The 6 project management skills you need to have

Being a truly great project manager is about more than just training and qualifications. These are the 6 skills you need to get your projects over the line — and what you can do to develop them.

What does it mean to be a great project manager?

It’s not about qualifications or degrees (but those are good too, of course).

It’s not even about simply delivering on the classic duties and responsibilities of a project manager (although obviously that’s a pretty big part of it).

Those things are important. But being a really great project manager isn’t just about tasks, timings, and technical prowess.

In fact, some of the most important project manager skills — the ones that will help your project team to feel valued, motivated, and trusted — are the soft skills.

The soft skills of project management are what allow you to get the best out of people, create harmonious relationships across departments, and keep things running smoothly throughout the process.

They’re the skills you rely on when things start to get scary, when the project subtly begins to change direction, or when you need to give tough feedback to your team.

While the term “soft skills” makes them sound fluffy (or squishy, or mushy), the impact they have on your team’s performance is rock-solid — and 80% of project management professionals agree. According to the Project Management Institute’s 2018 Pulse of the Profession report, four out of five respondents believe that soft skills are more important today than they were just five years ago.

Here’s our rundown of the 6 most important project management skills — and how to develop them into your project management strengths.

Project management skill #1: Communication

Project management skill #1: Communication

As a project manager, you need to work with a lot of different people: team members, other departments, leadership, clients… Most projects have a long list of stakeholders that you need to keep aligned, up-to-date, and ideally, happy.

When you have so many people to manage, communication is key. For work to flow, you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page, working towards the same goals, and all kept in the loop about any changes or issues. But that’s easier said than done, especially when your job is to liaise with people at all different levels — meaning that you need to be able to consistently tailor your communication style and content to the right audience.

And no pressure, but for a project manager, poor communication can derail everything. The PMI’s 2018 Pulse of the Profession report found that it was a primary factor in 29% of failed projects.

So considering it’s a skill you’ll rely on multiple times a day, every single day, in lots of varied formats (face to face, email, instant messaging, video conferencing — the list goes on), it seems pretty safe to say that the importance of people skills to project management success can’t be ignored.

How to develop this project management skill:

Listen (and ask questions). Whether you’re in a client meeting or an employee one-to-one, simply listening is one of the most powerful things you can do. Do it right — and ask the right questions — and you’ll be able to pick up on what’s not being said as well as what is. And with a better understanding of the situations at hand, and how the team is feeling about the work they’re doing, you’re better positioned to problem-solve when the need arises.

Don’t shy away from giving feedback. Even when it’s critical, feedback is essential for growth — and everybody wants it. In most people’s minds, feedback is linked to career development. And one study found that 94% of people believe that corrective (i.e. “negative”) feedback improves their performance, so long as it’s presented well. That means your feedback should be specific and action-based, with a clear path for what to do better next time.

Centralize your communications. With so many different ways to communicate, it can be easy to feel like you’re constantly crossing your wires or losing visibility of important information. Using a project management tool can help by giving you one central place for all of your important discussions and updates, at both the task level and project level. This means that every instance of communication has more purpose, context, and traceability, as well as allowing you to send fewer emails and keep your focus where it matters: on the work.

Related: read our best practice guide on how to communicate clearly, concisely and considerately in Teamwork

Project management skill #2: Organization

We hate to be a cliché, but there’s no getting around it: organization is one of the most important skills needed to be a project manager.

But while it may be the most typical project management skill on this list, the good news is that it’s also one of the most tangible — and therefore one of the skills easiest to practice and develop.

Organization is a broad term that covers a lot of associated subskills, from the big picture stuff like planning out the project in detail, to the everyday things like personal time management that allow you to get your day-to-day work done and be in the right place at the right time.

And as a project manager, you’re not just responsible for keeping yourself organized and managing your own work — everyone else is relying on you, too. So it’s easy to see why organization is one of the most important strengths of a project manager.

How to develop this project management skill:

Keep your calendar up to date. Having a shared calendar helps the whole team to keep track of the important tasks and milestones so you never lose sight of when things are due. Not only that, but it also makes it easier to know when people are available so you can schedule meetings with less fuss. And when it comes to things like annual leave, it even helps you to spot any potential resourcing issues before they become problems. Try creating a filtered calendar for your project team (or subteams within your project team) to make it even easier.

Don’t be afraid to set your DND status. That’s Do Not Disturb. Part of being organized means focusing on one thing at a time — which also means giving each individual task your full attention, rather than trying to spread your attention across several things at once (and succeeding at none of them). So when you’re in a meeting, or if you need some deep focus time, turn off the notifications and make some space for yourself to think.

Project management skill #3: Adaptability

So you know that beautiful, detailed, well thought-out plan that you made with all your sharply-honed organizational skills? Yeah, that’s almost definitely going to change.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and project managers: they often go awry.

That can be for reasons outside of your control, like client or stakeholder demands, or because in the course of the project, you realized you needed to change direction in order to get the best outcome.

The best project managers aren’t afraid to go off-piste, because one of the keys to successful project management is being adaptable. For project leaders, it’s one of the most important project management skills, allowing you to flexibly respond to change in the moment, without sacrificing your whole project plan and having to start from scratch all over again.

