Delivering successful projects is a key need for all businesses and IT groups alike. But as we all know, many projects fail or are only partially successful. Projects represent a large proportion of a business’s budget, so when projects don’t succeed a lot of money is wasted. Improving the chance that a project succeeds should be a goal of CIOs. Having the ‘right’ project or program manager (PM) increases the chances of successful project delivery. But how do you find the ‘right’ PM? And what attributes should the  ‘right’ PM have?

I came across a study from the CIO Executive Board that identified what differentiates good from average PMs. Here are some of the Board’s findings:

Skills and Experience

The first selection criteria many organisations use for candidates for PM positions is project management certification. The Board’s study found that mere certification does not predict PM effectiveness.  The results also revealed that PMs with a strong technology background do not necessarily make good PMs.  This is because, PMs with diverse experience across both technology and business areas are typically more effective. Similarly, the study found that PMs that have ability in a broad range of technology or other domains were more effective than specialist PMs with ability in only one field. The implications from these results are that organisations should look to hire PMs that have diverse sets of experience in business and technology, and not rely too heavily on certifications alone.

Knowledge of the Business

Effective PMs understand not only ‘how’ but also ‘why’. They know the goals of their projects and know how these goals fit within the overall goals of the organisation. Effective PMs understand the organisational context within which the project operates. We all have seen too many PMs, who are so focused on their own project goals and success that they ignore everything else. In these cases, even if the project meets its goals, the project fails to deliver the benefits expected.

Understanding the organisation’s goals and strategies enables PMs to broker consensus from the conflicting agendas of the various stakeholders. If PMs lack this organisational knowledge, providing them with a mentor, who has the right organisational knowledge can help increase PM effectiveness.

Managing Stakeholders

High performing PMs become ‘business partners’ and not just ‘order-takers’. Order-takers typically focus on delivering what is specified even if it is incorrect or even if the circumstances change. On the other hand, ‘business partners’ improve their own credibility and gain the trust of the project sponsor, due to their understanding of a variety of project scenarios. As a result, ‘business partners’ are able to tailor their communications and frame their problems to overcome difficulties or  find the correct way forward.

Effective PMs develop relationships across the organisation so that they understand organisational dynamics, conflicting agendas, and the different personalities of key stakeholders within the organisation. This enables these PMs to consistently avoid barriers and successfully steer through complex issues.

Smart PMs tailor their communications to suit the needs of the key project stakeholders. Technology projects have both technical and business stakeholders with quite different needs and knowledge. Good PMs can convey the project’s progress and challenges with the right level of jargon and detail to different audiences, while at the same time maintaining their engagement with the project. Technical PMs typically use language that is foreign to business people. When key decisions are not understood or endorsed by key stakeholders, this can lead to costly consequences.

Team Leadership Ability

The importance of team leadership skills is often underestimated when businesses select PMs. Effective PMs understand what the team needs and tailor their communications with the team to drive the team’s performance. These PMs correctly assess and leverage team members’ skills, and are able to gain the trust of their team members.

Poor PMs, or ‘bullies’, run the team into the ground while the project is delivered. Although PMs with a poor track record of team leadership may make some short-term visible gains, these PMs often constrain the long-term success of the project. Team morale is a good indicator of a PM’s effectiveness. Good PMs not only deliver the project outcomes, but build a team’s capabilities throughout the project.

Ownership and Commitment

According to the study, two of the top three drivers of PM effectiveness are “passion to succeed”, and an “ability to meet internal deadlines”. When selecting PMs, leaders should seek potential candidates, who show these attributes.

Good PMs understand and help define the project success criteria. These PMs then become internal project champions by demonstrating passion in delivering the project and holding themselves accountable for the project’s success. Good PMs don’t find excuses for non delivery, rather, they strive to deliver the best outcomes.

Effective PMs follow the standard project processes, but look for ways to improve these process to remove bottleneck, time-consuming step, and other inefficiencies. CIOs should support and allow effective PMs to suggest process improvements where right.

Managing Project Risks

Effective PMs are skilled in anticipating the risks that will come up throughout the project life-cycle. These PMs not only identify risks, but are also effective in developing strategies to mitigate these risks. Effective PMs also communicate these risks to other stakeholders, to gain support for the mitigation of these risks.

The study found that there was a large difference in the ability to anticipate and manage risks between the top and bottom performers. So it would be advisable to use this as a filter in selecting PMs for critical projects.

Grace under Fire

Projects are stressful; a smooth running project is a rarity. Good PMs can maintain their cool and stay level-headed in times of crisis. They maintain composure and guide their teams through the myriad of crises and challenges that projects encounter.

Problems Solving and Quick Learning

The best PMs are experts at solving the problems that a project encounters. These PMs deal with insufficient or ambiguous information and are quick learners who rapidly draw lessons from unfamiliar situations and concepts. The best PMS are able to modify their own behaviour based on these lessons learnt.

Driven to Success

Good PMs are ambitious and success oriented. Organisations need to recognise this and create development pathways for PMs to progress to more senior roles. If organisations fail to look after good PMs, they will find challenges and opportunities elsewhere.

Summary

Project success depends on having the right project managers in place. I hope this article has given you useful guidance on the attributes of successful PMs that you can use in the PM selection and development process.

What other attributes you have found that characterise good PMs? Please let me know.

5 Responses to Attributes of Great Project Managers

  1. My question is this. What proportion of Project Managers would fall into the category of good PM’s? If I take the question into the leadership space as an example, 360 degree research conducted by University of Tulsa Professor Robert Hogan amongst managers found that while their peers and bosses consider the key criteria for leadership success as technical competency, their followers consider that to be a given and are looking for personal and interpersonal capabilities. That includes honesty, integrity, communication, respect, support, developing their people, managing their emotions – in fact most of the qualities your study has shown. With that criteria in mind, 75% of followers deemed their boss to be incompetent! This, of course, impacts on the boss’ ability to deliver necessary business outcomes. (Article Reference: https://www.google.com.au/search?q=Robert+Hogan+-+leadership+incompetence&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a)

    • hkogekar says:

      Thanks for your comment. Based on the numbers of project successes one would imagine the number is not high. I don’t have specific percentages but I imagine the percentage would be small. This is a pity. However, to be fair project managers is only one ingredient of the project success. There are other barriers to transformations and project sponsors also play a key role in project success.

  2. Sanjay Sarode says:

    Good at getting others to contribute/talk and are genuine listeners.

  3. Hallo Hemant, Great post by the way. And thanks for the link to your Barriers to Transformation post.
    Regards,
    Suzanne

  4. Nandu Gangal says:

    Excellent – One more point I would like to make – Project Manager needs to be firm – items outside agreed scope often creep in due to pressures – unless they are handled thru Change Control, they impact the project. So, the PM should be strong enough to to say ‘NO’.