Project Management Institute

The quest to find the superior project manager

the Fortune 500 Project Management Benchmarking Forum defines competencies

by Frank Toney

The man who lacks competence can know neither the good nor any good thing.

—Plato (ca. 400 BC), The Republic

AS PLATO INFERRED over 2,400 years ago, people have long engaged in a quest to find and emulate the behavior of superior role models. After all, what better and more effective way to learn than to simply pattern one's behavior after that of a respected individual. In 1520, Machiavelli's reconfirmed this view with this statement in his book The Prince: “A prudent man should always enter upon the paths beaten by great men, and imitate those who have been most excellent.” In modern times, the concept has become so well respected that the learning value of role models is quantifiable. With this in mind, it should be no surprise that painting a portrait of the superior project manager is a high priority of industry groups, governments, academics, researchers and professionals.

Developing and validating project manager competencies and presenting the results as a Handbook of Generally Accepted Best Practices represents one of the major areas for improving the bottom line of most project managment stakeholders. For project management professionals, it will raise their image of professionalism, earnings, and improve job performance. For companies and large governmental agencies, published competencies enhance project manager selection, performance evaluation, and personnel development.

In order to identify, validate and weight factors that are empirically based predictors of project manager competency, a study has been initiated and compilation conducted by the Fortune 500 Project Management Benchmarking Forum. The Project Management Institute provided funding to assist in compilation of research results.


Relationship of Competencies to the PMBOK Guide

The PMBOK Guide describes a body of knowledge about a subject area (i.e., project management) and competencies describe actions, practices, traits and skills of individuals. Simply stated, the PMBOK Guide details what a project manager should know; competencies define what they should do. Competencies must be:

Observable and measurable

Descriptive of superior, not average, performance

Scientifically validated

Empirically weighted for impact on project goal achievement.

Overview of Superior Project Manager Competencies

There are four broad competency groupings that comprise the superior project manager: (a) character and traits, (b) professionalism consisting of leadership and management capabilities, (c) project skills including the application of structured methodologies, templates and procedures, and (d) background.

Exhibit 1 gives a graphic overview of validated competencies supported by empirical research. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss each competency in detail and provide research support; however, the general characteristics of each of the categories can be overviewed.

This graphic provides an overview of validated project manager competencies, as supported by empirical research

Exhibit 1. This graphic provides an overview of validated project manager competencies, as supported by empirical research.

Character and Traits. The most important character trait that correlates with goal achievement is truthfulness (honesty). Truthfulness and honesty are essential to leadership competence and form the foundation of trusting relationships between leaders and followers. Honesty is so important that it compensates for a lack of leadership expertise in other areas. As the father of modern management, Henri Fayol, stated in his 1916 book, General and Industrial Management, “The slightest moral flaw on the part of a higher manager can lead to the most serious consequences.”

Other traits of less importance are the desire to lead, a service attitude or gaining satisfaction from helping others, above average intelligence, self-confidence or faith that the future will be positive, drive and emotional stability.

Professionalism. Professionalism refers to all the skills that apply to the project manager's leadership role. Research supports that the probability of project goal achievement is significantly increased by setting a vision and focusing on goals, tying the project's strategy with that of the host organization, seeking the right answer (analytical approach) rather than attempting to build support for a preconceived idea, being highly aware of environmental events, threats and opportunities, and applying people skills.

Project Skills.

Those who master (all the skills of war) win; those who do not, are defeated.

—Sun Tzu (ca. 400 BC), The Art of War

Sun Tzu recognized over 2,400 years ago that, even with the correct background, character, and professionalism, the superior leader must be highly skilled at the technology of their field. In the world of project management the superior project manager has a high degree of proficiency in the application of project skills such as structured project methodologies and procedures. Research supports that the methodology should be broad-based and flexible, and that the superior project manager should emphasize projects and people in preference to scheduling tools and software. Further, the superior project manager should always measure project contributions. Project risk is a key element of the approach, as are formal communications with stakeholders and management of project change. Successes and failures are evaluated.

Background. Although not a core competency, the specific makeup of a project manager's background can have a significant influence on the ability of the project manager to achieve goals. The most important element of the superior project manager's background is experience with activities related to goal achievement, leadership, management, and working with teams and projects.


There are several outcomes of this research that will provide benefits to project management stakeholders:

Handbook of Generally Accepted and Validated Competencies

Recommendations for the PMI Certification Committee

A set of validated test questions

Weighted values for each competency

A generalized portrait of the superior project manager.

IN 400 BC, Sun Tzu summarized the importance of the superior leader in serving as a role model and guiding organizations to successful goal achievement:

Everything a leader says or does (or leaves unsaid or undone) has an effect on his associates. To be effective, this skill must be developed and unconsciously, as well as consciously, demonstrated in the individual's every action.

The development and refinement of competencies and the weighting of their value is a continuing process. The current champion of the process is the Fortune 500 Project Management Benchmarking Forum. If you have a desire to represent your company in these activities, please contact Frank Toney at 602/595-0089. ■

Frank Toney, Ph.D., is a former chair of the PMI Research Committee and a professor of management at the University of Phoenix. He has written numerous articles about project management.

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.

PM Network • July 1998



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