1. Good communications skills. A project manager spends about 80 per cent of his/her day communicating with others during group meetings, one-on-one conversations and phone or conference calls, according to Catherine Daw, of SPM Group Ltd. As a result, strong communication skills are critical for this employee, who should have the ability to speak at either an executive level or a team member level, depending on the situation. Project managers “have to understand those different levels and what it means to use business language versus tech talk at the team level,” Daw says.
  2. Strong process skills. Project managers must constantly keep in mind and follow best practices, administering their projects well technically. This means taking an almost scientific approach to managing the budget, managing the time, managing the scope of the effort and ensuring that quality is being delivered, among other tasks. Superior project managers learn how to spend about the appropriate amount of time on each. “They’ve got them down to a hard science, and that’s why I call it the science side of project management,” says Daw. This key skill gives them the time needed to spend on communications, which is ultimately more important, since technology implementations are more about the people than the technology.
  3. Management skills. After the first two skills — which Daw highlights as the most important — comes a bit of a mixed bag. Daw lumps negotiating, decision-making and problem-solving skills together under the banner of general management skills. If an issue comes up during the project, the project manager must still be able to sell the benefits. This involves developing any relationship needed to ensure that the work gets done. During a long project, the team will not always be functioning perfectly; someone might need to be “jollied along,” for example, says Daw. “Project managers are given a lot of accountability and usually very little authority. They have to work more using their personal or informal power rather than the formal power that they’re given. And that’s why relationship skills become so critical.”
  4. An understanding of the balancing act. The project manager’s success also depends on the balancing of three tasks: leading the work, managing the work and doing the work. As a project manager moves up the scale — in terms of the size and type of the company and that company’s perception of his or her importance — more time is spent leading than managing. In the mid-range, there’s more managing than doing. In smaller companies, where fewer resources are available, the project manager is doing the work as well as managing and leading it. “You have to reflect on the balance that you need between all three of those, and reflect on the size and complexity of the project, the nature of the team, the nature of the work and the type of organization that you’re working in,” explains Daw.
  5. The ability to tie it all together. To Daw, a competent project manager will be made up of three major components: the “knowing” capability (the skills and the knowledge), the “being” component (the ability to use soft skills such as communication and relationship skills) and the “been there, done that” component (the personal experience they can draw into play to manage those components and be effective).

Catherine Daw has more than 25 years of experience as a project manager, consultant and speaker. She is president and co-founder of SPM Group Ltd., a management consulting boutique specializing in strategic project management, based in Toronto.

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