The indispensable project manager


Frank P. Saladis, PMP, PMI Fellow

Keynote Speaker, Project Trainer, Author, and Consultant
President—Blue Marble Enterprises Inc.
[email protected]

Managing projects effectively has become essential in every organization large or small. The uncertainties of the world business economy, rapidly changing technology, and the intensifying focus on sustainability has driven many organizations to develop specific methods for managing projects and to seek highly qualified people to manage those projects. These qualifications include the ability lead as well as to manage and create an environment of change readiness, attention to quality, and an awareness that self-development is a critical factor for success at both the personal and organizational level. Today's project managers must adapt to change, lead diverse teams, act as ambassadors for their organizations, and deal with a multitude of challenging project stakeholders. They must also continually enhance their knowledge about business, working with people, and how to maintain a reputation of professionalism, thought leadership, and ability to add value. This paper addresses the importance of the professional project manager to any organization, and the need for the project manager to continually enhance existing skills, adapt to a changing business environment, and become a “go to” person in the organization. Emphasis is placed on understanding the needs of the organization, clearly and visibly creating value, and managing personal brand.

Managing Your Personal Brand

Just like any company and the products it offers, everyone should be continually developing, improving, and enhancing his or her own personal brand. Personal brand is basically a statement about who you are, what you do, and how you work with other people. The big questions are: How will you make a difference in the social environment and the business environment? What do you want to be known for? Some items to consider as you contemplate the current perception of your personal brand:

  • Promptness—Do you arrive at meetings on time? Are you prepared for the meetings? Do you meet deadlines and commitments consistently?
  • Appearance—Do you dress appropriately for the environment (executive meetings, interviews, training programs, client meetings, etc.)?
  • Responsiveness—How quickly do you respond to urgent requests? Do you offer meaningful discussion and ideas during meetings? Are you proactive and do you display a high level of energy?
  • Smartphone habits (when speaking to others)—Are you distracted by your mobile device while speaking with another person?
  • Listening—How well do you listen to others? Do you clearly demonstrate that you are engaged in a conversation?

Key Elements of Personal Branding: Discover, Communicate, Align

Personal brand is something that is developed over time. It requires effort, commitment, and a willingness to make changes that will be beneficial not only to you but to the people you work with and who are a part of your life.

There are three fundamental factors to consider in developing your personal brand:

  1. Discover—This is about self-awareness. Ask for feedback from people you trust and respect. Become goal oriented and define your values, passions, vision, purpose, and an understanding of the perceptions about you from people with whom you are connected.
  2. Communicate—Who should know about you? Why? Are you reaching them in a meaningful way? What information about you should be shared? Why is this information important?
  3. Alignment—This is the connection to your success plan. What must you do to bring the right skills and level of passion to the workplace? What motivates you? What is your personal 1- to 3-year plan? Having a clear vision of where you want to be will help shape the approach and the plans that will get you there.

Promise of Value

Everyone should consider creating a unique promise of value, something that differentiates you from the others you are associated with. Ask yourself: What are you exceptional at performing? What is it that accentuates your value and causes others to take notice?

Consider this:

What are your company's top five brand attributes? What differentiates your company from others in the field? This is what brand is all about. Now, ask a similar question about yourself: What are your personal top five brand attributes? (How do you see yourself?) How would people who are close to you (family, friends, and business associates) answer that question?

Another way to address the question is to ask: What if someone posted your picture in front of a large group of people? What would that group think or say about you? Are you willing to try this? Are you willing to listen to and accept this kind of feedback? The important point here is to determine how others perceive you, which will assist in developing or adding to a plan for enhancing your personal brand.


Part of building your personal brand is establishing strong business relationships. The reason: everyone must work with other people to complete work assignments. Regardless of the type of work, we must all interface, connect with, communicate, and exchange information with other people to accomplish our objectives. The relationships you establish and how you maintain those relationships will define you as a person and shape your personal brand.

There is no magic formula for establishing strong and effective working relationships. What you are attempting to accomplish is the main driving factor. Considering that most people spend a very significant portion of their time with people they work with, the focus here is on professional and work-related types of relationships. The generally accepted techniques for creating and sustaining working relations include the following:

  • The people we work with will have different values, work ethics, personalities, goals, and communication styles. Accept these differences and develop ways to work with them.
  • Active listening is critical in not only establishing a relationship but also sustaining it. Assess your listening skills and develop strategies to improve your ability to pay attention, ask questions, and assimilate information from others.
  • Commit time to relationships. Effort is required to keep relationships strong and beneficial. You may not always be in agreement with people you work with but it is important to maintain that connection. You will most likely need these relationships for many of the job functions for which you are responsible.
  • Communicate effectively. Very few people are excellent communicators. Consider your ability to communicate with others. How well do you communicate with the many stakeholders you engage with? Analyze your skills in written and verbal communications, including presentation skills. Your ability to communicate information factually and with confidence and to connect with your audience is extremely important in relationship management.
  • Empathize with others. Everyone has challenges, and priorities will vary. Learn about what others are involved in and what they believe to be important. (This is where skillful listening makes a difference.)

