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3 Things All Successful Project Managers Do

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Published on December 30, 2021

In our series of posts related to project management, we've examined the differences between management and leadership, discussed the primary functions that project managers perform, and we've gone technical in exploring the ins-and-outs of logical-activity relationships.

In this, our fourth and final article on the topic, we are going to look at the things that we think all project managers must do to be successful. Project management is a complex and demanding job and project managers must stay on top of many things. Just take a look at the Project Management Institute's Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®)! It's a subjective call as to which are the most important, so remember that this is our take on the topic.

3 Keys for Project Management Success

As we said, project managers must be proficient in numerous areas, but we're going to pick our Top 3: communication, leadership, and management.

1. Communication

Project communication is everything. Without it, projects will lack focus, direction, and cohesion. Communication must be multi-directional. It must occur between project sponsors and the project team, between the project manager and the team, and between the team groups, sub-groups, and members themselves. It’s the project manager's responsibility to establish a collaborative environment that promotes the regular and timely communication of project information amongst and between these constituents.

Don't think that Microsoft Teams, Google Chat, or similar messaging technology will provide the magic communication bullet. Yes, they are important project tools, but they are no replacement for live, person-to-person sessions (or video for COVID-19 safety reasons), where project goals, issues, and progress can be shared and discussed on a regular basis.

The most successful project managers make sure that the client is closely linked into this communication process. This provides for confirmation that the project is adhering to customer needs and allows for adjustments to be made as necessary. If the client has been with you on every step of the project journey, there's less chance of disappointment at its conclusion.

Communication does not end when the project is live. It concludes during wrap-up when the project manager convenes a retrospective with the team — and sometimes the client. The retrospective is a project deep-dive to determine what went right, what obstacles occurred, how they were handled, and what was learned as individuals and as a project team. The project manager can then take these findings and use them to improve subsequent projects.

2. Leadership

The second key to project management success is leadership. An old saying attributed to Alexander the Great says, "I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion." This saying speaks to the value of strong leadership on any group of individuals. They will frequently perform much better together — as a team — than as individuals.

Although you will hear talk about "born leaders", research indicates that “leadership is about one-third born and two-thirds made”. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. You don't have to be the smartest person in the room. Acclaimed World War II leader, and later U.S. President, General Dwight Eisenhower graduated 61st in his West Point class of 164 cadets.

You also don't have to have been class president or on the college debating team to be a good leader. While it's helpful to be a fabulous personal communicator, it's not essential. Good communication skills (which can be learned) are probably enough. In fact, one of the most important leadership skills is active listening. That is to be seen to be engaged with your conversation partner and to be absorbing and valuing their input. This approach radiates positively back to team members and helps engender trust in, and commitment to, the leader and to the project.

Leaders must be forward-looking and be able to communicate and sell a vision of the project to team members and prospective beneficiaries. They must be comfortable in building and managing relationships. Even on high-tech, engineering, or scientific projects, mastery of the technical subject matter is not an essential skill for the project manager to possess. Their job is about collaborating and communicating, building and maintaining trust, resolving people and resource conflicts, negotiating and solving problems.

3. Management

Our final key is management. But we're not talking about taking care of the nuts-and-bolts, although someone does need to take care of them. We're talking about top-down management of a complex project, potentially with many interconnected and interdependent parts.

Good project managers are aware of the dangers of micromanagement. Having selected their team members, they must trust them to do their job, but know how to assure themselves that the delegated project tasks are being completed efficiently, correctly and on or before the deadline. A good project manager never points fingers when things go off-track. Instead, they share the responsibility for problems that arise. They work with their team to diagnose the root cause and then agree on the required corrective action. Thus, their focus is on identifying and resolving bottlenecks to ensure that the project is kept on track.

A part of keeping the project on track is making sure that it meets client expectations. Successful project managers make sure that they stay in sync with the project sponsor at all times. They will continuously assess project progress and deliverables, timelines, and resources to ensure that the project is delivering what the client needs. Now sometimes wants and needs may become points of contention with the client. They may want a Porsche SUV, but they only need a Ford Explorer to carry a workload. See the difference?

The project manager is answerable for the overall project timeline and budget. Requirement creep is always a danger. As such, successful project managers manage client expectations and are prepared to say deny change requests. It's in nobody's interest — client or project team — to undertake additional work that ends up derailing the whole project!

However, sometimes client needs actually do change and must be accommodated. Or perhaps the team itself may uncover a better way of meeting customer needs. In either case, the project manager must be ready to take decisive action to negotiate the required changes and then to adjust the project plan, deliverables, budget and timeline as necessary. Of course, their decisions must be defensible and driven by data in order to avoid the potential for post-project sniping.

The final aspect of management is the ongoing review of performance: the overall project and the project team. In this way, the project manager can uncover ways to run subsequent projects more effectively, as well as identify areas for skills development for team members and themselves.

Wrapping Up

Communication, leadership, and management are three key attributes that you need in a successful project manager. Hiring executives look for these attributes when they appoint or hire project managers. Employers know that the position is critical to the successful introduction of their enterprise change initiatives and this is reflected in the demand for qualified project managers.

Certified does not necessarily equate to qualified, though. There's a lot to be said for experience. However, employers do expect their project managers to have appropriate certifications, with the Project Management Institute's Project Management Professional (PMP) probably being the most requested.

The Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) cert is also in demand. It's PMI's entry-level certification and it's a great first step if you're planning a career in project management. If that's your chosen path, then consider signing-up for CBT Nuggets CAPM online certification training. Led by Simona Millham, this training will prepare you for the CAPM certification exam, by taking you into detail on the project manager's job function and the essential skills you will need to lead your own project.


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