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The Leading Characteristics of a Great Project Manager

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Being a project manager involves overseeing all steps of a project, delegating assignments to team members and solving any problems along the way. As such, it can be a difficult and nuanced position. So, what does it take to be an effective project manager?

First, it’s important to understand the crucial role a project manager plays.

Research conducted by the Project Management Institute found that poor project performance lost companies an average of 11.4 percent of their investments. Even more telling, companies that undervalued project management found themselves with 67 percent more of their projects failing.

A previous year’s study found that for every $1 billion invested, $122 million was wasted due to poor project performance. It also found that nearly one in three projects don’t meet their goals, 43 percent are not completed within budget, and almost half aren’t completed on time. Comparatively, organizations with formal project management met their goals 73 percent of the time, stayed within budget 63 percent of the time, and were on schedule 59 percent of the time.

Finding good project managers is critical for businesses to avoid these hefty losses. In addition to preventing financial losses, positive project management practices can help improve employee confidence and contribute to a company’s steps forward in innovation.

Causes of Project Failure

Projects can fail for a wide variety of reasons, but some of the more common causes include poor planning and interpersonal awareness. Project managers need to understand the relationship between all of the moving parts in an organization, as well as how to motivate, educate, and empathize with employees.

Some other factors that can influence a project’s success include:

  • Scope creep: Scope creep occurs when a project becomes much more than it was initially, driving up costs and adding to the time it takes to finish the job. Poor initial analysis, planning, and communication can all contribute to scope creep.
  • Poor communication: Many large projects involve a variety of roles and contributors. Clear and accurate communication is a must.
  • Poor planning: Without a clearly outlined plan, projects can easily get off-track and lose momentum. Understanding how different components and teammates work together is critical to creating a solid plan.

Technical problems can usually be resolved with traditional project management techniques such as budgeting, making schedule revisions, and analyzing relevant data. Issues like those stemming from individuals or stakeholders often cannot be resolved with the same techniques, however, because they involve emotions and other non-procedural factors.

Types of Project Management

Types of Project Management

Remember that not all project managers will look the same. While there are several characteristics that go into a great project manager, there are also different styles of management. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) identifies four different types of project managers, including the:

  • Prophet: The prophet looks to new horizons, where data may be hard to find, and he must create a vision of success that requires a leap of faith. These projects can be risky and may not always be profitable, but a prophet can challenge existing strategies.
  • Gambler: The gambler also works on opportunities where existing data may be lacking, but their ideas are typically more in-line with the company’s current strategy. They might have riskier project ideas but can update strategies by pursuing often-overlooked areas of opportunity.
  • Expert: An expert looks outside of an organization’s current strategic boundaries but uses solid data. They may garner a change in focus that is supported by trustworthy information. Their biggest challenge is usually getting others to listen to their plans for change.
  • Executor: Finally, an executor project manager looks for opportunities within existing business goals that have trustworthy data to back them up. These projects are typically less risky and need someone who can simply execute them with strategy and skill. Less risk may also lead to fewer novel insights and new areas for growth.

The Keys to Project Management Success

The project manager is a central component of a project’s success. They must be able to clearly outline their plan in line with specific business goals and manage the team’s progress.

Other key practices of successful project management include the following:

  • Focus on communication: Positive relationships and open lines of communication make it easy to hear from everyone, so you know exactly what the stakeholders of an organization want and how workers are progressing.
  • Use the right tools: With so many different tools available, identifying the right ones for your goals can significantly boost efficiency and offer specific advantages related to your business goals.
  • Understand the team members: Developing trust within a team is important to avoid micromanaging and finger-pointing. A project manager must also have empathy toward employees and understand their motivations. By knowing the team members, the project manager can more effectively align their needs with project goals.

What Makes a Good Project Manager?

While we may see a variety of styles of project management, certain characteristics show up repeatedly in successful managers.

“I started developing the characteristics of a successful project manager even when I was still an IT consultant nearly 20 years ago,” says Ryan Dennis, current Senior Mobile Technology Manager for Bank of America. “Back then, there wasn’t a course that thoroughly explained how to be an effective project manager that I knew about. So I learned what was necessary in-part through trial and error, but mostly through mentoring and following the lead of people who consistently executed projects that met or exceeded expectations within budget and on time.”

“One of the biggest changes I’ve experienced over the course of my career in general, and during my 14-year tenure with Bank of America in particular, is that we’re using more and more offshore talent. With this increased globalization in the workplace, project managers need to be familiar with, and have an appreciation for, cultures other than their own in order to be successful. If you don’t have that, communication suffers and conflict can arise. It can also cause delays in production,” Dennis continues.

“For instance, right now I have four multi-million dollar projects that need to be completed by August of this year. Most of my team members reside in India, which is 12 hours ahead of my workplace in terms of time. Because of this difference, I schedule meetings at different times than I would if everyone was in the same time zone. I also am mindful of when Indian holidays occur and avoid scheduling due dates for deliverables around those dates. Whereas Americans are used to working holidays at least on occasion, Indian culture is different in that workers are not accustomed to heading into the office during times of celebration,” Dennis explains.

“In addition to understanding multiple cultures, I feel that the willingness to stand up for your team as well as your employer is critical when it comes to exactly what makes a good project manager,” Dennis says. “Given my programming background, I can tell when one of my on-or-offshore counterparts is dragging out part of a project because I know how long it takes to perform programming tasks first-hand. This gives me the ability to stand up for my employer and protect against blown deadlines and cost overruns when necessary. It also gives me the ability to stand up for my team when we’re asked to do things that simply aren’t realistic or practical. I find that’s sometimes necessary when a deliverable is complete and someone who doesn’t thoroughly understand the technology wants stuff added to the deliverable after the fact. That’s called ’scope creep’ and, in my experience, it’s often to blame for budget overages.”

