Anatomy of a Great Project Manager

Woman's hand writing on a blank notebook page

Generally speaking, project managers (PMs) are responsible for making sure a project is delivered on time, on budget and at (or exceeding) expectation. How a PM does this may look slightly different depending upon the industry, field,  and specific project.

In our field – communications, public relations, marketing – that means taking responsibility for the project overall; interfacing with the client regularly to ensure they are updated on progress, potential challenges or delays; coordinating any project activities; and the overall outcomes. In addition, a significant, and critical, part of the PM’s responsibility is to ensure the project stays within scope. The PM needs to know the contract, have a firm understanding of the scope of the project and the project pieces, and is clear on the intent of the contract.

What Makes a Great Project Manager?

Related to keeping the project in scope is managing the client.  Often times, project management means client management: managing expectations, ensuring the client understands and agrees to the timeline for the project, making sure the client understands the role they need to play – usually active – and what resources the client needs to bring to the project, as well as communicating with the client regularly.  And of course, saying “no” to the client when requests are out of scope or beyond the reach of the project team. While this may seem obvious, the client management portion of the role can be the trickiest. (See below).

So what are the characteristics of a successful PM?  Again, this may vary by industry, but below are some skills you should look for.

Communication

To begin with, a PM must be an excellent communicator, as they are the lynchpin of the project. As the liaison, it is imperative that the PM understands the needs of the client and can translate them appropriately to the project team. If the project team includes tech folks, for instance for web build or re-design, this is even more necessary.

Expertise and Problem Solving

This brings us to the next skill – technical expertise. PMs need to understand the field they are working in. For communications, that means the PM should have at least an intermediate knowledge of processes, practices, and tactics.  This helps the PM work with the client and translate the client need to the project team.

Because a PM is the liaison between client and project team, they have to be a problem solver. Even if the client never poses an actual problem to the PM, during the course of any project, problems, challenges and issues  creep  up.  This is where the PM’s problem solving skills come in handy.  Does the PM need to be the only one coming up with solutions? Of course not. The project team should do this as well, but the PM needs to lead the way, and provide parameters around the problem/solution equation.

Anticipation and Organization

Hand in hand with problem-solving is the skill of foresight. A PM needs to be able to anticipate  – the needs of the client, the issues and challenges of the project team, and more.  If the PM  understands the client, knows the contract, listens to and works closely with the project team, this will come fairly naturally.

Following on that is organizational skills. A good PM needs to be really well organized.  They are not just tracking various components of a project, they need to  track discussions and conversations they had with both the client and the project team for follow-ups, updates, changes, and more. Part of this is taking excellent notes. A PM who does not take notes during or following conversations with the client, as well as project team meetings, is not doing their job.

Honesty

As the face of the project team and the primary conduit of information for the client, the PM needs to be an honest broker. This can look different depending on the project and industry, but essentially, a good PM needs to be honest with the client about when a request is out of scope, not possible in a given timeline, or not possible with the resources. In short, as mentioned earlier, the PM needs to be able to say “no” to the client.  This is tough because no one wants to disappoint a client, but often times requests are out of scope or simply unrealistic. Ideally, the PM can say “no” to the client, offer an alternative that can satisfy the issue, and that is within scope.  As consultants, we want to please the client and be able to say “yes”. But in reality, that is simply not always possible.

Strategy

Finally, and this underpins all the other characteristics and skills mentioned above, a PM needs to think strategically. They need to understand the strategy behind the project, what the bigger picture is for the client and the client’s objectives and goals, so that they can pivot where necessary, offer solutions and alternatives or work-arounds and ensure the project is completed in a way that is satisfactory to the client. This can only be done if the PM has a strategic view.

Whether you are a communications firm looking to hire project managers for your team, or are on the client side and want to make sure the consultant you bring on board has the goods, making sure you have a strong project manager at the helm can mean the difference between a successful outcome and an unsuccessful project.

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