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The 5 Essential Skills of a Successful Project Manager

By Jane Callahan · May 12, 2016

Project managers do a bit of everything. They fill in the gaps as utility players while drawing up plays for the rest of the team. They research tools, craft proposals, and present plans to the higher-ups. And, they manage personalities.

But which of those skills is the most important to the success of a project manager?

We asked individuals who have managed projects—either in a project or product manager role or outside of it—what they'd put at the top of their list, and received some sage advice for newbies and seasoned professionals alike.

Wield the Politician Inside You

Everyone has to learn how to "play ball" in the office; whether it's breaking bad news to your boss or handling a temperamental coworker. But it takes a certain grace to manage and please workers from every department—something project managers do on an ongoing basis.

Winston Churchill once said, "A good politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen." Heather Henricks, a freelance senior digital project manager who leads Ecology Action's marketing efforts, may well agree with him.

"At the end of the day, most highly-motivated project managers can perfect hard skills like technical acumen with systems, networks and platforms—it's the soft skills that really separate mediocre project managers from the masters," she says. Henricks spent her first seven years in project management at Microsoft, followed by ten more riding the startup wave at companies like Payscale.com and Allrecipes.com.

"When projects turn chaotic—and it's inevitable that they will from time to time—how do you rise above it all to get the best possible outcome? Are you a master at using humor and compassion to relieve the tension between teammates? Can you comfortably deliver hard news to those in authority in a way that doesn't rely on blame? Can you listen to feedback objectively and without ego? Can you lead with the project's best interest in mind, and not get distracted by your own?

"You're the real hero when you successfully complete a project and everyone still likes and respects each other," Henricks says.

You're the real hero when you successfully complete a project and everyone still likes and respects each other.

Heather Henricks, Freelance Project Manager

Sharpening traits like diplomacy, objectivity and affability make for a great project manager when the going gets tough.

Paul Cothenet, who has worked as a product manager at a venture-backed startup for five years, and is now the CTO of MadKudu, an analytics company, says that knowing how to work well with others is especially important when working closely with science-based minds.

"I'll defer to one of the hardest defenders of project management out there: 'Most engineers don't know what a project manager does, and if they do, they usually don't know what a good one looks like.'"

In his work with engineers, Cothenet feels that most of them won't understand what it is a project manager does (and will probably dislike whatever he or she does, anyway). "And that's exactly why you're not in their shoes and they're not in yours," he says.

Since the technically-minded often think and communicate differently than those that don't, the real value of a project manager exists in engineers' blind spot.

"Don't try to convince them that they need you. The fact that they're not convinced is the reason why they need someone like you. That cognitive dissonance is the reality of the job, so get comfortable with it," Cothenet says.

With time, if you're good at what you do, engineers will "recognize it when they see it. Never try to shove it down their throat."

Henricks says there are many different times when she's had to bring out her inner politician. No matter what the scenario, though, she stresses one rule: "Don't put yourself in the situation of fixing people's conflicts, and don't engage in conversations that seem emotionally fueled."

She remembers a time when a designer had put together a wire frame mock-up of a web landing page for a client, but the account manager pushed back on certain design elements. The designer felt very attached to these features, and conflict ensued.

"So I went to the designer and I said 'Hey, I get why you designed the features that way, and I know it's hard to let go of. But I want to help you understand what the client wants,'" Henricks says.

She explained to the designer that the account manager was focusing on the client's best interest—a more simple user interface—and that the web design needed to be put against the goals of the project.

"Keep things factual; it's all about bringing perspective," she says. "Citing facts is a way of taking someone by the shoulders and shaking them out of their mind trap. It's almost cliche now to lead with a positive—but it works."

Use the Details to Shape the Strategy

Looking at the fine print can save time, money and and frustration. But a good project manager has to accomplish a delicate trifecta: appreciating the weight of the details, maintaining a top-level focus, and fitting everything into a coherent project strategy.

Joe Corraro, a project manager with Siemens who oversees construction projects in New York City, says going through the details with a fine-toothed comb has made all the difference in how smoothly a job goes.

