The 5 Critical Skills Every Project Manager Should Have

Hi there! Have you ever wondered what are the critical skills every project manager should have? As project managers, we have to maintain a view of the “big picture” and steer the project to success, while handling day-to-day, micro level crises that pop up now and then. What kind of skill set is required to meet these challenges?

And here are some related questions which I kept asking myself when I first started out as a project manager:

  • Do you think project managers are born, or made? Can you learn to be a project manager over time?
  • Are some people with the “gift of the gab” better suited to project management compared to those who are shy and quiet?
  • If you are disorganized and always forgetting your tasks, are you going to make a good project manager?

Before we answer those questions, let's take a look at what I feel are the five critical skills every project manager should have.

1. Communication

Communication skills are one of the most important skills every project manager should have. You can have the best resources on the job, produce the most technically advanced system, the most insightful report or fancy Powerpoint slides, but these are useless if you, as a PM, cannot communicate well with your stakeholders and team members.

I'm not talking about charisma here, or the ability to “sweet talk”. Some folks think that project managers must have the gift of the gab and charm the socks off their stakeholders to get buy-in and sign-off on deliverables.

Not true. The communication skills a project manager needs are more about:

  • Escalating risks and problems to relevant individuals once they occur
  • Scheduling meetings to resolve issues
  • Updating senior management on project progress
  • Listening to and understanding your stakeholders' and team members' issues

Case Study: I'll give you a very real example from one of my projects. I was the project manager in charge of upgrading the core banking system for a bank. I had to make sure the vendor upgraded the software over one weekend (in our industry this is called the “go-live” weekend).

Before that “go-live” weekend, we had to do a “practice run” weekend. The vendor set up a “test environment”, copied production data over and ran the entire sequence of upgrade programs to ensure everything checked out. When we first did a practice run, we encountered a nasty bug where the nightly trade confirmation reports (scheduled to be run from 2.00 am to 4.00 am) just would not generate.

I scheduled daily conference calls on the issue. I called the bank's project sponsor, the vendor's Asia Pacific GM, the bank and vendor's consultants, etc. and published a twice daily status email. Over the call I communicated the status of the problem and asked each person involved to update on what they had done. This went on daily for twelve days and over two weekends.

On the tenth day, we managed to trace the bug to a network connectivity problem and resolved it. The following weekend we went live with the system to the delight of senior management.

The case study above highlights the importance of communication skills. When I schedule daily conference calls to get everyone to solve a problem - I'm displaying communicative ability.

Now, I'm not a flamboyant or loud person by nature. In fact, I'm quite shy and quiet. But I am an effective project manager. What I do is to make sure, at a professional level, we communicate effectively across the project and things will get done.

2. Team Building

Another critical skill a project manager should have is the ability to perform team building.

Projects can be long and drawn out. Projects get tough and can get everyone very stressed. As a PM, your job is also to ensure everyone stays motivated.

I motivate my team members by doing things like:

  • Buying the team every drinks or dinner every now and then
  • Talking to each team member about their hobbies
  • Cracking jokes in the project room
  • Making bets on current events (e.g. our team bet on outcomes of the World Cup once)

Tip: If you're not very good at team building or social events, find someone on your team who is good at it. I once had this girl on the team who was lively and brought smiles to everyone when she entered the office each day. Sensing her ability to make the project more fun for everyone, I appointed her the “Recreation Lead”. Each month she would organize parties or nights out. She loved the role and everyone had great memories of our team events.

3. Conflict Management

The third skill every project manager should know is conflict management. Conflict management is tough and to be honest, till this day, I hate doing it. But people get into squabbles and disagreements on projects - all the time. And they have to be resolved.

Conflict management is about:

  • Understanding the disagreement between the affected parties
  • Setting up a meeting to discuss each party's viewpoints
  • Both parties agreeing to a solution that moves the project forward

Here's a classic example. One of your users for the computer system you're rolling out wants to have a report churned out on a daily basis showing all clients who have signed up for a mortgage product in the bank. The timeline is tight and there is no way your programmer can create the report in time for the system go-live.

You speak to the user involved and she is adamant that the report be slotted in. She escalates it to her boss and says her department will not sign-off the system go-live unless the report is developed. You convene a meeting with her boss to manage the situation. This user gets all aggressive and shouts during the meeting.

THAT is the kind of situation where conflict management skills come in. My approach in these situations is to find a creative, compromise solution. Let me repeat that in a "tip" box:

Tip: The best way out of a conflict is to find a creative, compromise solution.

