The 5 Most Important Project Management Skills (And How to Get Them)

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If you’re already in project management and you have a project manager’s personality, you’re always looking for ways to improve your skill set.

Project management is not as simple as checking off boxes as your team flushes down a Gantt chart. It’s not just looking at and tracking bugs, learning Agile, or finding new ways to boast about your PMP certification.

In fact, being a successful project manager requires a huge set of proficiencies that vary by industry. If you’re wondering what project management skills it takes to become a well-paid project manager, or to just break into the industry, you’re in the right place.

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Whether you’re trying to find the right project management courses to beef up your efficiency, wanting to pump up your resume, just breaking into the project management field, or a recruiter at a loss for what to look for in a good project manager, these project management skills will take you where you need to go.

1. Communication

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There’s no getting around it: if you’re uncomfortable giving and receiving criticism, bad at communicating with stakeholders, or just aren’t good about responding to email, you probably shouldn’t be a project manager. Most projects fail because of a communication error. Don’t add to the problem.

The key here is communication — not charm. Yes, you’ll need a level of charisma to inspire your team members and to explain work processes to stakeholders, but I’m talking about simply transferring information clearly from one party to another. Project management communication is comes down to being clear about goals, concise about expectations, and concrete about quantitative results.

For more information on these three “C’s” of communication, check out “How to Create a Successful Project Management Communication Plan.”

2. Organization

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If you have a messy desk or don’t always clean your dishes right after use, that’s not a big deal. If you forget where you stored essential project information, that’s a problem.

Project managers need to be organized people. Because projects have a clear start and end date, it’s tempting to dispose of all project-related activities upon completion. However, any seasoned project manager knows that what worked for one project might work for another; there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel every time a task comes up.

On a more granular level, project managers often have to juggle different reports, deadlines, tasks, meetings, risks, and QA issues all in one day. Organizational skills are an absolute must to keep any project manager on top of their daily task lists.

One incredibly common way that project managers deal with organizational issues is with project management software (the most popular software options include Microsoft Project, Atlassian, Podio, Wrike, and Basecamp). Project managers often use these programs to stay apprised of all projects at hand, generate reports, communicate with their peers and clients, manage tickets, create Gantt charts, and even to produce hourly billing statements.

3. Negotiation

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Negotiations aren’t reserved solely for the beginning of a new project. According to the Association for Project Management, “Formal negotiations are typically with providers on such issues as agreeing contracts. Informal negotiations include discussions to resolve conflict, or discussions to obtain internal resources.” In other words, if you work with people and have a decision-making role, you’re going to need to know how to negotiate.

There are four keys to being a great negotiator:

 

  • Be respectful. Getting hot-headed or dismissing coworkers’ opinions is only going to take a toll on morale. Always be clear and considerate when dealing with your team.
  • Abandon the “winner take all” mentality. In a negotiation, meeting everyone’s interests is more valuable than winning.
  • Establish an atmosphere for candor. It’s tough to negotiate everything without knowing all the variables. That means that you should take the time to establish “rules,” like “In this meeting, we’ll figure out how to move forward with our next deployment” and “We’re not going to talk about the QA problem from Monday morning.”
  • Don’t be afraid to bring in third parties. Whether you’re having trouble with a team member or struggling with a client, there’s nothing wrong with pulling in HR, the IT team lead, or another appropriate third party that can help facilitate discussion.

4. Mentorship mentality

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I’ve talked a lot about servant leadership in the past, and every single point is worth repeating. I wrote,

What comes first, the business or the team? Without the business, the team doesn’t exist. But without the team, the business is not viable. Your service should be equally distributed to both. That means that sometimes, the team must come before the short-term interests of the company, or vice-versa. Too often, project managers believe that they only serve the bottom line. What they don’t realize is that the bottom line is often facilitated by long-term investment in the supporting players.

Balance supporting your team with supporting the company. If a team member makes a mistake, first look into what you can do to help them succeed. If their failure is a result of a systemic issue, it’s your job to step forward and advocate for them. Take on the responsibility for your team’s growth, and your job as a project manager will become much easier.

5. Tech skills

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Even if you’re not working in an IT department, there’s no avoiding the need for technical prowess to navigate today’s business world. If you are managing a tech team, the need for a technical background grows much higher.

CIO spells it out when they reference Bob Herman, the owner of Tropolis Group. He says, “a great project manager needs to have enough technical knowledge about areas of the project to be able to assign themselves to some of the tasks.” He adds, “Assigning yourself to some of the project tasks and successfully completing those tasks on time helps you earn the respect you need to successfully manage the project team.”

Knowing the extent of what you’re asking your team to do, and the technicalities involved, will inevitably make you a great project manager. You wouldn’t be a Scrum Master without learning Scrum; you shouldn’t be a project manager without learning exactly what you’re managing.

