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What makes a great project manager?

What does it take to make a great project manager, and how do you make sure that you get the best possible project manager for your projects? Let’s take a look, in detail, at the knowledge and skills that are required to be a great project manager(PM).

Firstly lets look at the knowledge that is required in your project manager and then we will look at the personal traits that are needed, and make sure that you have identified the best project manager for your projects.


There is a body of knowledge which is required to be a great project manager and you need to measure all your potential project managers against these. These areas can be summarised as:

  1. Business Controls
  2. Commercial Acumen
  3. General Management
  4. People Management
  5. Organisation Planning
  6. Strategy Development
  7. Technical Knowledge

Let’s discuss these one at a time and in a little detail.

Business Controls

Typically a project will involve managing a budget and dealing with other companies or people that you outsource some of the work to. In this context, key skills will include the development of a scope of work and defining what needs to be done to deliver the project. Based upon this scope of work, you will need to develop a budget, seek quotations and award contracts.

Once the contracts are awarded, the delivery and the budget needs to be managed. This is where the PM will need and use their business controls skill. They need to make sure that the contracted scope of work is executed as intended and that there is a means to deal with any changes that occur during execution. It is also essential to make sure that all parties have good communications with one another and that there is a reporting structure that align progress and budget, while giving all parties an opportunity to discuss any potential lack of clarity they see or potential areas where delays might arise. Typically skills and tools that are required here are:

  1. Ability to decompose the Project Charter into a WBS in conjunction with key team leads as required.
  2. Develop and/orfacilitate the development of:
    1. Scope of Work documents
    2. Blueprints
    3. Drawings
    4. all with the key team leads as required.
  3. Lead up the development of an overall budget
  4. Contracts – formulate a contracting strategy and execute this with the help of procurement departments where present
  5. Reporting
  6. Scheduling
  7. Risk Management
  8. Register of Issue, Delays and Changes
  9. Payment schedules (Milestone based)

No matter how small your project, make sure that your PM has some basic knowledge and skills in this area.

Commercial Acumen

When you start a project, you will often face the challenge of deciding on how to execute the overall project. An essential part of this is who does what? Where we are outsourcing to other parties, we will have a some key considerations, among them being:

  • Who do we select (pre-qualify a number of parties) to issue requests for proposal?
  • Do we want a main party to manage all the contracts or will we do that?
  • What standard form of contract do we use?
  • How do we issue a request for proposal that is all-inclusive (avoiding costly changes later)?
  • How do we evaluate bids to ensure that they are all addressing the full scope of our work?
  • How do we negotiate the best price (price, quality, cash-flow, reputation ..)?
  • How do we agree stage payments?
  • How do we have clear criteria that the stage milestone has been reached and we can release the payment?
  • How do we resolve conflicts and on and on…

These are all decisions that the project manager needs to lead and collaborate with the relevant parties within the business who set particular rules on how certain aspects need to be executed. It is essential that the PM has these skills and you need to ensure that you select the right person for the job. This will mean framing your interview around scenarios which make the potential PM answer these questions in their own way. You then need to gauge whether the interviewees demonstrated that they have enough commercial acumen to represent your best commercial interests.

General Management

The skills that are acquired in running any business also apply to projects. Maintain a record of decisions, running weekly meetings to hold parties accountable, dealing with mistakes and roadblocks that occur, finding space for people to work if they are going to be on your premises, providing facilities for materials and resources, ensuring that any consent required has been given and so on. Don’t feel that just because it is a project, that it needs to operate outside the normal rigours of business; quite the contrary. I believe that all business is just a series of small, medium and large projects. Therefore your PM will need the basics of day-to-day operational management, that is, general management skills.

People Management

Once you have decided what you want, why and when, it is normally all down to people. Getting the right people, with the right skill, attitude and behaviours. You need to ensure that you build your team in the correct sequence, give them a clear purpose, hold them accountable and make the project a fun place to be. We can learn a lot from sports here; we need, a common goal, clear measure of success, teamwork above all, and heroes are not required.

Your team may be very dynamic with people coming and going for short periods depending on the size and nature of the project. This is where clarity with respect to responsibilities is key; both for the individual as well as the team. Everyone needs an understanding of each others role. You need to instill a keen sense of accountability and follow through on this in a consistent manner – this helps all team members. Make sure that you explore these aspects of the job when you are selecting a PM and measure their experience and skills appropriately.

Organisational Planning

Building the right team is not just about getting the people with the right skill sets on board. It is about get the right people on board and creating the right environment for them to perform at their peak. In terms of the attributes of the right people, in a good PM you will be looking for the following attributes:

  • They must have the appropriate experience/knowledge to do the job
  • They must have the skills to work in the environment that the project is taking place within and they must demonstrate the right attitude/behaviours. Taking environment for one moment. You will need one type of project manager to rescue a troubled project and while they excel here, they may not be the right project manager of your next big project.
  • Behaviours are key, as the wrong behaviours will bring the team down.