Networking is a key factor in personal brand development. There are some factors to consider that will assist in managing your relationship building efforts:

  1. Be highly precise and specific—When you plan to do something, set dates and times and make sure you follow through. Keep others informed about your progress (and your priorities).
  2. Take on one new challenge at a time—Most assignments require our full attention. Gain control of your specific job function before attempting to take on additional work. Know your limitations. Failure to follow through on commitments will most likely damage a relationship.
  3. Not too much, not too little—Challenge your comfort zone but avoid going too far. You should be aware of your limitations and avoid committing to things that you know you are not actually qualified to address.
  4. What we resist persists—Focus on what is important and requires your full attention. There will be distractions such as email. Arrange your work and your environment in a way that will reduce the distractions and temptations that tend to pull you away from the important and urgent work.
  5. Accept change. Cause change—Move away from the comfort and safety of doing what you've always done. Think about behaviors, practices, and routines you'd like to change. Determine how to implement those changes. Consider the opportunities and benefits of the changes. Identify the risks associated with making the changes and those that may result from not making them. People will see you as someone who is willing to adapt and capitalize on opportunity.
  6. Remain self-confident and focused—Change is always difficult and can be disruptive. There may be failures at times. Accept the occasional failure and take note of the lessons you have learned. Consider change a continual learning experience. Use it as a means for self-development. People notice your ability to deal with adversity and they absolutely take notice of your resiliency when times are difficult and a setback occurs.

The Bottom Line on Personal Brand

You need to be clear about who you are and why you do what you do. And then, do exactly what you say you're going to do, and do it when you promised.

When it comes to building your personal brand, things like testimonials from your clients and coworkers, combined with a track record of successful projects, can speak volumes about the work you do. Effectively branding yourself takes time, but the payoff can be tremendous.

A positive attitude and an awareness of how to build brand “you” are as crucial as your team making skills. —Anna Tims

Becoming Indispensable

Every successful organization has at least one linchpin; some have dozens or even thousands. The linchpin is the essential element, the person who holds part of the organization together. Without the linchpin, the thing falls apart. —Seth Godin

The indispensable project manager is a linchpin, as described by Seth Godin (2011): someone who keeps the project together (and the project organization, including all key stakeholders, executives, end users, suppliers, and customers). The true nature of the project manager is to be an integrator, coordinator, and the essential element that drives the project to success. The project manager, if we really examine the role, is the “go to” person who paves the way to clear obstacles, overcome challenges, and reach objectives.

Key Competencies of a Project Manager

The project manager must possess a specific set of competencies to be successful. I asked project managers in a wide range of industries to identify the top five key competencies that are necessary for successful project implementation. More than 1200 project managers responded and the study revealed the following, in order of importance. (seven competencies are listed, an explanation follows).

1. Communications skills—Verbal, written

2. Leadership skills

3. Organizing skills—Planning, time management

4. Interpersonal skills

5. Negotiating skills—Diplomacy and mediating

6. Team building skills

7. Technical skills

Note that most of these are often classified as “soft” skills. You may also note that I listed seven skills instead of the top five competencies. The reason is that technical skills, although important, ranked lower than the soft skills. This finding is consistent with the results of other, similar surveys. To become “indispensable,” project managers must master the personal side of human relationships.

It is important to address a specific question regarding how people perceive the role and the contribution of the project manager. The question is: What are the perceived negatives of a project manager? This requires some very objective assessments of the capabilities of the project manager. An honest assessment may reveal that many people see project managers as a “thorn,” a nuisance, too detail oriented, too focused on checklists and deadlines, and without any real empathy for the people who are doing the work.

Today's emphasis on the project manager's role is that of a leader, with a balanced approach between achieving objectives and creating a high-performance team, someone who doesn't blame people for missed dates and late deliverables, but someone who helps team members overcome obstacles and breaks down barriers that impede progress.