What I'd do in the above example is to try any of the following ideas:

  • Get one of her staff to help develop the report in Excel so my programmer is not impacted

  • Suggest a slimmed down version of the report so we don't have a huge impact on our schedule

  • Tell her that she can have her report but only on this specific date after the system goes live, as part of a subsequent phase

  • Talk to her boss separately and get his or her buy-in to omit the report from the go-live

… you get the idea. So remember, conflict management is absolutely critical for any project manager to pick up.

4. Industry and Solution Knowledge

There was a time when you could get by being a project manager with just a “generic” PM skill set. So if you could draw up a project plan, execute, monitor and control project issues, you'd be able to deliver your outcomes successfully.

Today, this is no longer true. All you have to do is to go to some job website and check out the job description of a project manager. You'll see things like:

  • “Must have knowledge of retail banking products and channels”

  • “Knowledge of ACME Software and its modules a strong advantage”

  • “Knowledge of structured products and equities a must”

See what I mean? In addition to technical PM knowledge, you need to have industry or solution skills.

Case Study: I'll give a personal example. I started out my career being a team member delivering projects across many industries. I had no industry focus, so when I went into a project - the users would ask me specific industry topics for which I had no answer.

I eventually got tired of that and joined a bank. I picked up banking industry knowledge. I even went to take a part-time finance degree in Singapore, specializing in banking products and operations.

After that, when I came back to being a consultant, I started doing only banking or financial services type of projects. This has made a lot of difference in my ability to add value to the client. Today, when the client asks me about equity-linked notes, fixed income coupons or corporate actions processing, I have working knowledge of those topics. And you can see the user's eyes light up when you speak their language.

Besides industry knowledge, I think it is helpful to also know one or two solutions very well. Let's say you're doing projects in the telecommunications industry and you're a specialist in customer relationship management, it would be good to pick up deep knowledge of the top customer relationship management software packages. Sign up for a training course or speak to your vendor to provide some discounted training. It will do wonders for your ability to add value.

Solution knowledge need not be confined to software programs. You can build up specialist solution expertise in mergers and acquisitions, company strategy, Six Sigma, business process re-engineering, testing methodologies, etc.

The general rule of thumb here is “to be known for something” - deep industry or solution skills, in addition to your PM skills. Staying with a generic skill set is simply not enough these days.

5. Time Management

The final skill required of a project manager is that of time management. As a project manager, you are probably juggling ten to twenty action items at any given time. How do you keep on top of them? You need time management skills.

I've a huge fan of time management systems. I've read Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, David Allen's Getting Things Done, and all manner of other personal productivity books. I play with apps and software that allow me to track my to-dos and schedules and I love mucking around with spreadsheets that monitor my time and activities.

To be honest with you, I'm still learning. I've learnt that successful time management is more about keeping your motivation and energy levels up, rather than just following any particular system or software tool. Today, I use a small app in my iPhone to track all my tasks. I still have a hardcopy notebook to jot down notes in meetings, but on a daily basis, ALL my to-dos and open loops go into my iPhone.

There's lots we can talk about regarding tracking tasks and time management, so be sure to pick up these topics when browsing through my website.

Wrapping Up ...

And that's it! You've seen the five critical skills that every project manager should have - communication skills, team building skills, conflict management skills, industry / solution knowledge and time management skills. Hopefully you now also have some answers to the questions I posted at the start of this article:

  • Question: Do you think project managers are born, or made? Can you learn to be a project manager over time?

    Answer: You can learn to be a project manager over time. Project management needs a LOT of varied skills. No one can learn them all. My suggestion is to play on your strengths and plug the gaps in your weak areas.

  • Question: Are some people with the “gift of the gab” better suited to project management compared to those who are shy and quiet?

    Answer: Having the gift of the gab and a flamboyant personality does not mean you'll do well as a project manager. The important thing is to communicate the key issues on a consistent basis, to move the project forward. And you can do it in any style you want - an aggressive style, a more friendly but firm style - it's up to you.

  • Question: If you are disorganized and always forgetting your tasks, are you going to make a good project manager?

    Answer: Pick up time management skills. Everyone is disorganized in some way. Having the tools to manage your time is the best way to get things under control.

There are many other skill sets that a project manager may need to have. But in my experience, the five I listed in this article are the most important ones. Pick up a book, attend a course and build up these skills because they will make you a much better project manager. Good luck!

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