In terms of environment, there is also the external environment that you work within, that is, the reality of the project. You can influence this somewhat, but often you have to work with large elements of it, especially if it is a larger project. Learning to accept this and create an “internal” environment for the team to operate is critical. Here your PM will need the skills to offer an environment where everyone is held to account for their deliverables, while ensuring there is a team spirit of support and a can-do attitude.

Strategy Development

All of the great decisions you make and all the great people you recruit will not be effective if your PM does not have the ability to develop an overall strategy to guide the project from the initial concept through to the realised benefits, all while managing risks, budget, issues and people. Explore the candidate capabilities in this area

Technical Knowledge

Within the particular area that you execute the project you will need to have the technical ability to craft the right plan, make the right decisions and select the right people. While being a technical expert is not required to lead the project, a good understanding of the domain is critically important. However, a little distance is very often helpful. Technical people often get stuck in the details and lose sight of the WHY? This is the job for the PM, but they must have the respect of the technical people to win them around.

That covers the knowledge component, what about the personal traits – an equally potent force when you get it right.

Personal Traits

You want to gather people around you who demonstrate as many of the traits outlined below. This will create a very positive working environment.


The single most important thing that you can bring to a project is clarity. Clarity with respect to:

  • Why is this project being undertaken?
  • When does it need to be done?
  • What is your budget?
  • Who is the customer?
  • Who does what?
  • What are your values
  • What is the project ethos?

This is a mindset where at all times possible, the PM seeks to eliminate the unnecessary and get everyone to deliver on a clear vision. Done properly, this gives people a great deal of autonomy to deliver. Done poorly, it can turn out to be micro-management and lead to frustrations for all involved and ultimately either a poor end product or failure.


One of my favourite words. This is all about being in the moment and delivering on what is most important now. There are many methods that we can adopt to help us improve our focus and this is a topic we will return to again and again.

But, in the space of a short, or long, interview, how do you explore this. Well, you can develop a conversation around habits. Explore how the individual plans in the here and now. For example, each evening, how do you plan out your next day(or not!), ensuring that anything that might make it difficult to follow their plans, is removed the night before.

This does not have to be a highly detail project example – simple examples could be around how they plan their own time during especially busy periods. Try and explore this aspect – I am sure you will benefit from any conversations here.


Keeping things simple; the bare essentials. Keep asking yourself the questions, “What is the next most important thing to do?”, “Why is it important?”, “What is it that really needs to be done?”. You want to ensure that the essential is never crowded out by the mundane. This is how a PM should conduct their business. Make sure you explore this when you are interviewing and listen to their response when the challenges it presented?


We start out life full of curiosity and it is how we learn so fast when we are young. Make sure you keep that child like trait as it will help you throughout your life. In taking on new challenges, curiosity is an essential element; it helps us answer why, how, what is essential, what do we need to focus on, who is doing what, when does it need to be done? This is one of the essential traits of a great project manager. Nurture it in your people and make sure it is used to your collective benefit. Make sure that the PM you select demonstrates this trait.

Team bias

We all need to do our own work and remain accountable to the team for what we are chartered with delivering. This is a primary role of being a team player, leading by example. Allied with this, we also need to keep a keen eye on the overall team needs and offer to help where there is help need. This may be in a quiet and discreet way that is almost unnoticeable, or it may be in a very visible way where we call out “the elephant in the room” because there is too much groupthink and not enough critical analysis. Above all, it is focused upon helping the team deliver as a unit. Teamwork is a vital part of success regardless of team size; however, as the team grows it becomes essential. Does your potential PM meet this standard?

Short versus Long Term View

In the pressure cauldron that projects can be, it is important to ensure that the day-to-day progress you are making is taking you to where you want to go longer term with the project. Don’t over analyse this and use it as a crutch to support your procrastination bias if you have one; use it as a check back mechanism. Does your potential PM meet this standard?

Skills & Can Do Attitude

Your team needs to be fuelled by a collection of people who can operate under the conditions that present themselves throughout the project. This requires a combination of skill and mostly attitude. A Can Do attitude is hugely important to success and is infectious – make sure you fill your team with these key energy givers, who are pragmatic and forward thinking and unify the team around the common purpose. The reason you are all working on this project. Does your potential PM meet this standard?


You know what it is and it can really only be assessed through a reference from someone whom you totally trust!  A project manager needs to demonstrate that they have the right skills to lead and that you have formed a team around you that compliment your skill set. In addition to this, they  need to lead the team by living the values and creating the ethos that you wish to see in the team. Recruit your team with these in mind, and live the values!

Choosing your project manager for any project is a key decisions. Ensure that you know what you are looking for. Once you know this, follow a process that ensures you assess candidates for these traits and experience. Then make your choice and let the project manager get on with the job.