Factors of Indispensability

There are at least four major factors that provide the foundation for becoming indispensable:

  • Accomplishability—Your ability to achieve and deliver valued results. This is about consistency, producing results, and making a difference.
  • Value/cost—The value delivered perception relative to the cost. This is how your compensation or pay compares to what you actually produce.
  • Supply/demand—The market dynamics of your position, skills, and so forth. Your technical and soft skills will determine your marketability.
  • Likeability—How others perceive you. This may not be a top priority for some but it is largely believed (based on many information surveys) that likeability is important in establishing and maintaining professional relationships).

Managing Time

Everyone is somewhat challenged when it comes to managing time. The indispensable project manager understands that prioritization is the key. Dr. Stephen Covey provided an excellent example about how people manage time. The project manager must work to shift the habits of team members to focus on two areas: items that are not urgent but are important, and items that are both urgent and important. Referring to the chart in Exhibit 1, many people are stuck in their comfort zone, doing things that are not important and not urgent—basically, busywork. They are also doing things that may be considered urgent but are not important. The indispensable project manager understands that time is important; it's a resource, and it must be used wisely. Creating a reputation for productivity, usefulness, making a difference, and assisting others to be more productive and value adding results in a genuine belief that you are needed.


Exhibit 1 Managing Time Matrix

Thinking Indispensable

Our work must create value and bring a “gift” to others. In other words, what you do is appreciated and people look forward to working with you. We must overcome our “voice of judgment” (the excuses that keep us playing small). We must “think indispensable.”

To achieve a perception of being indispensable requires a positive perception of oneself. There are many words that help us achieve this level of thinking. We can consider ourselves to be any of the following:

  • Critical,

  • Vital,
  • Central,
  • Essential,
  • Necessary,
  • Required,
  • Crucial,
  • Obligatory,
  • Fundamental,
  • Key,
  • Must have, or
  • A keeper.

The goal here is focus our efforts on becoming a “keeper:” someone who is perceived as essential to the organization and who is continually contributing to the well-being of the organization and the people within it.

Project Manager Value Attributes

PMI has adopted an approach to connect with the business world. The platform is simple and straightforward: making project management indispensable for business results. Something that should be considered is that project management has become a strategic element of any successful organization. It is important to fully realize that well-trained, educated, and business-savvy project managers are indispensable for business results. Project managers must accept and focus on developing their value attributes to achieve the “indispensable” label. These attributes include the following:

  • The professional—Truthful, ethical, fair, principles;
  • The financial—Managing cost, financial value;
  • The aesthetic—Quality and customer satisfaction;
  • The social—Team building, relationships;
  • The political—Influencing, managing conflict; and
  • The leader—Sets an example, creates confidence, motivates, builds loyalty.

The Indispensable Project Manager

Build your team to sail the ship without you. Teach them everything you know, and hire people smarter than you. Equip yourself to always bring something powerful, unique, and pivotal to your work, but make it a methodology, not a checklist that's unique to any one discipline.

There are many ways to achieve the “indispensable” reputation. Above all, it is important to make a difference among the people around you. Focus on your personal development and education and share your knowledge with others. Become known as helpful, easy to work with, enjoyable to be around, sincere, a team player, and an adaptive and authentic leader. A few suggestions to help you get there include:

  • networking as much as possible;
  • being excellent at something;
  • creating something useful;
  • innovating—looking for different ways to solve a problem;
  • making others feel good;
  • sharing, teaching, mentoring, and coaching; and
  • committing to make a difference.

Final Thoughts

No one is actually totally indispensable. The real goal is to become a “go to” person. Project managers should be sought after for their wide range of skills and experience, their contributions to the organization, and their surrounding professional network. They are the ultimate in adaptability. They thrive on whatever gets thrown at them. Their skills and techniques are unique, and ever evolving, which means that few businesses can thrive for the long term without them.

The truly effective project manager is an authentic leader, one who adds value and is known for making a difference.

The following quotes sum up what that means:

To lead is to measurably help others succeed.
—Tom Peters

No matter what the situation, the great manager's first response is to always think about the individual concerned and how things can be arranged to help that individual experience success.
—Marcus Buckingham

Godin, S. (2011). Linchpin: Are you indispensable? New York, NY: Penguin Group USA.

For Further Reading

Nashlund, A. Brass tack thinking—Indispensable vs. irreplaceable. Retrieved from

Scheele, A. (2010). Becoming indispensable. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Sparks, R. (2011). Becoming indispensable: Lessons from NASA and Oprah. GovLoop. Retrieved from

Wax, D. M. (n.d.) 10 skills you need to succeed at almost anything. Retrieved from

© 2015, Frank P. Saladis PMP, PMI Fellow
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando Fla, USA



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