the project manager learns the ins and outs during the planning well enough that he can pivot and shift when the time comes."
All of the skills necessary to successfully manage a project are the same as those needed to manage an organization, according to Doug Pierce, COO of Scrollmotion.
"Most people assume the key to being a great PM is excellent attention to detail, and while that's important, the ability of a project manager to see the bigger picture of what problem the project is solving is what separates the good from the great," Pierce said. "A great PM knows what value, not just what deliverable, they're providing."
A great project manager is also a great generalist, and is well-versed in all aspects of the project, from tech and creative to finance and administration, Pierce added.
5. Risk management
The skills required to be a strong project manager have changed significantly over the past several years, according to Jake Bennett, CTO of POP. "As the rate of technological change has continued to increase, the amount of uncertainty that a project manager must contend with has increased as well," Bennett said. "Risk can no longer be controlled by creating ever more detailed project plans. Today, successful project managers must learn to adapt to change rather than attempt to eliminate it."
That means that regardless of whether you are using waterfall or scrum, project managers must always adopt an agile mindset, as they may not have a playbook to guide them when they encounter a never-before-seen issue, Bennett said. "Today, project managers must move beyond the role of mere coordinator, and evolve into dynamic leaders," he added.
Great project managers are great communicators with high emotional intelligence, according to Leeyen Rogers, vice president of marketing at JotForm. "They are efficient in their communications—they say a lot in few words, and are clear and concise," Rogers said. "They do not need to hold 30 minute meetings when they could communicate the same thing with a well thought-out email."
Prompt and honest communication immediately gives a project manager credibility, and increases the likelihood of a successful project, said Kelly Bedrich, president of Cypress Capital Ventures. "Everyone is engaged when the PM communicates effectively," Bedrich said.
At the beginning of any project, the project manager needs to ask the right questions and set a clear goal for the outcome, said Bob Kastner, director of marketing at Meeting Tomorrow. PMs also need to communicate equally well with colleagues, vendors, and customers, and understand how to tailor their style to each stakeholder.
7. Expectations management
Great project managers take time to manage stakeholder expectations, to minimize negative surprises, said Karl Sakas, president of Sakas & Company. "Great project managers are constantly juggling the 'Iron Triangle' of project management—scope, timeline, and budget," he said. "They help their stakeholders understand the tradeoffs between Good, Fast, and Cheap."
8. Decision making judgement
Effective project managers have strong judgement, and think of decision making as a process to be tracked and managed, the same as schedule, scope, and budget, said Erik Larson, CEO of Cloverpop.
"Great project managers drive clear decisions about priorities and plans at the beginning of their projects to make sure their teams are pointed in the right direction," Larson said. They also quickly resolve decisions about changes to project scope, schedule and staffing as they occur, out in the open and engaging the team. They keep a record of what was decided, why, who was involved, and what else was considered, to maintain accountability if people try to renegotiate the team's choices after the fact, he added.
"Great project managers can actually show you all the significant decisions made in a project, and how they turned out, at a moment's notice," Larson said. "As a result, they don't spend much time on post-mortems, because in effect they do pre-mortems on every important decision. This means they head off most problems before they damage their projects, and more effectively manage decisive action when problems inevitably arise."
9. Tech savvy
As technology is now a major player in any industry, a successful project manager stays abreast of relevant technology in his or her industry, according to Amrit Kirpalani, founder and CEO of NectarOM. A project manager should also serve "as an effective conduit between programmers/developers and non-tech team members, and is able to communicate effectively between these departments to work rapidly toward bringing the various components of a project to completion," Kirpalani said.
Strong project managers must be interested in continuously learning, staying up to date with the latest software and other technologies that will keep their teams on the cutting edge, said Tiffany Irene, CEO of iSpeakPR.
10. Business acumen
Many project managers do not understand the language of business and executives, and therefore have difficulty understanding the value of various components in their projects, according to Todd C. Williams, president of eCameron, Inc.
"Executives speak of initiatives, execution, goals, earnings, executive sponsors, and value, while project managers and most middle managers speak of projects, implementation, cost, project sponsors, and scope," Williams said. "Executives want summaries and to be told what they need to provide the PM, while project managers elaborate on detail and often enumerate problems without telling executives what they need to do to fix it. They use such different vernacular and after just a couple of sentences executives have project managers pigeon-holed into the 'technician' column, and their attention level subconsciously drops."
The Project Management Institute (PMI) has recently added requirements for business and leadership knowledge to renew the PMP and CAPM certifications, Williams added.