During the last year I have spent a lot of energy on recruiting project managers. I was looking for something specific and although I spoke to a lot of project managers, some of whom came highly recommended, it took a long time before I found what I was looking for.
Having spent a fair bit of energy on this, I thought I’d write up what I believe makes a great project manager.
The Problem with Lists of Qualities and Skills
If you google "Great Project Manager" you’ll get quite a few results with lists along the lines of: Inspires a Shared Vision, Good Communicator, Integrity, Enthusiasm, Empathy, Competence, Ability to Delegate Tasks, Cool Under Pressure, Team-building skills, Problem Solving Skills (Project Smart: Top 10 Qualities of a Project Manager).
Another list I found listed the skills and traits that a project manager needs: Have Recognized Leadership Skills, Posses Good Decision Making Skills, Posses Good Communication Skills, Have a Sense of Humor, Have Integrity, Possess a Driven Desire to Succeed, Have Demonstrated Project Management Skills, Have Self-Discipline, Have Vision, Posses Active Listening Skills, Be Compassionate, Utilize a Proven yet Flexible Project Management Methodology (Project Steps: What Skills Does a Project Manager Need to Master?).
Trouble is, I’m not sure I agree with these lists. Or perhaps more accurately I agree with the detail, the words, but not the emphasis. They are focussing on defining the person rather than what the person can do or achieve. And that leads me to my second, and major, objection to this kind of list. They might get me a project manager but they don’t help me recruit a great project manager.
Recruiting for Talent
Buckingham and Coffman (2001) observed that great managers select an employee for talent rather than for skills or experience.
Great managers define a talent as "a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied." The emphasis here is on the word "recurring." Your talents are the behaviors you find yourself doing often.
So I posed myself the question "What are the talents of great project managers?". I only found three. The way I see it a great project manager has a talent for:
- Building great teams
- Dealing with complexity
Talent for Finishing
Completer Finisher v Implementor
A talent for finishing is different to the Completer Finisher Team Role. The Completer Finisher is a perfectionist and, from my perspective, this can get in the way of actually finishing. The Implementor Team Role is perhaps closer and includes elements of the talent for team building mentioned below.
I believe great projects managers are focussed on the end game. Active progress towards that is everything. They have internalised the vision, always know what is in/out of scope, and know how much value they have earned. They get a kick when things are done, ticked off, live. But they know what is left to do and so immediately set their sights on the next activity to get out of the way (Planning). They actively prioritise so that the most important stuff happens soonist and are happy to sacrifice the unimportant activities to do this. They are impatient with tasks that are 95% complete and the people who report progress like that (Monitoring & Control). They are on the ground and know what is happening, so they can spot pitfalls in advance and work around them (Risk Management). They hate loose ends. They are thorough and have high standards yet know that "perfect is the enemy of good". They do the work themselves if there is nobody else to do it. Nothing will stop them until they are finished. Done. Really done.
So look for project managers that have a history of finishing. At work and in their personal lives.
Talent for Building Great Teams
I also believe great project managers form great teams. They know that they can get more done with a strong team behind them. They understand people. They have the knack of using the potential already present then drawing on the strengths of the individuals to make the whole greater than the parts (Managers versus Leaders). They are expert at managing-up and include wider stakeholders such as sponsors and customers in the team. They trust and are trustworthy. They apply tough love. They deal with under performance quickly as they know it threatens the team. But they have a knack of helping under performers shine in a new role. They are understandably proud of their team and what they’ve done together.
So look for a history of team work and team building. No lone wolves need apply.
Talent for Dealing with Complexity
Great project managers have to deal with complexity. The complexity of projects, particularly large projects, and the complexity of working within an organisational context. They think clearly, easily cope with a lack of good data, are creative in solving problems, and balance risk confidently. They are flexible, adapt processes to fit the local need, and reject a one-size-fits-all approach. They know when to bend the rules to make progress, when to intelligently disobey. They can juggle a thousand tasks at once; they might drop something, maybe even a lot of things, but in that whirlwind of activity they never drop anything important.
So look for recurring patterns of adaptability and creativity in the face of complex challenges.
Um, so what about Knowledge and Experience?
I rate knowledge and experience lower than the talents listed above. This is mainly because I have met some individuals who can talk "Project Management" speak very convincingly, hence fly through interviews, but who are miserable failures when given a project to lead (I can’t help mentioning I didn’t hire these people). The project manager needs to understand what they’re doing and what the team is doing but this understanding isn’t, by itself, a guarantor of performance.
Actually, I look for understanding which usually comes from a combination of learned knowledge and practical experience. I look for understanding in three areas to supplement the three talents:
- Project Management (and Agile) Understanding
- Technical Understanding
- Domain Knowledge – Nice to Have
This is an ordered list, so having Project Management Understanding is more important than Technical Understanding and Domain Understanding comes a long last.
Project Management (and Agile) Understanding
A project manager has to know the language. Know their risks from their issues. Explain what a Gantt chart is, and isn’t. Know how to put together a valid, believable plan. Know what to put into a status report and know when it is okay to chat instead. Etc.
In the case of software development, a project manager has to know about user stories, ideal days, story points, t-shirt sizing, timeboxes/sprints/iterations, velocity, throughput, lead time, stand up meetings, release planning, timebox/sprint/iteration planning and reviews, planning poker, team estimation, information radiators, informative workspaces, shared ownership, etc, etc.
This stuff is all trainable, but in both cases, to have turned this knowledge into deep understanding, the person will have had practical experience.
Technical Understanding means the project manager can understand the job being done by the people on the team. Usually that knowledge comes from having done the job in the past. So most of the good software development project managers I know have been developers in the past. I don’t particularly care whether they were good software engineers, but I do care whether they can understand what the engineers are talking about when describing tasks (e.g. "That just means another event listener on StoryActivity") and problems (e.g. "the load balancer isn’t detecting whether the web server is responding or not").
The same principle applies to other disciplines. For example, a good option to run an infrastructure team is somebody with an infrastructure background.
I also accept that the project manager may have gained the required understanding without actually having been an engineer. One of the best project managers I know only did a couple programming courses at University before going straight into project management of a software development team. An unusual choice perhaps but that particular organisation, the Israeli Defence Force, are very proficient at selecting on talent. So he had the talent and has now been around software people and issues for so long he picked up the necessary technical understanding as well.
Domain Knowledge – Nice to Have
Whereas I believe project management understanding and technical understanding are must haves, I view domain knowledge as a nice to have. I do admit it helps if the project manager knows what the business does (e.g. media, shipping, insurance, retail banking, transport, security, whatever). But from my experience a good person can pick up enough as they go along. I don’t see the need for the project manager to have worked in the field.
So that is it, if you need a project manager look for somebody with a talent for building great teams, who can handle complexity, and, perhaps most importantly, who finishes. They need to understand project management practices, Agile practices if applicable, and the technical job as well. But if you have to make a choice pick talent over knowledge.
Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (2001). First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Simon & Schuster.