Qualities of a Great Project Manager

In addition to being familiar with multiple cultures and demonstrating a willingness to voice concerns on behalf of both their teams and their employers, great project managers have other invaluable qualities that tend to make them stand apart from their peers. “Seeing the big picture and having good communication skills help me as a project manager,” says Christopher Plizga, Vice President of Operations for Hospitality Group Management. “I’ve worked in the hospitality industry my entire adult life, and over the past 25 years, I’ve overseen the construction and renovation of several multi-million properties in various locations. Having a clear vision of the project at-hand and the ability to communicate that vision have helped me to keep projects on track.”

“For instance, I oversaw the construction of a new hotel in Charlotte, NC, when I first moved to the state more than two decades ago,” Plizga explains. “I was working with a foreman who was experienced and friendly, but who simply didn’t understand that work delays at the start of the build were going to have consequences that extended beyond increased costs and a postponed grand opening. So, I arranged a meeting and explained that construction delays at any point during construction were also going to affect revenue. For every day that the project overran its deadline, my employer was going to lose revenue in addition to incurring greater costs. Once he saw the math, he bought into the bigger picture and we were able to keep construction delays to a minimum afterward.”

“I firmly believe that having a vision that your team supports and the ability to communicate meaningfully with your team members, regardless of whether they work directly for you or are outside vendors, are the two most important qualities of a project manager,” states Plizga. “Other characteristics are important as well, but experience has taught me that those two are the most valuable for a successful PM.”

Here are 10 additional traits that effective project managers normally possess:

1. Ethics

Ethics are a big part of what makes a good project manager because acting on them consistently builds trust between a project manager and his or her team members. Great project managers work and act in an honorable, honest manner at all times while adhering to the ethical standards that govern their behavior. By doing so, ethical project managers inspire others to adopt the same standards, which enriches the relationship between them and their teams because they share the same level of integrity.

2. Excitement

One of the most visible qualities of a project manager is excitement. Great project managers are excited about their role in a project as well as the project itself, and they let their excitement show on their faces and in their words and actions. Their enthusiasm is often infectious and helps team members become and remain excited about the project they’re working on, even when problems arise.

3. Ability to Delegate

The ability to delegate is one of the chief characteristics that separates great project managers from average ones. Delegating responsibilities demonstrates that a project manager trusts his or her team members to get things done on their own. The ability to delegate doesn’t involve simply handing out assignments. It also involves a project manager refraining from micro-managing team members as they labor to complete their work.

4. Competence

A project manager doesn’t need to be an expert in every technicality involved with a project, but they do need to be a competent leader to be a great project manager. Competent leaders are able to inspire, manage, motivate and rally teams to achieve common goals on time and within budget. They are able to drive their teams to deliver projects that meet or exceed end users’ expectations by being an example and adapting their leadership style so it’s appropriate given the differences that exist among team members. They are also able to keep sponsors and stakeholders enthusiastic about the project, even when a budget or timeline needs to be revised.

5. Composure

Successful project managers have the qualities necessary to retain their composure in the face of adversity. They don’t panic when something goes wrong or stress themselves or their teams out over the little things. Instead, a hallmark of an effective project manager is seeing an obstacle as an opportunity for improvement.

6. Problem-Solving Skills

The ability of project managers to retain their composure is also one of the reasons why successful managers have sound problem-solving skills. With an eye on the “big picture,” effective project managers separate emotion from fact and work to resolve problems practically and quickly. They solicit feedback from their teams, stakeholders and sponsors and listen to their ideas about how a problem can be resolved. When working to overcome an obstacle, successful project managers don’t get distracted with unnecessary information. They are able to separate the data they need to resolve a problem from extraneous information that doesn’t directly relate to the challenge immediately before them.

7. Team-Building Skills

Team-building skills are a big part of what makes a good project manager. Excellent project managers unify their teams behind a common goal and resolve conflicts fairly. Project managers recognize the dynamics present within their team and use them to create a sense of shared purpose despite the cultural and personal differences that exist between coworkers.

8. Relatability

Successful project managers are relatable and approachable. They appreciate input provided by their team and employ the skills of team members to generate ideas and resolve problems. They also empathize with their teams and understand their teammates have external influences that may sometimes impact their work performance. They recognize that, while the project they are working on is a priority, workers have obligations outside of the office that are equally important. Being empathetic reinforces the trust that exists between effective project managers and their teams.


Good project managers are organized and have superior time-management skills. By being organized, project managers are able to concentrate on executing the shared vision for the project. Organized project managers are also able to prioritize assignments and responsibilities, make appropriate decisions quickly and recognize when a change of course is necessary.

10. Drive

Effective project managers are results-driven and ready to take action to produce the results sponsors, stakeholders and end users expect. They remain focused on the end result and the intermediate steps necessary to achieve that result. Successful project managers don’t put things off or ignore the aspects of a project they don’t enjoy. They anticipate problems and take immediate steps to prevent and resolve them.

The Importance of Project Management

With the cost of failed projects so high worldwide, the demand for great project managers continues to grow.

With the cost of failed projects so high worldwide, the demand for great project managers continues to grow. For a person to be successful as a project manager, he or she must develop as many of the traits that are already associated with great project managers as possible, which can be achieved through hands-on experience, mentoring and classes dedicated to the subject of how to become an effective project manager. Get started today and learn about the Online Project Management Bachelor Degree offered at Vista College.

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