Are You a Strong Project Manager?

By Doug Chambers, Founder and CEO

Having taken the leap from managing construction sites to managing a tech startup, people often ask my opinion on what makes a good project manager. While I consider the art of management a lifelong learning process, I’ve picked up some useful knowledge along the way that I would like to share.  I’ve written a few times about the challenges of being a project manager, and about my experiences managing construction sites and now a team of rockstar technologists. These experiences have broadened my understanding of what it takes to be a strong project manager, and I’m learning more everyday.

So what are the essential skills for strong project management? I’ve listed below what I consider to be the most important skills, but first there is a piece of knowledge all managers must understand before embarking on the quest to become a great project manager. This piece of knowledge is the base from which all projects need to begin. Here it is:

You are not the expert.

You’ve heard the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none?”  Yes, it’s a cliche, but it’s quite apropos when it comes to project management. It’s important for a project manager to understand that he will not, and should not, be an expert of every facet on the job. We’ve all experienced the inflated-ego-manager who believes his or her knowledge is far superior to everyone elses, and we’ve all seen that manager fail to run an efficient team. The mark of a smart manager isn’t just knowing what you know – it’s knowing what you don’t know and asking the right people to help you. You weren’t hired to be a manager because you know everything — you were hired because you are skilled at bringing experts together and you understand how their skills and requirements align with the job. Most importantly, you know how to help them work together.

You should of course be knowledgeable on all elements of a given project, and you may even be an expert on one or two specific areas of that project, but you should feel comfortable with the fact that you won’t know everything. That’s why you’ve (hopefully) hired a great team.

Now to the skills. Many of these may seem obvious project management 101, but you’d be surprised how often even the best managers (myself included) forget these fundamental project management skills. I often return to this list when I want to ensure I’m functioning in a way that is most useful for my team. I’ve learned the hard way that if you are weak on any of the basic project management skills, your team’s work will suffer.

Listening to your team of experts should be your primary objective everyday. The success of your project will depend upon understanding the issues your team faces and helping them communicate with each other so they can operate more efficiently. From my management experience in construction and then technology, architects and carpenters don’t always see eye-to-eye, and neither do user experience designers and web developers. In fact, you may not see eye-to-eye with a member of your team, but it is critical that you remain diplomatic and facilitate communication amongst everyone. I know this is easier said than done, but it’s got to remain a priority no matter what.

Many project managers stumble because they try to do everything themselves, often believing they are the only ones who can get the job done right. Your role is not to construct the building or develop the app. Your role is to position your team for success, and your success depends upon being secure in the fact that you hired the best people for the job.

Delegating complex jobs makes sense, but it’s tough because it requires trusting your team. At the end of the day, it’s your reputation on the line and you’ll have to answer for mistakes. However, if you are doing a good job of communicating (see how this all comes together?) then delegating tasks will become easier as members of your team prove themselves.

Bottom line: delegate or die.

It is your job to keep yourself and the team organized. There are plenty of methodologies out there from the checklist manifesto to the critical path method, but at a higher level project managers must exude organization to the team. That means efficient team meetings, executable task lists, and clear direction for every team member. You should regularly check-in with your team to ensure everyone is on task and understands what their objectives are. Simple questions like ‘What are your priorities this week? How about this month? Did you accomplish what you set out to do last week?’ will let you know if everyone is organized and understanding of what is expected from them.

Tough Love
You’ll inevitably deal with team members who just aren’t performing the way you want or need them to, and this means you must confront them to get them back on track. Confrontational conversations are difficult, but you can’t be everyone’s friend everyday of the project. These conversations are important for understanding how to address the issues are that are preventing success. You might be incredibly frustrated by poor performers, but don’t be a jerk, don’t yell, and don’t be patronizing. Ask questions, listen, and be firm about communicating where this person has failed and what your expectations are for the future. Sometimes you’ll need to find extra help, and sometimes you’ll need to replace a subpar team member. It’s often a tough call, but remember – it’s not personal. This is business.

Advice on leadership could be a series of lengthy blog entries, but I’m going to try and boil it down to the leadership element that has served me best. Projects always have their stressful, chaotic periods and times when it seems they will never be completed. This is when the team is most apt to be in conflict and when those disparate skill sets (and resultant needs) will butt heads. It is your job to lead the team through the tough stretches by utilizing all of the skills above – listen to the problems your team members are experiencing and delegate achievable goals to each of them. Keep them on track and organized by breaking down the big goals into smaller tasks that don’t seem overwhelming. Getting your team through a tough time is the highest mark of a great leader and will inspire trust moving forward.

Are you an existing or aspiring project manager? Was this list helpful for you? Tweet me @dougchambers and @fieldlens to let me know what you think of this list, and add some of your own recommendations.


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