More?

I’m sure that there are plenty more project management skills that are imperative for success. What did I miss? What would you add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Rachel Burger

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Rachel is a former Capterra analyst who covered project management.

Comments

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I’m a student and would like to become a project manager. Your list make me feel comfortable on the skills you have to have, especially your 3 first points – the others you can always work on it and improve yourself. I was reading a post before ( http://thinkthyme.com/project-management/how-to-become-a-project-manager) and I think two points that seem very important as well are “being optimist” and “knowledge of other frameworks).
My humble student opinion 🙂

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Oops to add another important point:

3. You must be a super-user of MS Excel and MS Project

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Thanks Rachel for the excellent article. However, from my experience as a Technical Manager and an engineer by profession, I find project manager has a totally different role in an organization. And below are the guidelines for a successful Project Manger as I have seen them working with great pride:

1. You cannot be a true subject matter expert in any field except in presentation tools and communication field; if you are then it’s a failure to be a project manager.

2. You must be extremely good in communication, both in written and verbal.

3. You cannot be honest and instead must be a great manipulator, the more biased you are toward truth the faster is the growth/promotion.

4. You have to be good in tapping information from others and must be highly skilled in polishing that borrowed knowledge to be used as tools to argue/challenge others.

5. Be good in selective delegating – don’t delegate everything to your team members, they can put you in trouble.

6. Never agree to anyone easily and instead say ‘no’ to all except to the boss who has the power to review/decide your performance results.

7. You must be tactful in making friends around regardless of their level/position

8. You must be good in influencing people by hook or crook

9. Never talk the truth but always tell lie according to the situation, change the perspectives according to the time and situation, never hold a firm stand on anything but be flexible to get things done

10. Never be sincere to anyone, including the direct reports or to the organization or to the job but go forward with manipulative strategy

11. Pretend to be assertive in everything and never show lack of confidence in anything even if not sure about the subject in question

12. Pretend to be honest and sincere while show people that you are trustworthy (not in real)!

13. Engage in gossiping to get hidden info from various people

14. If there is any failure/delay in delivery/execution, gather info aggressively to find a possible root-cause(s) that could absolve you from the responsibilities to a great extent. Put the blame on others and quote examples of similar failures in the past caused by other teams with data to deliberately mislead the opponents and bosses. If it’s still being pushed back to you, then tell the meeting members that you will get back to them with more ‘precise’ data while reiterating that your explanation will not undo the failure but it’s your effort to share the ’facts’. Also tell them that you are not defending the shortcomings from your team. If anyone who is more technically qualified to argue questions you, then challenge him/her by time-plan chart to divert attention toward scheduling and project milestone. This would bring down the confidence level of the technical expert momentarily and would ‘withdraw’ from the argument. In the worst case be prepared for parsing her/him all of a sudden as a last resort if the opponent is too aggressive to attack you with real technical stuff in which you are near to big zero. Remember that you must be a good drama artist!

15. Be a lead-player in blame game but do it implicitly

16. Think that you are a salesperson always.

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Rachel, this is a big topic and you have hit on 5 important skills. Project management is often called an art and a science. The science is what gets the most attention, things like estimating, scheduling, writing contracts, and tracking costs. The art includes several of your top 5, particularly communication. The art takes practice and will ultimately be what makes you a success or failure. Ironically, the ‘science’ is perceived to be difficult, but it really isn’t. The math is simple and the practices are all common-sense.
My advice: If you are trying to break in to the field, get a strong foundation in the science – even reading a book gives you a good start here. For example, readers tell me my book helped them to break into the field: The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management (get a free eBook preview here: http://tinyurl.com/zmm392n. )
One slight disagreement with the ‘5 skills’ listed here: Tech skills. We need project managers in pretty much every industry, from making a movie to designing an electric car. If you want to manage Information Technology and software development projects, then, yes, understand software development issues. The really good project managers can participate in solving the problems of the project – so they understand movie-making or automobiles enough to join the conversation.

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Thanks Rachel. I enjoyed the article. And this is one reason why I think it’s so important for project managers to keep learning and expanding their skill sets. Approaching projects from the perspective of a leader as opposed to a manager is really good advice.

Since Project Managers do a lot, here’s how to make it all fit in your resume (permission to add the link): https://www.jobscan.co/blog/project-managers-can-write-great-resume/

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Great to see communication at the top of the list skills which you must have?
When things go wrong, which they always do at some point we need to communicate this to our client immediately, there should be no surprises at the commissioning stage or overcoming a problem that first raised its ugly head two months ago!
I believe communication is key to everything else, you cannot negotiate away around a problem if you have not even honest and raised the problem when you should have.

I believe this is key toeverything

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