Project Management Institute

Seven steps to success for project managers

Preparation, vision, flexibility … do you measure up to this checklist?

Howard Sundwall

Good project management is like art: hard to define, but easy to recognize. But what are the recognizable qualities of a good project manager—some-one who consistently gets the job done on time, accurately, with a motivated team (and without an overrun budget)? Without any claims to inclusiveness, here's my own personal list of the seven traits that a project manager must have to succeed.

1. Politically Correct. Let's be honest. Any project big enough to be worth mentioning is going to shake up the status quo. And the last time I looked, the status quo had a lot of defenders, some of them pretty highly placed. To pick his way through this political minefield, a good project manager has to be politically savvy. This means stepping on toes without making enemies. It means selling a controversial idea by selling benefits, and lining up support with a lot of gentle persuasion, a little arm-twisting—and maybe even a little horse trading too. Sure, the project manager's project should already have some upper-management sponsorship (else how did it get approved in the first place?), but only the naive project manager thinks the way is now clear with smooth sailing ahead through the organization. The politically savvy project manager knows that he has to manage organizational issues with as much care as he manages a missed deadline.

2. Personality Plus. Did you ever meet a project manager you didn't like? Okay, forget that question. How about all the good project managers you've known; did you dislike them? I doubt it. Good project managers are likable, because they've got all the personality traits they need to do this very difficult job. But I'm not talking about superficial glad-handing and back-slapping. I am talking about a full suite of interpersonal skills that enable an effective project manager to work with, get along with—and get a lot out of—everyone on her team and everyone she might have to come in contact with. People want to work with good project managers, not only because they succeed (everyone wants to be associated with a winner) but because their teams enjoy the work, trust each other, have fun. Don't underestimate the value of a good personality when putting together your next project team—or when trying to advance your own project management skills.

3. Bend Without Breaking. If there was ever a project that went exactly as planned, I'd like to hear about it. What's a good project manager to do? Be flexible at all times! Adapt to changing circumstances. Plan for the worst and hope for a pleasant surprise. And do all that without giving up on the core requirements of the project, or compromising on the ultimate goal. Resilient flexibility may be a good project manager's most important asset.

4. Honesty—(Almost) To a Fault. It's easy to be honest when everything is going well. But what about when it's not going well—when, in fact, it looks like the project is about to crash and burn with no survivors? Poor project managers have a hard time bringing the really hard issues to light. No one likes to break the bad news to upper-management. But good project managers know that no issue is solved by hiding it, and the best project managers keep everything out in the open. The project is better off in the long run for their willingness to tackle the tough issues, bad news and all.

5. Think Globally But Act Locally. In big projects, the global view is the long-range objective of the project. The local view is the daily task list. You know the old question: how does a project fall one year behind schedule? And you know the old answer: one day at a time. Well, projects come in on schedule when led by a project manager who keeps the end goal always in sight, but knows exactly what needs to be done today to get there. Any deviation from the current task list is attended to; schedules and resources are adjusted immediately.

6. The Will to Prepare. Basketball coach Bobby Knight said that plenty of athletes have the will to win; true champions have the will to prepare. He might have been talking about project managers too. The best of this group knows how important it is to be thoroughly familiar with the subject of the project. We've all seen the opposite: a project manager who may have had all the project experience in the world, knew the methodology, tools, spoke the language—but didn't have a clue as to what the work was all about. And didn't show any signs of learning it, either. I don't know about your experience, but the projects I've seen where this happened have all been failures. The project manager made some wrong decisions, things drifted, the team lost confidence, upper-management withdrew support. On the other hand, a thoroughly knowledgeable and well-prepared project manager inspires confidence and leads teams where they would never go for anyone else. If he or she is not already an expert in the field, a good project manager prepares by learning the work, not just the PERT chart.

7. The Vision Thing. I bet you can't define this, but you sure know it when you see it. It's a good project manager's ability to keep the end-state vision in front of everyone on the team. To keep everyone working as a team, in support of the common goal. To keep enthusiasm up, to keep everyone's eyes on the ball, the scoreboard, the season stats. And this is as important—if not more so—in the difficult middle period of a project as it is in the beginning. These are the “dark ages” when many projects falter. Anyone can start off a big project with grand plans and bold ideas. Only the best project managers keep the original vision alive all the way to the end. That's what makes the best of them leaders, not just managers.

Well, that's my list. You've probably got your own ideas of what makes a project manager effective. But whatever qualities we look for, however we describe them, define them or list them—we know great project management when we see it. It's worth noticing, and impossible to miss. ▄

Howard Sundwall is an MIS director at NYNEX in New York City and has the scars to prove he's paid his dues as a project manager. He unabashedly claims all of the qualities mentioned in this article.

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 • April 1996

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