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Top 6 Project Manager Characteristics You Can’t Overlook

Sure we all have our list of key characteristics that a good project manager should have going into the PM career they have chosen…

or been forced into. Is it the right list? Maybe..probably depends on the type of projects they are leading. But I’ve got a different list here…one that has some “below-the-layers” type of characteristics that are more “soft” skills than hard skills. You can’t always just learn these and they really are necessary for true success on the tough ones…meaning tough projects.

So, let’s look over my list and try to lock in on these six and you’ll probably be pretty well-equipped to deal with most general project management related responsibilities that help define true success – at least from my experience over the years. It’s experience…but it’s the right experience that’s really the make it or break it in the PM world. Focus on these six…

Works well under pressure.

I don’t think there is a project manager alive and with any real experience to speak of who hasn’t felt some pressure or that real fun “under the gun” feeling when running a tough project. Expectations are high, information is low and the focus is on the project manager to make the right move or decision at the right time. This is one of those “must have’s” if you hope to be successful in the big projects. There’s really no “faking it till you make it” in this category…you can either sweat it out or you can’t. The best can.

Gets production from those under him.

The project manager who can’t lead his team effectively will get eaten alive. No one can question that. But what makes him get that following he requires? Leadership, honesty, integrity, experience – and the right experience, credibility, sometimes charisma, and that whatever it takes to just have the follow through to do what you say you’re going to do. What’s that called? Maybe stick-to-it-iveness. You know what I mean. Never wishy-washy. Battle tested, success proven. That’s who the team will follow. Not the resource manager disguised as the tech project leader.

Can deal with senior management.

This sounds easy, but it’s not. Senior management doesn’t always want exactly what the project customer wants…or even what the project manager wants. And sometimes they can demand things that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of the project. That happened to me on two occasions and I bowed to senior management even though I thought I knew it was the wrong way to go for the project and customer. Turns out my gut was right, but I didn’t listen to it and both times it cost us success on the project – we failed miserably and it was at that senior management input point that we jumped the shark on each project and failure became inevitable. No more…I am more careful in “just following” senior management. You really sometimes need to be able to “deal” with them and still support your customer’s best interests at the same time.

Knows financials.

Knows financials? Why is this important? Because the project that falls 10% off budget can be corrected. The project that is 50% over is likely doomed to fail. 50% is too great of an overage to correct when so many other critical things are going on for the project – all of which are chewing through the budget themselves and fighting for those fading dollars remaining on the project. So the project manager who is comfortable with the project financial planning, analysis and forecasting processes and knows to stay on top of the budget weekly is going to win more often than lose on the financial side. Having a good connection in accounting always helps because the smart project manager is reviewing project financials – updated with actual charges from his team and vendors – every week and re-forecasting diligently. If you are always watching, then it’s far more difficult for the project budget to go more than 10% over without you knowing about it…and doing something about it.

Doesn’t require accolades.

This one is important because you often won’t get any. Success is tough and often elusive (true success happens less than 50% of the time on average no matter how good you are), but is still expected every time out. Think Tiger Woods not winning a major golf tournament. While the odds of winning any major for the best are long, for Tiger it was expected every time out until he was beset with back injuries and surgeries. And even then he still has only won 14 major tournaments and trails the leader and legend Jack Nicklaus by 4 as he enters his 40’s with his prime behind him. So, understanding right away that success is expected and pats on the back are a strange and rare bonus will help the best performing project managers succeed and not care about what others think or what may be coming their way in terms of recognition.

Know how to handle the customer.

It’s the customer’s project. The customer’s money. It’s their requirements, their business processes, their technological whims and wishes. But success rests on yours and your team’s shoulders and no matter what the customer wants or says, at the end of the day success or failure is yours. So knowing how to interact with and manage the customer is important. Knowing when to say yes and when to say no is key. Knowing when your customer is just looking for treatment for a symptom of a bigger problem…that’s critical. And it takes experience and a strong gut to tell the project customer that you need to dig deeper…that what they have come to you with is not really the full project. Careful how you break that news to them though, because further analysis means more money. And it could lose you the project if you handle it wrong.

Summary / call for input

Basically, project leadership is not for the faint of heart. You have to start somewhere…yes. At some point a project manager is the newbie with no experience. Hopefully, that project manager gets to start small and has a good mentor. I did and it sure helped my success and confidence levels. Some get thrown into the fire. But somehow we all must acquire these characteristics and skills to truly succeed.

What’s your take on this list? What would you change or add to it? Please share your thoughts and experiences with our readers.

Brad Egeland

Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. He has been named the “#1 Provider of Project Management Content in the World” with over 7,000 published articles, eBooks, white papers and videos. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at

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