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15 Top Skills Project Managers Need

I’ve made a list of the 15 core skills that I think project managers need. These are the things that should be part of your skillset because they will help you get the job done more effectively. And for the avoidance of doubt, ‘effectively’ means faster and with less effort. I certainly want that for my projects!

Here is the list of skills project managers need. As you read through, think about which ones should be your focus areas for the coming year and how you are going to take your skills to the next level.

1. Leadership

Project leadership was a hot topic this year. Being able to lead your team as well as manage them is a trend that shows no sign of abating (and that’s a good thing). It’s really important to be able to inspire others, set the vision and lead effectively, so if that’s not your strong point resolve to work on it now.

2. Negotiation

It would be lovely if everyone did what was best for the greater good at all times, but projects don’t work like that in real life, do they? Project managers with good negotiation skills will be an asset to their teams as they seek to resolve conflicts by finding the win-win scenarios for everyone.

3. Scheduling

It should go without saying that project scheduling is a core project management skill. However, speaking to people who manage project managers during end-of-year review time I have heard that some of them aren’t up to scratch in this area.

Get to grips with project scheduling because a) it’s your job and b) it will help you deliver things more successfully for others (which is also your job).

4. Cost Control

Budget management is bizarrely one of my favourite topics. I am not a natural maths whizz but I do like a well put together spreadsheet. If I understand the numbers and create my own tracking mechanism I can tell you to the penny how much my project is spending.

Cost management is a critical topic for project managers. Those without this skill will be at a disadvantage because budgets are tight. You need to show that you can deliver your project within the cost constraints and by managing the project finances intelligently.

5. Risk Management

The more mature project management gets as a profession, the more we find ourselves doing projects that are unique. The more ‘routine’ the project, the more it is likely to get outsourced or given to a functional manager who shows an aptitude for getting things done. Project managers will work on the more complex, transformative, unique endeavours that require decent risk management.

Being able to control risk (as far as you can) is a sign that you are on top of your project. Project sponsors hate surprises and good risk management is one way that you can manage that.

6. Contract Management

Part of managing your project involves managing suppliers. The vast majority of projects will have an element of supply, whether that is something as simple as the outside caterers who bring in cakes for your launch event or a full-on off-shoring system development firm.

Contract management is about being able to actively manage those procurements. Previously many project managers have been able to rely on their Finance departments to get this sort of work done (and Legal teams for managing the terms of the deal). Today, with everyone under pressure to do more with less, it’s falling to project managers to pick up the slack when it comes to procurement.

critical thinking

7. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is core to being able to make good decisions. You have to weigh up the pros and cons of solutions to problems before choosing the right way forward. This is what distinguishes a project manager who is good at managing issues to someone who blows issues out of the water every time.

You can build your critical thinking skills through practice and by equipping yourself with tools and approaches to help you structure arguments logically and see things from all angles before making the final decision.

8. Communication

If I had to pick one skill on this list to focus on this year it would be communication. We don’t do enough of it. Our stakeholders demand more of it. We fail time and time again to meet expectations largely because we failed to communicate effectively and often.

Think creatively about the communication channels you have got available to you including:

  • Intranet
  • Newsletters
  • Emails
  • Collaboration and social media tools
  • Team meetings/face-to-face
  • Web and online conferencing.

Then think about how you can apply each of these to actively serve your project next year.

9. Project Recovery

I hope you don’t have to do project recovery next year but if you are looking for a boost to your career then showing you know how to turn around a poorly performing team and project will certainly set you aside from your peers.

10. Coaching

Most of the people on your project team won’t work for you (if, indeed, any of them do). That makes it really important that you are good at managing in a matrixed environment but also that you are good at coaching. Why? Because they may not have much project experience and you’ll have to coach them to top performance.

If you are worried about not being a good coach you might be surprised to learn that coaching skills are something that might be closer in reach than you expect. If you sit with a child during homework and help them come to the right answers then you are doing a form of coaching. Some training in this area will help you apply those skills in the workplace to help your team perform their best.

11. Task Management

This is another bread and butter task for project managers. You should be able to create a task list, delegate work to others and keep on top of progress. I found this was the easiest part of project management when I started because I was naturally a list-maker. If it doesn’t come easy to you you’ll have to develop strategies to ensure you are always on top of your To Do list.

When you have cracked managing your own work you can help others manage theirs. This is the best way in my experience to make sure that projects come in on time and others take responsibility for their deliverables.

12. Quality Management

Quality management ensures that you deliver a product that is fit for purpose. What project sponsor doesn’t want that? Unfortunately project managers often don’t spend enough time on the quality angle of their projects – it’s one of those processes and set of tasks that are overlooked as an administrative overhead.

If you are a quality expert, then good for you. But if you aren’t, seriously consider upping this on the priority list for 2015. The better the quality of your deliverables, the better value you are offering stakeholders and the more satisfied they will be.

13. Meetings Management

How many of your meetings this year have overrun or finished without any clear action being agreed? How much time have you sat in meetings wondering why you were there and what time you can leave without it looking too bad? Or worse, how much time have you spent on conference calls only half listening while doing your emails or playing Candy Crush?

Being able to sense when a meeting is going off the rails and people aren’t paying attention is a key skill for project managers. It’s helped by sticking to the agenda but it’s also about being able to read the body language of people in the room to check that you are getting through the material quickly and comprehensively. Don’t let 2015 become another year of wasted time in meeting rooms.

14. Business Case Writing

With the ongoing focus on delivering business value, being able to write a business case (or at least contribute one) will be a good skill to have. Get hold of some templates so that when you are asked to finalise a business case or review one you know what should be included.

Find some business cases from past projects and evaluate what you would do differently. And make sure that your next project actually has a business case – that’s a good start!

15. A Sense of Humour

Getting through your projects largely relies on a good sense of humour and the goodwill of colleagues prepared to pick up the slack or wait another 24 hours.

An ability to see the funny side of project management will keep you on an even keel during the next 12 months.

Now you have read the list which of these skills will you work on as a priority this year? Let us know in the comments and good luck in your project management career this year.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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