Seven Traits Good Project Managers Share: Do You Have Them?

Who’s the best project manager you ever worked with? This question, posed in a Q&A discussion after one of my recent corporate workshops, stimulated some fond reminiscing about all of the project managers I’ve respected through the years and what made them so good. It also probed into some comparison about what they all had in common. If you take nothing else from this post, do that … take some quiet time perhaps while sipping that second cup of morning rocket fuel, and develop a list of the project managers you’ve respected through the years. Then think about what traits they all had in common.

I’ve had the good fortune for decades to work with project managers in successful Fortune 50 companies and rapid-growth startups, ranging across many industries, including aerospace, telecommunications, finance, insurance, retail, information services, and manufacturing. From these experiences, the best project managers I’ve worked with seem to have the following traits:

They think for themselves. They have the self-confidence to make their own decisions. This isn’t to say they don’t coordinate with others when needed, or disregard other people and don’t heed advice … quite the contrary. They will make their own decision, factoring in their skills, their team’s skills and their assessment of the situation. For example, during a project problem-solving gathering where there may be some questionable risk factors, they’ll listen, engage, and attempt to facilitate to get a full range of ideas. And in the end, while factoring in what the group is doing, they’ll make their own decision.

They understand what the business domains value about the projects they manage. This knowledge helps them make good decisions, and when unusual things happen, they have an extra bit of insight that helps them out of a jam, whether it’s a difficult project launch, an unusual stakeholder demand, or a perceived mid-project crisis. Somehow their projects seem to deliver value more reliably, and fellow project managers around the “neighborhood” will peek over to see what/how they’re planning and tracking.

They take quality risks. Project success demands risk management. It’s about good decision making, a hallmark of good project management. The best project managers I’ve worked with have surprised me on both ends of the risk spectrum, sometimes with a very conservative decision, and other times with a decision that seemed to involve more risk than I would have accepted. An in-depth conversation with them usually revealed a deeper level of analysis than I had undertaken, and I usually walked away with a few more strategies to put in my risk management toolbox.

They welcome questions about their decision-making process. Of course, this can be influenced by how you question their decision. If you approach them in an accusatory or judgmental way, you may not find them receptive. However, if your intent is to understand the analysis and all they were thinking about, you’re likely to find an enjoyable and enlightening discussion; one in which they probe you back for your assessment of the situation, and what you would have done and why.

They are brutally honest about evaluating performance and maintain a focus on improvement. When you work with them, you’ll hear them acknowledge missteps or errors. In project post-mortems or sprint retrospectives, they don’t seem to brag much; they seem most interested in analyzing their mistakes and seeking knowledge or techniques that might help them. They didn’t become one of the best project managers you know by glossing over their weaknesses.

They enjoy gaining knowledge about project management. It’s been said, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” The best project managers I’ve worked with delighted in quenching their thirst for project management knowledge. Maybe it stems from their love of getting valued things done, so it’s not work for them to read up on the latest developments, or spend an evening after a long, difficult day in the office by attending a presentation by a thought leader at a professional gathering. They routinely stay abreast of project risk taxonomies that accurately mirror the concerns of real-world project managers.

They’re calm under pressure. Perhaps it’s a culmination of all of the above, but the best project managers almost seem to have been waiting for the critical moments. They don’t panic; they aren’t shocked. They seem to go into a zone where they just matter-of-factly take care of business.

Are you on your own list of best project managers? Are you on anyone else’s list? What is needed for you to master the skills and thought patterns to get there? Embark on the rewarding path to becoming one of the best project managers you’ve ever worked with.

Scott Stribrny

An internationally acknowledged authority in project management, information systems/technology, systems engineering, and lean development, Scott is interested in the intersections of business, technology, and organizational risks.