Colin D Ellis
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5 Real Skills All Project Managers Need

Firstly, let’s get one thing clear, calling these skills ‘soft’ is a complete misnomer, as they are the hardest things to develop and change.

American leadership author Seth Godin recently made a plea for us to call them real skills, ‘Real because they work, because they’re at the heart of what we need to today.’ 

It doesn’t really matter what we call them, however, for any individual to be successful in any role, it’s critical that they ask for feedback on what they do well and what could be done better, then continually work hard at them.

In the case of project management the feedback received will almost certainly always be on these real skills. In fact, in a recent ProjectNPS analysis that we undertook for a client, we found that only 1% of feedback was on the ‘technical’ expertise required to be a project manager – the methods and processes.

There was no feedback at all requesting:

  • Improved PRINCE2 knowledge and application
  • More regular GANTT charts
  • Greater detail around the use of templates
  • More meetings (although the need for them to be better managed made it onto the list)
  • More detailed project meeting minutes.

Almost all – 99% – of the feedback (good and bad) centred on the personal traits displayed by the individual. And yet, these are the skills that organisations never invest in when they are looking for an improvement in their project management people.

Instead, they’re sent on courses where they are required to answer a multiple choice questionnaire to attain a certificate on theoretical knowledge.

Imagine how powerful that certificate could be if that person had to change a behaviour? Imagine how it would make the individual feel, knowing that with some deliberate practice and willpower, they were able to change a habit formed over a number of years?

Maybe this is why, according to McKinsey, leadership development programs consistently fail. Organisations place too much emphasis on simply completing a course rather than ensuring that individuals have the self-awareness to understand what needs to be fixed, before committing to and then demonstrating personal change. Almost $7bn a year is spent on leadership programs in the US alone, yet it continues to be the number one challenge facing organisations.

As Abraham Maslow once said ‘Self-knowledge and self-improvement is very difficult for most people. It usually requires great courage and a long struggle.’

If the appalling success rates of projects are to improve we have to start investing in programs that give project managers practical insight into how to change, in order that they can make the choice to change and become leaders. These are the skills that set great project managers apart from everyone else and ensure that their services are always retained.

These are the top five real skills project managers need to be successful:

1. Empathy

The ability to see things from someone else’s perspective takes effort. It starts with working on our self-awareness and being open to our own emotions in order to help others open up too. Time spent getting to know the people you work with and for is never wasted – knowing their triggers, any cultural sensitivities or even which sports team they have been rooting for over the weekend will help you build genuine relationships and give you the tools to provide an empathetic response when the chips are down. 

2. Variable communication

Different personalities require different communication approaches, so it’s little wonder that emails go unread or that by being direct with someone they may get emotional. Great project leaders are able to tailor their communications and their style to whomever they are conversing with. Once learned, this is a life skill that is never lost

3. Humour

Dame Judi Dench once said ‘I think you should take your job seriously, but not yourself - that is the best combination’ and, of course, she’s right. Everyone has a sense of humour, so project managers need to understand how and when to use this in order to keep motivation and productivity high. Humour can take many forms and must be in line with the team culture that has been created

4. Listening

It is often the things that aren’t said that have the biggest effect on the work being done. In order to be able to hear these, project managers need to practice active listening. Sense what’s being implied rather than said, consider how it’s being delivered and process that against what’s known about the individual (see 1. Empathy) before responding. Putting a device down, turning away from the screen and giving someone complete attention is the best way to find out what’s actually going on

5. Flexibility

In our rush to make everything ‘agile’ it’s important to remember that a flexible mindset is key to its success. In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck calls this having a Growth Mindset. One that is open to possibility and difference of approach and opinion. The waterfall approach isn’t making projects unsuccessful, it’s project managers with fixed mindsets that is. That’s also what’s holding a more agile approach back too!

The ability to be a role model for transformative change is a challenge that all project managers should take on. To do this, we need to fully understand what it means to lead and create great teams, then continually change the approach until we hit the sweet spot.

Organisations have been investing in project management programs that haven’t worked for the last 20 years. My two-day Conscious Project Leader program focuses only on the things that make a real and lasting difference to how you deliver. I measure leadership performance before the program and then again three months after, to make sure that the learnings have been applied.

I’d love to work with you - wherever you are in the world! - and help you transform the way that you deliver projects forever, so please get in touch to arrange a time for us to talk further.

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