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This article looks at what makes a great project manager (PM) and will assist potential PM’s to decide whether they are looking at the right career.

Author: Dominic Hansell, Senior Consultant at i3Works Ltd. Dominic has over 15 years of experience in project management roles.

It frustrates me that I often hear people explaining they’re “…going to be a project manager…”, often as a second career, despite the fact they’re not suited to the role and have little idea as to what’s actually involved on a day to day basis. The key problem is it’s a generic term and the role in one organisation can mean something quite different elsewhere. In addition, it’s relatively straight forward to pass a Prince2 or APMP course and then make the claim, “I’m a qualified Project Manager!”.

So, in addition to qualifications, what other key factors should be considered? In order to make the perfect triangular combination, experience and skills need to be added. This article looks at what makes a great project manager (PM) and will assist potential PM’s to decide whether they are looking at the right career. Let’s consider what I see as the Top 5 areas…

  1. Leader – a PM needs to be inspirational; to lead from the front and, ideally, undertake any task that they would ask their team to perform. This might mean anything from office administration, such as booking meeting rooms and noting actions through to writing business cases and debating your standpoint with the steering committee. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, such as highly technical work, but a PM must learn the basics, even if that’s to do no more than counter estimates of work as ludicrous (whether they be very high or very low!). A high ranking officer in the British Army once told me they wouldn’t ask any of the soldiers in their command to do something they weren’t prepared to do themselves. This might be an easy cliché to dismiss out of hand, but I could sense there was genuine honesty in the statement. Team members will detect sincerity in an instant and that will start to build a trust amongst the team and confidence in their leader that will hopefully pervade throughout promoting a determined, ‘can-do attitude’ within the team. This must be coupled with the ability to delegate the right tasks to the right team members at the right time and will be enhanced by the PM making difficult decisions, which all great leaders are able to do, taking the project team with them on the collective journey.
  2. Team Builder – it goes without saying that people are everything and the PM has to be the glue that joins the various teams together within a project. From creating to improving an existing team, either by making changes in personnel and/or processes, the PM is responsible for ensuring the team is a high performing machine. This doesn’t happen by accident, so careful recruitment and management is needed to ensure the individuals function together, understand the part they play and what the overall objectives are. The PM will need to understand the wants and needs of individuals and be confident that they’ll be a good fit. Whether each of Belbin’s types needs to be represented is a debate for another time, but it is vital that ongoing monitoring of team dynamics, paired with intervention where necessary, is carried out as a matter of course. A good dose of empathy will go a long way to ensuring strong 121 relationships are built that create formidable team foundations.
  3. All-Rounder – sounds obvious, but ultimately a great project manager needs to be a great all-rounder and although we can’t expect to be the ‘best in class’ in all the relevant disciplines and behaviours, there’s a minimum level required in each to succeed overall. A great PM needs to be organised and be able to focus on others as well as themselves, ensuring that they do their job, and can multi-task effectively. They must demonstrate integrity of the highest order, but also undertake a multitude of roles. For example, they must be a salesperson on numerous levels; selling the project to would be team members, selling benefits to customers, selling the business case to the project sponsor – sell, sell, sell!
  4. Problem Solver – ideally, a PM should have an interest in problem solving, coupled with an unhealthy desire to succeed. Things will always go wrong – that’s not in doubt, but the success of the project will be measured against what is delivered and a natural problem solver will always thrive building solutions to those problems, ideally with a positive attitude that permeates the team. This not only includes the initially defined project deliverables, but also how the PM copes with changes and challenges following initial project sign off. A measure of success should in part be based on how unknowns are handled, rather than just the knowns. A project manager is a champion of change by definition, so they must be able to manage change as a matter of course, embracing challenges whilst keeping an eye on the overall strategy and the key deliverables. The predictable mantra:  deliver, deliver, deliver…
  5. Communicator – interpersonal skills need to be at expert level; building and maintaining strong working relationships with all ‘stakeholders’ is a must; whether they be customers, colleagues, suppliers or partners. A great working relationship doesn’t mean being best-friends, but instead gaining an understanding of what both parties desire and will view as successful; primarily from a business perspective and then from a personal stand point if the ambition to move from a performing to high performing team is to be achieved. Building a rapport will increase the likelihood of influencing at all levels and a great PM will schedule time in their week to spend valuable ‘informal’ 121 time with different members of the local and wider team to gauge progress and contentment levels.

A director at a major UK Life & Pensions business told me they were concerned when an outsource partner quoted a very low estimate for each policy administered. They spoke to their partner and stressed that they had no interest in driving the cost down to that level, stating “…I want both parties to be successful…”, which led to a revised estimate and ultimately a longer lasting and profitable relationship.

It’s vital that a PM knows what to communicate, when and to whom. Sounds simple, but the need for a ‘Comms Plan’ on all but the simplest of projects would suggest otherwise! They should challenge the ‘norm’ and re-use work wherever possible, for example, huge amounts of time can be wasted writing reports that are never read; all too often, work is carried out purely because “…that’s how we’ve always done it here…”, where a challenge to the requestor might be met with an agreement and new simpler way of working. A PM should seek feedback on a regular basis – this should not be viewed as a weakness, on the contrary, it should be viewed as part of a personal continuous improvement process…which leads us back to experience…

Simply passing the Prince2 or APMP practitioner course alone doesn’t make a great project manager, but with a sprinkling of experience, the right skills and behaviours will go a long way to ensuring success.

Whether you’re considering a career in project management, or deciding who to recruit, I urge you to consider the ‘perfect triangle’ (regardless of whether it’s equilateral) before making a decision!