"If the engineer says we need 20 temperature sensors, but the documents says we need six, I need to know what the salesman said and what the construction plans say, so that when I'm asked 'how did this happen?' in a meeting, I have my details straight and can give an educated answer—and a solution," Corraro says.

Relying on your team is one way to make sure things are double- and triple-checked. "I can't do it all," Corraro says, "so I know that if I have my team combing through it, we'll catch all the 'gotchas' that could lead to big problems."

"Your job is to sweat the small stuff and do the stuff other people don't want to do," Cothenet says. "That may sound menial to other people. But if you're reading this, it's probably what you like to do and one thing you're really good at."

Your job is to sweat the small stuff and do the stuff other people don't want to do.

Paul Cothenet, CTO of MadKudu, former Product Manager

But while the small stuff is important, getting tangled up in it can lead to trouble. Niki Gallo Hammond, a senior project manager with technology firm Jackson River, says that the best value a project manager can bring to a team is the ability to maintain the strategic perspective of the stakeholders.

"That doesn't mean avoiding the details completely," she says, "but do be wary of getting lost in them."

Good to know, but what's the best way a project manager do that? Get organized.

Johan Lieu, a product manager for Wufoo, says being "insanely organized" is a result of his need to know a product inside and out.

"Since it's impossible to keep an entire product in your head, you have to rely on outside tools like wikis, task trackers, to-do lists, whatever you like to use, to keep all that information," Lieu says.

But be careful not to drown in your to-do list, either: curating it in a manageable (read: realistically doable) is a great way to keep things on track.

"Maintaining a long backlog or to-do list will use up a lot of mental energy," Lieu says. "Be very mindful about adding anything and be obsessed about getting rid of stuff that doesn't matter."

Cothenet realized how out of control his task list was getting when he started cleaning it up every six months. There were so many unsavable, backlogged items that he started curating it every three months, which kept it much more manageable.

"If an item hasn't been updated in 3 months, just get rid of it," Cothenet says. "If it is really important, it will come back."

The unimportant tasks may be things like small bug fixes or feature requests which, even though they would certainly improve a product, may not be important in the big picture.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

The way Siemens' Corraro describes his to-do list, it'd seem like it's the backbone of his project management prowess—but it's actually the constant communication behind his to-do list that makes it so effective.

"Actually, I call it my punch list," Corraro says.

New needs are communicated every day, so "you have to be able to adapt."

He spends the last half-hour of each day sitting down with the entire team to mark off what got done and what needs to be added to the master list. Then they organize everything by priority and who's responsible for what.

"Look at your timeline; if you need to do something by x date, and you aren't on target, what do you need to do to get there?" Corraro says.

Corraro also takes the time to see firsthand what might be holding something up. He'll revise the master list based on what he feels will clear the most roadblocks, then surface concerns at the end-of-day meeting.

Communicating clearly is just part of the process, according to Hammond; a good project manager chooses the right communication tool for the job. (e.g. Would you provide constructive criticism in person, or in an email?)

"Get really good at all forms of communication, and use them. Writing a status report, delivering a verbal presentation, and illustrating a plan may all be 'communication,' but each are appropriate at different times, and often those who excel at one could use improvement in others," she says.

In general, deadlines, assignments and complicated data are best in a written or illustrated form; challenges, bad news, and difficult conversations call for a verbal chat with a written follow-up.

I once had to address a room full of 50 CEOs and inform them that a software upgrade they were waiting for would be months delayed.

Niki Gallo Hammond, Project Manager at Jackson River

"I once had to address a room full of 50 CEOs and inform them that a software upgrade they were waiting for would be months delayed," Hammond says. "While they weren't happy about it, I think they saw how much I cared and that I wanted to find ways to minimize the impact it would have on their operations. And, they were able to voice their concerns to me immediately and we started brainstorming right there on workarounds. In many ways it ended up strengthening our partnership, which would probably not have happened if the message were delivered via email."

Never be afraid to over-communicate. It's better to pick up the phone or walk down the hall and make sure everything's going ok, than to just trust that things will automatically work themselves out.

