Project Management Institute

Hidden skills of a project manager

Managing Director,
Turlon & Associates


Being a successful project manager takes an investment in your own skills and a dedication to getting the job done, but there are other qualities you must have in order to have a good outlook as a project manager. Talking and practicing with project managers, one thing continually comes to the fore, which is the need for soft-skills. The objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the hidden skill of a project manager is critical for project success. The hidden skills are those that allow project manager to have the ability to think and react in different situations. Some of the things that are continually mentioned are the subject of this paper. These are some of the hidden skills:

  • Skill 1: Have a Clear Direction
  • Skill 2: Lead and Mean it
  • Skill 3: Communication Skills
  • Skill 4: Problem Solving Skills
  • Skill 5: Be an Influencer

Paper Objectives

  • Understand what the challenges that projects and project managers face.
  • Identifying the tools and techniques that can be used to on-board team members.
  • Ability to become a problem-solver and how to use these skills.
  • Understand that conflict is good in project and that the role of the project manager is to manage it.
  • The principles behind what a project leader is and how to implement it.
  • The ability to influence sponsors and team members alike in non-ideal situations.
  • Understand how to effectively communicate project results and status.
  • To be proactive and reactive in managing project situations and conflict.

What Are the Hidden Skills

In project management studies by Leonard-Barton (1992), the core project management disciplines are traditionally treated as the knowledge of technical systems, skills and managerial systems. In essence they are saying that the project management ethos is on one where the technical domain is important. Leonard-Barton talks about that management value are rooted in these technical aspects but the critical aspects of management are often overlooked. One of the items that are often overlooked and a critical project management characteristic is the need to innovate and be creative in the face of organisation development.

This paper will use John Adair's (1996) simple Action-Centred Leadership model that provides a blueprint for leadership and the management of any project team. Action Centred Leadership is also a simple leadership and management model, which makes it easy to remember and apply, and to adapt for your own project situation. Good projects managers and leaders should have full command of the three main areas of the Action Centred Leadership model, and should be able to use each of the elements according to the situation. Being able to do all of these things, and keep the right balance, gets results, builds morale, improves quality, develops teams and productivity, and is the mark of a successful manager and leader.

According to Adair (1996), there are three aspects /skills to good project management:

Skills 1: Achieving the task—A part of this is the following elements of project management

  1. Having Subject Matter Knowledge: This involves having an understanding of the inner workings of their organisations and know enough about the project product and services to hold intelligent conversations with
    • customers,
    • stakeholders,
    • suppliers, and
    • functional leaders within the organisation.
  2. Project Management Structure: Effective project managers understand how, when, and why to deploy project management disciplines at different points in a project. Examples of these tools include project definition, planning, scheduling, vendor management, risk assessment, budgeting, change management, and project control.

Project managers create structure from chaos by using specific tools such as charters, risk assessments, Gantt charts, decision matrices, and many other tools throughout the project. These are considered as the project managers ability to manage the task

Skills 2: - Interpersonal Skills are the Hidden Skills—Team management is a core aspect of project management and the need to delegate, manage conflict and listening are all core aspects.

  1. Leadership Skills: Successful project managers know how to motivate people who do not work for them, and keep teams working effectively together. Quite simply, effective project managers tend to be as “likeable” as they are assertive. The best project managers are excellent listeners, and view exchanges with the above groups as learning opportunities.
  2. Communication and Time Management: Project managers should understand that there are countless good things to be involved in, but there are a vital few best things that must come first each day. Successful project managers are very good at saying, “I'm sorry but I can't support that right now.” Successful project managers also respect their teammates’ time. Project managers run efficient meetings, which results in good attendance by all parties over the long run.

    Project managers who communicate clearly, concisely, and frequently will always be a bonus to the project. They know, for example, when a simple email will suffice, or when a “working document” like a project charter will better serve their purpose.

  3. Manage Conflict: There are times when interpersonal skills are not enough to get the support needed from your sponsor and to make effective decisions on one or more project tasks. In these cases, project managers use influencing skills to get support and to ultimately get things done. Project managers needs to be very good at focusing attention on senior leadership and functional leaders to ensure decisions are made and to ensure that all business functions are making the project a priority. This is ultimately the ability of the project manager to influence their audience by managing conflict.

These three skills constitute the basis behind a good project manager interpersonal skill-set. While this is well understood, it is very difficult to teach these skills and why project manager develop, this is the interpersonal skills that are considered the hidden skills.

Why Develop the Hidden Skills

The following is a list of top ten reasons for project failure (The Standish Group, 1994; Winters, 2003):

1.   Inadequately trained or inexperienced project managers;

2.   Failure to set and manage expectations;

3.   Poor leadership at any and all levels;

4.   Failure to adequately identify, document, and track requirements;

5.   Poor plans and planning processes;

6.   Poor effort estimation;

7.   Cultural and ethical misalignment;

8.   Misalignment between project team and business/organization it serves;

9.   Inadequate or misused methods; and

10. Inadequate communication, including progress tracking and reporting.

“Inadequately trained or inexperienced project managers” appears at the top as the primary reason for project failure. If you asked 100 project managers if they felt they had sufficient training or experience in project management, in all likelihood the majority would say yes, but yet this perception runs counter to these studies. For this failure factor, to be successful, project managers need to employ both hard and soft skill techniques but feel the training on the softer skills are more difficult are require more on-the-job training. So what does this mean; project managers are prepared with how to achieve the task but not necessarily what to do in achieving it. Leadership, communication, culture, and ethics are generally associated with soft skills and these are top factors that are difficult to learn.

Can question should be asked; how can organisations create leaders, this is not so easy and hence the reason for it being a hidden skills. Research shows that people can learn to exhibit these traits. It's clear, though, that as leaders, project manager need to have solid fundamental skills in the domain in which they are leading. An optimistic leader who tries to enthusiastically lead a team of resources to project completion will not be successful if he or she does not understand the intricacies of the project's scope, deliverables, schedules, and budgets. This shows that perhaps the best leaders may come from the ground up, meaning they have strong prerequisite knowledge that gives them the ability to make sound decisions while they lead others to project success. If they are lacking in any of the prerequisite knowledge, then they need to surround themselves with key contributors who can assist them in filling in these gaps.

These are the challenges that face project managers, and this paper summarises that the hidden skills of a project manager involve learning and understanding these skills:

  • Skill 1: - Have a Clear Direction—A successful project manager must be able to have a clear direction and be able to articulate it to others.
  • Skills 2: - Lead and Mean it—Micro-managing a project is no way to be an effective leader because it destroys team's morale. A project manager should lead from the front and allow others to take control
  • Communication Skills: The need to remove oneself from detail and think of other is imperative in projects. The project manager is the link between the team and the strategy of the business so the need to be able to communicate effectively with business leaders is critical.
  • Problem Solving Skills: Project managers need to think on their feet and come up with instant to problems. While the project manager is proactive, they must also be reactive
  • Be an Influencer: To be an effective project manager, you must have the confidence to guide those around you such as you're sponsor. Influencing skills is like having the ability to inspire others to make decisions and encourage your stakeholders to constantly participate in the project.


Adair, J. (1996). Effective leadership - How to develop leadership skills. London, UK: Pan Books Ltd.

Leonard-Barton, D. (1992). Core capabilities and core rigidities: A paradox in managing new product development. Strategic Management Journal, 13(S1), 111–125.

The Standish Group. (1994).

Winters, F. (2003). Gantthead: The top ten reasons projects fail (Part 7). Retrieved from,1380,187449,00.html

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2013, Liam Dillon
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, USA



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