What are the core competencies of a successful project manager?

What's the Key To Becoming a Successful Project Manager?

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This paper will compare the role and competencies of the project manager within different project management approaches. An overview will be given of the criteria of a competent project manager. These criteria will be integrated in a checklist, which will identify the areas and competencies to which companies need to pay attention when selecting a project manager for a project.

Efforts to develop to these competencies will enable companies and project managers to meet the challenges of today's changing environment and prepare for the future.


A project may be well conceived and adequately financed, the resources may be specialists, and consultants may be highly experienced, but if the efforts of all the participants are not skillfully coordinated and managed, the project may overrun the budget, fail to meet the schedule, or fall short in functional and technical quality. The larger and more complex the project, the more critical this overall management function becomes.

In the construction industry it would be unthinkable to conduct a construction project without a project manager. Some businesses, however, still see a project manager as overhead rather than integral to success. During economic downturns many project managers are laid off due to cancellation of projects. However, another major reason for project manager layoffs is not recognizing the added value of a project manager. There is not one agreed-upon definition of “project manager” nor his/her responsibilities: scope of duties range anywhere from administrator to multimillion-budget manager. In addition, a lot of companies have defined project manager selection criteria vaguely and often focus more on fit into the organization than competency for the position.

Project managers, in general, have no formal authority, though they are held responsible for the overall success of the project. They are responsible for managing the interaction between all stakeholder groups, each of whom have their own expectations and project success criteria. The project manager is often well served by putting their egos aside and keeping a necessary emotional distance from their work. Summarized, the position of project manager demands an overall defined skill set and personality profile.

Competencies as Defined Within Different PM Organizations

The Project Management Institute (PMI®) identifies three different competency dimensions: knowledge, personal and performance. Both the knowledge as performance competencies are organized around the nine project management knowledge areas described in the Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). The personal competencies are broken up into 6 areas: achievement and action, helping and human service, impact and influence, managerial, cognitive, personal effectiveness (PMI 2002, p3).

The European based International Project Management Association (IPMA) assesses a variety of qualifications and competences concerning knowledge, experience and personal attitude. The IPMA Competency Baseline (ICB) identifies 42 key competencies for knowledge and experience as well as 8 aspects for personal attitude and 10 for general impression (Caupin, 1999).

The Australian Institute for Project Management (AIPM) developed the National Competency Standards for Project Management (NCSPM) in consultation with the industry and under the auspices of the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA). The AIPM has adopted the PMBOK® Guide as the knowledge base for the NCSPM and depicts the competencies around the nine knowledge areas (AIPM, 2002).

The Japanese Engineering Advancement Association of Japan (ENAA) together with the Project Management Professionals Certification Center (PMCC) has issued a new project management Body of Knowledge (BoK) in August of 2002, the P2M Guidebook, a guidebook for Project and Program Management for Enterprise Innovation. This new project management standard is quite different than PMI®'s and IPMA's body of knowledge. The new standard's vision is based on “how project management can best stimulate innovation and generate improved business value.” The P2M Guidebook, based on a “tower structure”, is according to the Japanese Standard Committee more aligned to the business of “management of projects” than to the European and North American BoK dedicated to the management of a single project (PMFORUM, 2000).


The different project management organizations use certification as a measure of project management competence. Certification is seen as a method to measure demonstrated ability in managing projects. There are several project management certifications in the market.

PMI has two levels of certification - Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM™) and Project Management Professional (PMP®). The PMP® certification requires the applicant to have a minimum of 4500 hours of project management experience totaling to three years of unique project management experience in the last 6 years and a minimum of 35 hours project management training prior to taking the exam (PMI, 2000). The certification involves a multiple-choice examination of 200 questions on project management. Increasingly, North American corporations demand the PMP qualification on job profiles.

IPMA has a four-level certification program - Project Management Practitioner (PMF), Registered Project Management Professional (PMP), Certificated Project Manager (CPM), and Certificated Program Director (CPD). Certification involves a combination of proven experience, self-assessment, official exam, a written project report, and an independent, third party interview. To achieve certification, each candidate must demonstrate an accepted level of understanding, knowledge and practical experience in project management [Caupin, 2003].

The Australian AIPM certification, the RegPM, is available in three levels - project team member/project specialist (QPP), project manager (RPM) and project director/program manager (MPD). It is a competency-based, workplace assessment program that requires candidates to compile a logbook of evidence that shows that they are competent (i.e. output competence) at one of three levels (AIPM, 2002).

P2M is the basis of Japan's certification system for project and program managers. Certification is classified according to levels of positional missions, responsibilities and experience: Project Management Specialist (PMS), Project Manager Registered (PMR), and Project Management Architect (PMA) (PMCC, 2002)

Certification, by itself, does not qualify a candidate as a project manager. It can be used to demonstrate commitment to the profession and evidence of a certain level of knowledge. A project management certification is a good indicator of a person's knowledge but is never a guarantee for the quality. This is generally valid for certifications in all professions, e.g. CPA or a Microsoft CNE.