Lead by Example

Even if the entire team is up-to-speed, remember that you, the project manager, are still in the lead. That means doing whatever it takes to get the project done, even if it's outside of your assigned duties.

A good project manager leads by thinking three steps ahead and knows that ultimately, how a project fares will reflect on them.

"Never let the ball drop, but keep a close score of who let it drop and fix the underlying issue as soon as you can," Cothenet says.

Anticipation of things that'll come up outside of the to-do list—followed by prompt action—make a project manager indispensable.

Good project managers "do the stuff no one else thought should be done, before they even think about it," Cothenet says. "Bad project managers try to become indispensable by creating unnecessary bottlenecks and taking knowledge hostage." Succeed by enabling others, and doing the things needed to push your team forward.

Do the stuff no one else thought should be done, before they even think about it.

Paul Cothenet, CTO of MadKudu, former Product Manager

As a product manager, Martin Müntzing, Podio's head of product, says his constraints are less about time and money and more about reaching a desired effect.

But even then, Müntzing's team needs some sort of direction. So they found a way to systemize thinking ahead, which they called "hypothesis-driven development."

"We formulate a hypothesis about what will happen with product implementation, and we do that before we start making any change," Müntzing says. "But with that comes a lot of stakeholder negotiations. They want to know what's going to happen before you even start; what the likely effect will be. But for us, it's more about the results."

From there, his team will hypothesize what will likely happen if they make a change, and then measure the results. This way, they're setting the project track up before changing anything—and they've used it for everything from landing page adjustments to pricing tests.

But they don't send every change through the hypothesis-driven development model.

"There are times when we know already that it's a good idea, it's been widely requested by customer, and needs to get done, and we don't feel the need to test it," Müntzing says. "With things that have a larger element of risk or uncertainty, we do the hypothesis."

As the product manager, Müntzing makes the final call about what they work on next, but it's important to get everyone's buy-in. "The smaller the organization, the more it's 'everyone's' team," he says. "So more people need to agree it's a good idea. But essentially, the product manager owns the execution."

Create Balance

Being a manager who also takes on some grunt work means that you get a bird's-eye view of every siloed department that's involved in the project. That's why most project managers say putting yourself in the other person's shoes adds perspective to team dynamics.

"As a project manager you are in a unique position of perspective that most members of your project team will not have," says Hammond. "It can be frustrating as a designer to see your designs mangled out of functional necessity, or as a programmer to see shortcuts taken due to time or budget constraints. Remember that each team member may value and protect their particular corner of the project. Take the time understand their personal goals and priorities for the project and for themselves, and help them understand the organizational or strategic goals of the project."

Make sure you acknowledge good work and provide positive reinforcement. Your success is the sum of your leadership plus all the work everyone else does, so show your team that what they do matters.

Remember that each team member may value and protect their particular corner of the project. Take the time understand their personal goals and priorities for the project and for themselves.

Niki Gallo Hammond, Project Manager at Jackson River

Cothenet says that balancing the short- and long-term performance of your team is one of the toughest parts of project management. "It is your job to fix other people's mistakes and avoid dropping the ball. But in the long term, your team will be dysfunctional if lazy people rely on you to do their job," Cothenet says.

"The biggest thing I've learned is to make my team members feel wanted and treat them like they matter and that I depend on them," Corraro says. "You can do this without letting people walk all over you. For example, if someone finished their work well and ahead of schedule, don't deduct a sick day next time they call in."

Cothenet says that there were many times when his team would take two weeks to plan something, start the sprint, and then see numerous plan changes—which can be a big morale-killer.

"As a project manager, it's your job to assess the importance of these recurring requests, examine if they really need to be met or not," Cothenet says. "If you are constantly disrupting your team and changing directions, your team will stop trusting you."

If you can master these five skills, there's no doubt your team will thank you for it. But if you don't want to stop here, Müntzing suggests checking out Ben Horowitz and David Weiden's essay, "Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager." Podio uses it as part of their project manager onboarding, and Muentzing says it's a constant source of inspiration.

Read more: RACI: A map for team structure (with template)

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