And if you can’t do that? According to the same PMI survey quoted above, a change in the project’s objectives is responsible for 37% of project failures, while a change in the organization’s priorities comes in as the #1 reason projects fail, with 39% of the votes.

Now, we’re not saying that being adaptable is going to magically make all of that disappear — but it does mean you’re better equipped to handle it, minimize the fallout, and steer the project back on track to the desired outcome.

How to develop this project management skill:

Be a little more agile. No matter which project management methodology you like to use, understanding the basics of agile is a good project management skill to have in your toolkit. Even if you don’t want to go fully agile, there are lots of agile practices you can start to incorporate, like daily standups, iterative sprints, or more continuous feedback. Or maybe just get inspired by the core values and principles and see if there are any you can steal adapt for your own team.

Project management skill #4: Empathy

Project management skill #4: Empathy

As a wise person once said, “the importance of people skills to project management success can’t be ignored”. (That person was me, a few paragraphs ago.)

But perhaps the most important of all the people skills? Empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand how others around you might be feeling and see things from their perspective.

As a project manager, empathy empowers you to engage with everyone you work with more compassionately and productively.

In turn, that helps you to be a more insightful leader and create a more motivational, rewarding business environment for your team. Because you’re better positioned to understand what drives each individual, you’re also better equipped to help them develop their skills and reach their goals.

Empathy is also an important part of the project manager skill set when it comes to conflict resolution. Particularly when used alongside those excellent communication skills you’ve been working on, empathy will make you a better mediator, and can help your team members to feel more respected and valued.

How to develop this project management skill:

Check in with your team. Try to connect with the people working on your project. This circles back to the skills we talked about with communication, like asking questions and listening to the answers, but it goes a step further: as you do all of that, you need to make a conscious effort to see things from the other person’s point of view. Developing that personal connection with individual team members will help you to understand how they see things, become familiar with their individual communication styles, and more.

Read more fiction. Studies have found that reading literary fiction exposes us to complicated characters and scenarios we otherwise might not experience in our own lives. And as we start to identify with the characters and become emotionally involved, we begin to consider their viewpoints, goals, and desires — not just our own.

Project manager skill #5: Unflappability (i.e. the ability to stay cool under pressure)

Great project managers are like broken wings: unflappable. They cannot be flapped.

Or to put it another way: they’re able to stay cool under pressure.

That’s important because as a project manager, you’ll find yourself in a lot of high-pressure situations.

Deadlines closing in, difficult client conversations, things not going to plan — project managers don’t just need to survive the chaos, they need to be able to thrive in it.

Particularly in an agency environment, where things are fast-paced and constantly changing, project managers need to be able to keep a level head and make good judgement calls under pressure.

But whether you’re client-facing or not, if you want to be a great project manager, you need to be able to think on your feet, come up with creative solutions, and keep the team feeling positive, not panicked.

How to develop this project management skill:

Know what flaps you. If you want to be unflappable, you need to start by understanding what your stress triggers are. Maybe you’re unfazed by deadlines, but you find it hard to say no to people in the moment. Understanding your personal pressure points will help you to be more aware of them going forward, so you can plan ahead and make better decisions.

Learn from your experiences. You’re only human, so no matter how calm and collected you try to be, you’re probably going to get a little frazzled from time to time. Use it to your advantage and do a run-down of what happened after the fact. (Like a post-mortem meeting, but for your brain.) Once you’re out of the situation, make a point to reflect on how you responded by recording your answers to the following:

  • What was the situation?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did you react to it? Why did you react that way?
  • Were you happy with how you handled things?
  • What do you think you could have done better?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Keep track of what causes you to get flustered and try to see if you can chart any patterns over time.

Project manager skill #6: Leadership

Project manager skill #6: Leadership

Is there anything more vague and less quantifiable than being told to “be a good leader”?

The thing is, great leadership will look different to different people. What it means to be a good leader can vary depending on industry, team, and individual team members.

And it’s not just one individual trait. To be a good leader, you need to incorporate many of the other project management skills on this list. You need to be able to communicate the project goal clearly, relate to your team with empathy, and steer the project through rocky patches — but you also need that extra je ne sais quoi, that spark of something that can ignite inspiration in the rest of the team.

That’s leadership. And it’s a key factor in the project management skills matrix.

It’s also something that grows as you develop your project management experience. So when we say that leadership is one of the key project management skills, we don’t mean that you need to be one particular way.

Instead, we believe that being a good leader means being able to understand what’s needed to motivate and drive your team, in your own way, using your own unique project manager skills and competencies.

How to develop this project management skill:

Learn from other leaders. Who inspires you and why? Try to learn as much as you can from leaders you admire — whether that means going for coffee with a colleague or mentor, or reading up on a famous leader you want to emulate. Not sure where to start? Here are 10 ways leaders can help their teams to do better.

How to develop project management skills

The best way to learn these project management skills is by practising them every day.

As with most things, once you know the areas you want to improve, you can seek out opportunities to develop them.

Volunteer to give a presentation to challenge your communication skills; start tracking your work in a project management tool to ensure you’re always organized and on top of things; and look for ways to engage and inspire each team member.

Start honing your soft skills, and you’ll soon find that they become your project management strengths.

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