Criteria of a Competent Project Manager

Based on our research, we have identified three project management competency areas: knowledge, proven experience and personality. Each competency area is built around specific “pillars”. The knowledge area has three pillars. The first pillar contains general management skills such as leadership, negotiation, communication, team building and other human resource management skills that are necessary in any management position. The second pillar contains knowledge of the generally accepted project management areas including the tools used in those areas, such as project scope management, project time management, and project cost management. The last pillar contains industry specific management knowledge, such as lifecycle management and product development methodologies.

The proven experience competency area includes track record, hours of project management exposure, size and complexity of project managed and independent references. Years of experience do not necessary always give a good competency rating.

The personality area, arguably the most important one, has two pillars. The first pillar contains personality characteristics such as can-do attitude, confidence, enthusiasm, open mindedness, adaptability, and personal integrity. The second pillar contains people management skills such as ability to communicate, ability of motivation, ability to influence and political sensitivity. The political sensitivity attribute is very important for project managers. Projects are multidimensional and are inherently affected by politics. The key is to be aware of politics, to work with them, but not be part of them.

A competent leader continually balances five project “currencies” - time, money, knowledge, security, and prestige. For a project to be perceived as successful, all stakeholders have to feel that they received a positive exchange at the end of the project. Most people can readily grasp the exchange rates for time, money, and knowledge. Security and prestige are, however, based on individual perception and are harder to quantify. A prime example is the functional manager who appears to ignore clear gains in both time and money as he/she opposes a project. This individual is perhaps seeing a loss of security or prestige greater than the value of time and money. A competent project manager understands this perception of loss and often can present a stakeholder with a gain in either (or both) areas, and win their support for the project. The final component of people management, often harder to manage, is when people feel threatened by the skill set of a good and successful project manager.

Using a Checklist To Pick a Project Manager

When assigning a project manager it is important to look for a combination of skills and knowledge in all three competency areas. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Project managers need to act on different levels. For example, a project manager can gain influence and respect of stakeholders and management when they clearly demonstrate the linkage between the corporation's business goals and the project. On the other hand, they gain influence and respect of the team when they can identify with the team's goals and bring these goals into alignment with the corporation goals.
  • Different organizational cultures require different emphasis within the three competency areas.
General Management skills

-  Leadership

   - provide direction

   - provide vision

   - coach/mentor team members

   - sound judgment

   - issue & conflict resolution

   - effective decision making

-  Negotiation

-  Communication

-  Team building

Project Management skills

-  Fundamental project management skills

-  Project management tools & techniques

-  Organizational savvy

Industry skills

-  Breadth (not depth) in specific application/industry knowledge

-  Life cycle management


-  Strategic in approach: understands and addresses inter-dependencies and real issues

-  Clear definition of requirements (tested by real customer requirements) and timetables

-  Experience managing to deliverables and milestones: on time/within budget/meeting business needs

-  Ability to manage troubled teams/projects and bring them to success

-  Proven experience with projects of similar size and scope

-  Organized and efficient in work processes


-  Aptitude; flexibility and ability to adapt to change and cultural realities

-  Confidence and commitment

-  Pro-active, can-do attitude

-  Open mindedness

-  Common sense

-  Trustworthy

-  Creative

People management skills

-  Build and manage interpersonal relationships

-  Ability to influence and win respect

-  Know when NOT to manage

-  Politically sensitive

-  Active listening

-  Role model

-  Fairness


The checklist below addresses the competencies and attributes companies need to pay attention to when selecting a project manager for a project. The checklist is a guideline that can be used to evaluate current project managers or to screen prospective project managers for a new project and to ensure that the most skilled project managers are assigned to the most critical projects. The checklist can be combined with behavioral interviewing. Additionally, project management candidates can also use this list to prepare for a job interview.

KNOWLEDGE Test candidate's working knowledge of concepts, methodologies, practices and vocabulary of the profession. In addition to the case scenarios, always ask for actual past examples to verify real life experience.
General management
○ Leadership
- sound judgment Knowledge of business purpose of the project and ability to make decisions within that context. Discuss a case scenario with candidate in which current triple constraints priorities (time, money, quality) are explained. If there is a problem with one of the constraints, what action would they take?
- provide vision Ability to translate organization vision into a project vision. Have candidate explain end vision of the project and why it is important to the company
- provide direction Ability to keep project moving toward successful completion in face of aggressive schedules and discouraging developments. Have candidate explain how they know where the project is, where it has been, and where it is going.
- coach/mentor team Knowledge of team strengths and weaknesses and ability to effectively utilize team members to complement and support each other. Active feedback to team members and stakeholders. Have candidate explain how they motivate their team and interact with key stakeholders
- issue & conflict resolution Ability to recognize resistance and overcome it. Ability to control project issues while avoiding power confrontations. Thinking in opportunities instead of barriers. Ask what issue resolution models and stress management techniques candidate uses and let them illustrate with real life examples.
- effective decision making Ability to identify key issues & problems and pick the best choice among alternatives. Ability to make timely decisions and to take action reflective of business objectives. Use a case scenario to identify if candidate uses a structured approach to address decisions, takes into account both facts and opinions, presents options to sponsor, escalates when appropriate, documents decisions made and follows up to ensure execution.
○ Communication Ability to provide information regarding tasks, plans, schedule, strategies and org structure to stakeholders. Ask for description of communication plans candidate uses. Does candidate tailor form and timing of communication to their audience? Do they confirm the accuracy of information sent and received? Do they ask follow-up questions? Do they clarify understanding before reacting?
○ Negotiation

○ Team building

Ability to negotiate win-win agreements.

