Over the years, much has been written about project managers and the skills, experiences, characteristics and aptitudes that make some stand out from the crowd. While one optimal mix of attributes does not transcend every organization any project manager may work in, are there personal behaviors beyond core PM skills of risk, scope and schedule management that further differentiate exceptional PMs?
It is my contention that the answer to this question is yes. The following article is based on personal experience, as well as research on the habits most often seen in superior project managers. However, keep in mind that the lack of any one of the following does not indicate poor performance, and that any of these personal attributes can—with a certain amount of effort—be cultivated. Also, this is not an exhaustive list; I have only included lessons that I and many experts feel are particularly relevant and essential.
Habit 1: Focus on process
It’s a given that issues will arise over the course of a project, which is not necessarily indicative of ineffective project management. After all, since Murphy’s law will always be in effect, projects most times pass through levels of uncertainty. When issues do arise, the most effective project managers focus on the process, not people or any other factors that may be involved. This implies doing more than the basic (and expected) scheduling of meetings and churning out progress reports.
Effective project managers will use these opportunities to evaluate whether the project management processes for identifying, reviewing, prioritizing and responding to issues are performing as designed, or whether they may need further improvements. Even if the root cause of the issue is a specific person, the process used to identify and select resources and to evaluate alternatives should be the focus.
And, of course, the project manager adds all of this―problems, alternatives and eventual solutions―to the organization’s store of lessons learned, thus reducing the re-emergence of such issues in future projects.
Habit 2: Self-confidence
The project manager plays a very key role within the team. That being the case, his or her lack of confidence can demotivate that team and signal a pessimistic attitude toward the ultimate success of the project.
And there’s more to this than just adequately doing the job; many (if not most) project managers are competent at their work, but some still fail to exude the self-confidence that will inspire their teams. In fact, when you are aware of your competence (perhaps thinking back to a particularly resounding success in your career), you become confident.
Also, confidence isn’t directly synonymous with extraversion; an introvert can also exude a great deal of confidence via body language. An erect stance with one’s head held high not only portrays confidence; researchers have found that just looking self-assured can actually cause the release of hormones that increase one’s feelings of power.
Being self-confident is believing in one’s self and one’s own abilities. As Dr. Norman Vincent Peale so famously maintained, when a person believes in themselves, they gain the power of positive thinking—and nothing is impossible for them (or their team).
Habit 3: Seek understanding, but be open
This habit is a lesson from the popular learnings of Stephen R. Covey. In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, the fifth habit is to seek understanding, but be open. The most effective project managers apply this principle to many situations. During stakeholder analysis, look to first understand their needs, objectives, etc. and then utilize that understanding to influence stakeholders and to mitigate (or at least explain) any aspect of a project that may negatively affect them. Over the course of dealing with issues, be sure you understand the stances of both sides before looking for solutions.
Habit 4: Seek out relationships
An effective project manager will seek to build both formal and informal relationships. While this may seem to be merely a “nice” thing to do, there is a practical reason for needing such relationships—if people like and trust you, they’ll be more likely to deliver what you need when your project needs it.
These relationships should go beyond the stakeholders on a specific project. For example, when working in an unfamiliar industry, seek out opportunities to build relationships within that industry, such as organization lunches, conferences or lunches with industry contacts.
When you meet people for the first time, connect with them via things in which you have a mutual interest; such commonalities can create strong bonds. The network of an effective project manager should never stop expanding.
Habit 5: Continual Improvement—in self and process
The most effective project managers are rarely fully satisfied with the status quo. They seek to continually improve the processes, themselves and the people around them. Yes, there are times when the “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” principle applies, but the effective project manager will balance what’s working well (with the project, the organizational processes and themselves) with areas in which improvements can be made.
Habit 6: Manage self-time
Most project managers help manage others through the tasks of the projects. While the level of support provided varies, what some forget is that the project manager must also manage their time and the project tasks for which they’re responsible, as well as their other responsibilities. Truly effective project managers work autonomously and are masterful at self-management. They likely use their calendar to plan when they network, do project tasks or all other activities.
Time management experts often cite the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, which says that completing 20% of the work will provide 80% of the benefits of the entire job. If you keep that in mind, you can identify and concentrate on the activities comprising that golden 20%.
What about the rest? In that area, avoid micro-managing, which can distract you and waste your time. Trust your team—after all, you probably chose them.
Habit 7: Maintain personal conviction
In the context of this article, personal conviction means maintaining the standards for behavior, principles and ethics that will serve as guides over the course of your career as a professional project manager. This habit is the most important—and yet the hardest to learn or teach. However, having personal conviction is a trait—and practicing it is the habit that effective project managers form. Often it is difficult for some to apply their personal convictions in every situation, but with support and practice, it can be done.
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