Top Ten Qualities of the Best Project Managers

One of the first things I noticed when I began advising this field in 1994 was the bad rap that project managers had. There was a common refrain that Tony Mikes and George Johnson both repeated frequently, with a smile: “If you like your project manager, you have the wrong one.” The idea was that the best project managers were salty and controlling, and you’d better get out of their way. Worse yet, they weren’t deferential, and there’s not much that principals hate more than folks who are not deferential!

Of the five goals I set for myself initially, one was to raise the profile of a project managers–at least to the same level as an account manager–and to bring some science to the table. Since I began studying them in detail in 1998, I have now interviewed, surveyed, and profiled 2,940 of the very best. That has fed the “ReCourses Functional Model” and the entire associated system.

Along the way, I came across some research by Andy Crowe where he segregated the top 2% of 5,000 project managers to surface what they shared in common. I’ve adapted his work and shaped it based on my own research to give you the top ten traits of fantastic project managers. It is not the most difficult role (that belongs to account managers), but it is the most important role in your firm, whether it’s a producer in a dev shop or a more traditional title. I call it a Resourcing role.

Here’s what makes the best project managers special:

  • Command authority naturally. In other words, they don’t need borrowed power to enlist the help of others–-they just know how to do it. They are optimistic leaders who are viewed in a favorable light and are valued by the organization.
  • Possess quick sifting abilities, knowing what to note and what to ignore. The latter is more important since there’s almost always too much data, and rarely too little. Ignoring the right things is better than trying to master extraneous data.
  • Set, observe, and re-evaluate project priorities frequently. They focus and prioritize by handling fewer emails, attending fewer meetings, and generally limiting their data input.
  • Ask good questions and listen to stakeholders. Great project managers don’t just go through the motions. They care about communication and the opinions of the parties involved. They are also sufficiently self-aware to know how their communication is received by those stakeholders.
  • Do not use information as a weapon or a means of control. They communicate clearly, completely, and concisely. All the while giving others real information without fear of what they’ll do with it.
  • Adhere to predictable communication cadences, recognizing that it’s the only deliverable early in a project cycle. All this takes place after very thorough pre-execution planning to eliminate as many variables as possible.
  • Possess domain expertise in project management as applied to a particular field. It’s not just that they have generic project management skills; they have a deep familiarity with one or multiple fields that gives them a natural authority and solid strategic insight.
  • Exercise independent and fair consensus-building skills when conflict arises. But they embrace only as much conflict as is absolutely necessary, neither avoiding nor seeking grounds for control of a particular project segment.
  • Cultivate and rely on extensive informal networks inside and outside the firm to solve problems that arise. They identify any critical issues that threaten projects and handle them resolutely (vs. ignoring them).
  • Look forward to going to work! They believe that project management is an exciting challenge that’s critical to success. The truly great ones view project management as a career and not a job, and they treat it like so by seeking additional training and education.

In summary, great project managers plan, manage, and handle details in a way that lets others relax.

Oh, and one last thing: project management is not a stepping stone to account management. The skills and profiles are completely different, and setting up a career path like that diminishes the role of project management. Depending on what type of firm you are, project management comprises 12–18% of all the activity in your shop, and quite a bit higher percentage of the billable time at your firm. Dev shops have the most as a percentage; in-house departments on the client side have the least.

Celebrate their impact and make the position an important one. If you’re still calling them “traffic” anything, you’re two decades behind.

Will you do me a favor? Forward this to a great project manager and tell that person “thank you” for a job well done.

And if you think I’ve left on some essential qualities, let me know.


Here are just a few of the free resources available on the website if you’d like to dive into this a little more:

Finally, join me in Nashville on May 20 for a full day of exploring account and project management. For now, just hold the date–the brochure will be available shortly.

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