Ability to encourage and enable people to work together as a team to accomplish the project.

Use case scenario to identify how candidate negotiates. Do they advocate interests rather than positions, seek win-win agreements, and use objective criteria to evaluate proposed agreements?
Ask for examples of team building activities used in the past. Does the candidate share management responsibilities with the team? Do they advertise team achievements?
Project management Knowledge of fundamental project management processes, methodologies and tools & techniques and ability to adapt them to organization.
Understanding of formal and informal organizational structures.
Project management certification gives an indication of the candidate's knowledge of concepts, methodologies and vocabulary. Use a sample project case scenario to have candidate show project management skills such as project planning, cost/benefit analysis, problem resolution, and risk management.
Industry management High-level understanding of applications used in the organization's industry. Ability to adapt project management processes to organization's product life cycle. Have candidate explain how they would adapt project management processes to your specific application area.
PROVEN EXPERIENCE Candidate should show successful track record through specific examples describing how the success was achieved and how the stakeholders recognized it.
Ability to manage (troubled) teams/projects and bring them to success. Ability to manage interactions between the customer and the project team. Ask for detailed examples of past experience. Contact references regarding specific examples based on the knowledge competencies listed above.
PERSONAL ATTITUDE Test candidate behavior in a project environment through scenarios, role-play or management assessment.
Characteristics Ability to adapt and deal with situations and manage everyone's expectations through ongoing change. Ability to say “No”. Ability to stay calm under pressure. Ability to take responsibility for failures. Ask for examples of following through on commitments, including those made to colleagues. Use role-play to simulate under pressure situations.
Pay attention to the conversation and language used. Does candidate models good communication and mutual respect?
People management Ability to earn trust and respect from project's stakeholders. Ability to influence decisions that need to be made to make the project successful. Use case scenario to identify how candidate interacts with project stakeholders. Does candidate challenges project board and sponsor? Do they stay authentic, independent of whom they talk to? Do they manage expectations and promote trustworthiness through listening?


With the Core Competencies Checklist companies will be able to determine which project manager has the best mix of knowledge, experience and personality for a specific project. By being able to select the right project manager for the project, companies will minimize project failures and maximize their project's return on investment.

Different roles in project management will require different competencies. Since the project management environment is characterized by change, responsibilities, and hence required knowledge and skill levels, continuously transform. One of the key competencies is therefore to be flexible and adaptive in any situation. Although certification does not qualify a project manager by itself, it does give an indication of the candidate's knowledge of concepts and methodologies. It also shows that the candidate is dedicated to the profession. The kind of project management certification is not of primary importance.

Successful project managers have the ability to demonstrate the unbiased fairness of a judge, the skills of a diplomat, the authority of a general and the understanding of a parent [McNamara,2003].


Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) (2002) Registered Project Manager, retrieved on Feb 24, 2004, from http://www.aipm.com.au/html/regpm.cfm.

Australian Institute of Project Management (2002) National Competency Standards For Project Management, retrieved on Feb 24, 2004, from http://www.aipm.com.au/html/ncspm.cfm.

Caupin, G. (2003, December) IPMA Project Management Certification system, La Soirée Certification en Management de Projet 2004, Paris, France.

Caupin, G., H. Knöpfel, P. Morris, E. Motzel & O. Pannenbäcker (1999) IPMA Competency Baseline, Monmouth, United Kingdom: International Project Management Association.

McNamara, J.P. (2003, September) The “Neutral” Project Manager, PMI Global Congress North America 2003, Baltimore, MD.

Naughton, E. (2003) “From ‘Accidental’ to Certified Professionals”. A Discourse on the Various Certification Options Available to Irish Project Managers, retrieved on Feb 24, 2004, from http://www.projectmanagement.ie/articles/from_accidental_to_certified_professionals.htm

PMFORUM (2000). “Project Management Standards and Professional Certification”, retrieved on Feb 19, 2004, from http://www.pmforum.org/prof/standard.htm#APM.

Project Management Institute. (2000) Project Management Professional Handbook (2000ed.), Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2002) Project Manager Competency Development Framework, Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Professionals Certification Center (PMCC) (2002) A Guidebook of Project & Program Management for Enterprise Innovation, retrieved on Feb 29, 2004, from http://www.pmcc.or.jp/english/p2m/P2M_Summary.pdf.

Udo, N. (2004), Internet Survey on Project Management core competencies, conducted from Feb. 11 to 20, 2004.

© 2004 All rights reserved. N. Udo, Projectway, LLC. & S. Koppensteiner, InterGlobe Consulting
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Prague, Hungary



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