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What does it take to be a great Project Manager?

Becoming a great Project Manager may require different studies, work experience and certifications, but can you guess what can elevate one to be even greater?

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Have you ever had a job interview that marked your life forever? One that gave you a new perspective from what you knew at the time? Allow me to set the stage for a moment that gave me some of the best career insight I’ve received.

Some time ago, I was in the selection process for a Project Manager position. I was told that my interviewer was a project manager with 20 years of experience, had several degrees and certifications, was very strict, and acted as an agile coach for her teams – no doubt she was a thorough person. It’s an impressive reputation, isn’t it?

It ended up being the most intense interview of my career, and at the end of the interview session, she offered to answer any questions I had, so I asked the only question that came to my mind: “From all your years of experience, what do you think makes a project manager a great project manager?”

She took a while to think about it and then explained about what she believes are the three key skills a project manager should develop to become a great one: organization, relationships, and patience. She provided details of each, which I’ll share in this post, plus three more that I’ve since learned are extremely important in becoming a great project manager.

So, it’s not just about studies, certifications, and titles. It’s about people, and how you manage them to achieve the goals of your project. Simple, right? Not quite! Let’s discuss why.

Organization

If you are supposed to manage resources such as people, time, and money, it is pretty obvious that you’ll want to be organized enough to do it efficiently. No waste is allowed.

There are so many details throughout the project you need to take into account during the delivery cycle, and you can’t afford overlooking any of them as this could entail delays, misunderstandings of the requirements, extra work for the team, and lastly, client dissatisfaction, which works against the ultimate goal of the whole project.

Make sure you do your research and develop the most suitable organization tools for yourself to help you achieve this core function of your role.

Relationships

Every human is a universe, have you heard this? It gets even more interesting when you are managing a group of different types of people working together towards a common goal. Designers, developers, testers, business analysts, and leaders – they all have different perspectives and opinions about the work being done and the approaches for doing it. You will have to gather all your charisma, empathy, and thoughtfulness to find what motivates each of them, and help them in their process to accomplish both team and individual goals.

In addition to that, and since feedback is a vital part of Agile, you will often see yourself involved in situations where you will need to channel your assertiveness and empathy to give constructive criticism in order to improve your team’s work and even ensure that the rest of the team can see this effort. For these situations, you will need a mindset of teamwork, servant leadership, and honesty so you can ensure your feedback is positively received and willing to be implemented.

Patience

Really? Oh yes! Patience seems to be key during each project stage, from the beginning until deadlines when stress, anxiety, and impatience can get the best of us.

No matter the length of your project timeline, there will always be deadlines to hit and multiple delivery points along your roadmap, and one of the most important things is to not lose sight of what needs to be done and by when. This could mean constant reminders to your team, check-in points, and follow-ups.

I recently read that it is more common for project schedules to get lost at the beginning than at the end of a schedule because teams can get confident about postponing tasks deliberately earlier on thinking that ‘there’s plenty of time until the deadline’ – but this is dangerous territory. To avoid this, the best tools you can use are your own reminders, close follow-ups to identify delays, and repeating yourself until everyone is fully aligned with the ultimate goal and each deadline.

This is why it means the world if you can set up project schedules very clearly, using your patience to make sure everyone is aware of it -even if this means being a walking reminder – until you get firm confirmations that the whole team is aware about milestones, goals, and deadlines. It can even make the difference of success and failure.

When deadlines approach and stress is in the air, you will understand why patience is not just about reacting calmly to missed deadlines. It is the thorough process you set up earlier on to create early checkpoints for milestones (such as daily reminders and reinforcements of the project schedule) so you can stay on track and find proper workarounds to avoid fatal delays.

Communication

With the team, with your client, with the organization, with your process leaders, with every single stakeholder of your project: communication is the key to the success of Project Management. It is expected from a Project Manager to be there for everyone, to always be aware of the main challenges, understanding the major issues within the team, and understanding the issues of the stakeholder to whom we should deliver the project for.

Keep in mind that communication is not only about speaking to and listening, it’s about you and your team understanding the entire message and being on the same page. Every situation requires a kind of language, a certain tone that shows respect, and body language that can be well-received. All of these play an important role in the process. If they’re not clear or can be too open for interpretation, then the message will be confusing. One of the best ways you can use to achieve this is to listen! Look for and understand the in-line messages people give you, ask the right questions, and act consequently.

Efficient communication is achieved by considering in the first place the expectations and needs of your audience, and trying to anticipate what they want to understand/know. Please, don’t hesitate to use the right tools such as diagrams, charts, graphs and tables, everything to make your message as clear as possible. After all, it is well known that “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

Discipline

Project management is focused on processes that are supposed to be meaningful, measurable, clear, repetitive, and scalable. As Project Managers, we need to set up the example for how our processes can be followed thoroughly, and we need to encourage our team to do the same thing. More importantly, they need to understand the purpose and the meaning behind each step of the process, as is our mission to help them understand how this entails benefits for the whole team/project as everyone follows it.

What does it mean to be a disciplined person? Setting clear and doable goals, committing to them, removing all the obstacles that prevent one from achieving them, raising flags and giving timely warning of any astray of the plan, and re-planning any work so that no deadlines are missed.

Which are your main goals within the project? Have you identified a clear timeline for it? Are you consistent with your process? Do you follow your own rules and steps? Does your team know about them? Are you thoroughly following an agile framework? Is everyone aware of it? These questions could be a good start to check if you are being a true example of discipline for your team.

Resilience

This is perhaps the most important soft skill you’ll want to develop throughout this journey. You will learn with time that your missteps are going to be the most visible and expensive of all, and everyone will have something to say about it. Setbacks are stressful, and situations like these could put you under extreme pressure, so this is something you will need to handle too.

The attribute that will help manage this is resilience. But how can you build it? There are many ways to do it, but here are 3 powerful tools that will help:

  • Fuel: You’ll need both: food and good energy. Choose a healthy diet routine and make sure you enjoy the time you take for it. Don’t forget about separating a little time at the end of your day, especially the stressful ones, to take a break, ponder your decisions, and do something you enjoy that inspires and eases you, such as meditating, working out, reading, dancing, swimming, gardening, etc. Something that takes you out of your working context and allows your brain to close the day and start the next one fresh.
  • Rest: The temptation to work late for amending your missteps is overwhelming, tell me about it! Just consider seriously enough that you also need time to rest, and you will be surprised about all the great ideas and solutions you would think of after a good rest.
  • Support: Your partner, family, or close friends; we all have someone who loves us and is there for us during tough times. Rely on them whenever you need a friendly conversation. And if you have one, take advantage of your inner circle of trusted colleagues, as they will understand and support you from a familiar perspective since they understand the company and work environment; they may have even been in the same situation before. Their advice, guidance and support will help you to get into the right perspective.

Keep in mind that mental health is the master key to your resilience building, and all of the above points will help work towards this and keep you balanced.

Work in continuous progress

Do you know what I love the most about being an Agile Project Manager? The iterations, the adaptive thinking, and the recurrent feedback it embraces and encourages. I love it because since most people relate those concepts to product design, development, product testing, continuous delivery, and continuous improvement of processes, I can relate these concepts to myself, as a Project Manager.

Don’t panic when you find yourself in hard times and try to avoid blame and self-punishment for not being careful enough with project details here and there; you definitely can’t afford to let these feelings get you off track. Breathe, rest, find inspiration, and learn. It’s then when you will be able to restart your own cycle carrying all these learnings with you.

Each iteration is a new opportunity to receive feedback, identify improvement areas, define new action items, implement them, evaluate results, and become – sooner than later – that great Project Manager we long and work to be.

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