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So You Want to Be a Project Manager - Part 2: Getting the Skills You Need

~ By Diane Ellis

A senior businessman sitting at his desk and holding some documents

In my last article we learned the six key skills required to be a successful project manager, and why those are more important than qualifications.

In this article, I look at how you can acquire, learn or improve these skills, in order to become a more successful project manager.

The six key skills are:

  • Being well organised
  • Having focus and vision
  • Good communication skills
  • Willing to be the bad guy
  • Remaining calm under pressure
  • Innate leadership skills

So, can you learn these skills, or are they innate. Let's look at each in turn.

Well Organised

This is definitely a skill that can be acquired, although if you are a disorganised person generally, then you might have to work pretty hard on this one. Being well organised is more than just "a place for everything and everything in its place." Being well organised means also being disciplined, and the ability to multi-task, without losing sight of any of things that you are doing.

A simple way to start is with a To Do List and colour co-ordinated folders at work. At the start of each day, review your to do list and decide what needs to be done today. Have four folders - red, yellow, green, and plain. Anything that needs to be done today goes in the red folder. Anything high priority that should be done if there is spare time goes in the yellow folder. Anything that can wait or is just "for information" goes in the plain folder. The rest goes in the green folder.

Your priority for the day is the red folder, aim to complete at least everything in that folder, no matter what distractions may arise. Don't slack off if you get through it all, then move on to the yellow folder. Review your progress at the end of the day. If you haven't completed everything in the red folder ask yourself why. Were there legitimately too many "urgent" interruptions, or did you allow yourself to be interrupted?

Why not consider blocking off an hour or two in your diary for your own work, turn off your email for an hour and do not answer the phone, treat it as if you were in a meeting. Make sure your team knows you are not to be disturbed during this hour.

Also review what you are taking on yourself, is it too much? Should you be delegating some of this work. Many of the most disorganised people I know are not disorganised, just overworked because they cannot bear to delegate work, because they think they can do it better themselves. Get over it! If you cannot effectively delegate, you will never be an effective project manager, and you won't be growing any of your team members either. Sure, you might have to help them a bit the first few times you delegate something new to a team member, but eventually they'll get the hang of it.

Focus and Vision

This is a more difficult skill to acquire if you do not innately possess this ability. Focus and vision is the ability to see the wood from the trees, to be able to cut through the extraneous information to distil the essence of a problem or a goal and to be able to articulate it clearly to others so that they, too, can see it. And to be able to do it fairly quickly!

Imagine you have just started on a new project, and you have interviewed the project sponsor, and the key stakeholder executives, to get their views on what the project needs to deliver. And there's not a lot of consensus, everyone seems to have a different focus. One technique to use is to ask the question "but why" (to yourself) - why does this one manager have a different view to the others (as an example) - is there some kernel in there that needs to be teased out, or is it their lack of vision? It may also help to draw things up on a white board, you can use a mind map, or just free form, and see whether you can focus in on the core issue, problem or goal.

The other key thing with focus and vision is being able to keep the team focused on the end outcome at all times. Again, the theme of discipline emerges, do not allow the team, or yourself, to be derailed from achieving your goal. Write it down and stick it up on the wall if you have to.

Good Communicator

It's not essential to be engaging orator, but you must be able to communicate clearly to others in a language that they can understand. And you must be able to communicate to all levels in an organisation, from the most unskilled worker through to the Chief Executive. This means you must be able to tailor the same message many different ways, depending on who your audience is. And you must be confident.

Great ways to learn confidence when speaking are through local toastmasters groups, local amateur dramatic societies (acting groups), and through reading aloud to yourself or your family. Learn to be confident with your voice!

When putting together a presentation, consider your audience. Senior executives don't want to know all the ins and outs, they want an executive summary. If you are talking to people who will be affected by your project, speak to them in their language, and tell them how it will affect them.

Willing to Be the Bad Guy

If you are the sort of person who doesn't like to deliver bad news, then you need to toughen up. That doesn't mean you need to be aggressive, just assertive. If you have to deliver bad news, whether it is to senior executives or to your team, just put yourself in their place, think how the news will affect them, and tailor the message appropriately.

And sometimes you just have to assert your authority. In a previous article, I looked at the decision during World War II as to whether or not to bomb Auschwitz. Both Allied leaders (Churchill and Roosevelt) wanted to do it, but were swayed by their senior military advisers not to. I believe that was a failure of leadership, sometimes you have to make tough decisions, and you have to be willing to make a decision that not everyone will support.

If you feel uncomfortable with either or both of these scenarios, or you are someone who agonises afterwards that they might have made the wrong decision, then project management is not for you. This is not a skill that you can learn.

Calm Under Pressure

Focus, focus, focus. People who remain calm under pressure are those people who have the ability to focus in on the problem, rather than be distracted by potential outcomes or whose fault it was.

If you need to hone this skill, try using the technique we discussed earlier in focus and vision, use a mind map or white board to get to the kernel of the problem, and focus on resolving this.

An Innate Leader

Innate leadership comes naturally and is innate to that person and situation. We've all met people who, regardless of what they do, always seem to end up in charge, whether that is organising the church social, a school fete, or a birthday party. These people just exude confidence and competence, and we naturally allow them to take over (not dominate, as a good leader ensures everyone is a part of the team) they just seem to be natural leaders.

An innate leader has a certain level of confidence, and most of the other skills listed above.

There are opposing views as to whether leadership can be learnt or is an innate part of the personality. I believe it can be learnt, but it is difficult, and hard work for someone who does not innately possess this skill and cannot be learned in a classroom! And more often than not, without real self-confidence behind it, people who try to be leaders often come over more as overbearing and meddlesome as their natural authority is questionable.

Just think of dog training. If you have a dog, you'll know that you need to be "leader of the pack," the alpha dog in your household. Otherwise the dog will run the household, not you. Cesar Milan (known as "The Dog Whisperer") states that to be the pack leader you must have calm assertive energy. Some dog owners think that the way to control their dog is to shout at it when it misbehaves (or worse) that is not what a leader does. A leader is fair, but assertive, they don't need to show how strong they are.

So if you are not the sort of person who always ends up in charge, who has natural leadership skills, think long and hard about whether you can become this sort of person. You need self-confidence above all else, and competence underlying that self confidence. To build up your leadership skills, build up your self-confidence and competence.


Diane Ellis has been a project and programme manager for over 25 years, and has recently released a new simple guide to project management called "Project Management Made Easy." You can learn more about Diane and her new book, as well as sign up for a free course on "Troubleshooting the Most Common Challenges Project Managers Face," at www.ManageThatProject.com


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