So, you want to be a Project Manager?

Most project managers I know, didn’t start their careers as a project manager. It’s one of those career paths where it makes sense to have some experience in the front lines before you take over the reigns as it were.

These are my views and opinions on what type of person it takes to be a good Project Manager. I’m hoping that some of what I write here might resonate and inspire a few of you to not only pursue a career as a PM, but also to approach it in a way that will get you success and your teams respect.

I’ve had a few different ‘careers’ in my working life. I studied Mining Engineering at university, I ended up in the IT industry as a software Tester (yeah, not exactly what I expected!), I progressed along to a Test Manager and as a consultant I’ve covered multiple roles including Business Analyst, Data Analyst, Procurement officer, Change Manger and eventually Project Manager. I’ve moved around a bit, for sure, but all that experience has given me a great grounding as a Project Manager.

Everyone’s path is obviously different, but as a minimum, I think you at least need to be involved with a project team before you can ever expect to lead it. Studying and getting a project management certification can certainly help speed up that journey and will help open a few doors for you, but get some experience on a project team in the industry you want to work in as a PM first. It doesn’t matter what your role is, just get in there, do a good job and observe.

Now, a little disclaimer here… a lot of the specifics I talk about apply mostly to IT or business project managers… that’s where my experience is. There are no doubt significant differences between an IT PM and a construction PM (there will also be plenty of similarities – including some of the certifications available to study), but there’s no way I could confidently fill a PM role on a project to build a skyscraper for example (even one of the smaller team manager roles), without some of that industry experience at a minimum.

Different project management styles – which one works best?

I’ve seen a few different project management styles… here’s a quick overview – which one will you be? Have you seen any other management styles?

The Micro Manager.

Some PM’s like to control every detail .They want to know exactly what is going on and at any point in time want to know exactly where things are at.

I’ve worked for some really good project managers who use this style, but I’ve also worked for a few that imposed a lot of unnecessary overheads on the project team. This can be a bit of a fine balancing act to get right.

On the plus side, it’s nice to have control over the project where you can be relatively sure that everyone on the team is where they need to be and you can track things closely with your schedule. You need to make sure that the feedback you’re getting is accurate (most people’s instinct is to tell you things that don’t make them look bad) and you need to be conscious of not putting your team through too many unnecessary hoops… there is rarely a need to schedule work down to 15min chunks of work for instance – you still need to find ways to empower your team to do the work, rather than put a closed circuit camera over their shoulder and rule with an iron hand… that kind of control only works for so long.

The Aggressive Manager

There is really no need for this management style. Unfortunately some people find themselves as managers and feel as though the only way they can get their team to perform efficiently is to hound them at every point, be completely inflexible where it comes to the schedule and can sometimes get rather aggressive when things get stressful as milestone deadlines approach.

These managers typically have too big an ego or are too worried about how bad failure will make them look… they only make everyone’s job harder. Don’t manage your projects like this. You may have some successes, but it’s unnecessary and you won’t get loyalty from your project team… in fact you’ll generally see high turnover in your project teams and as a PM that’s your biggest problem to delivering a successful project by far.

Fortunately I haven’t worked for too many of these… you do see it a little more at the program level though, and as a PM, you’re often the one who has to deal with them!

The Passionate and Energetic PM

I think the best way to manage a project is to instil passion and energy into your project team… I don’t always achieve that, but if you can lead the way by being passionate and energetic, then that’s a great start.

Empower your project team members to do the work they have been hired to do. Respect their skills and work ethic until they give you reason not to. Make sure they have everything they need and figure out who are the key members that really make stuff happen. Make doubly sure that these people have everything they need and listen closely to their concerns.

Spend your time micro-managing those team members that need a little more guidance and get out of the way of those who get results (just make sure they are pointed in the right direction first! Keep checking their compass by asking for their thoughts on progress and asking them if they need any help).

This type of PM often focuses on building relationships, both inside and outside the team… all PM’s should do this. Make sure your team are happy. Make sure they know exactly what they are doing. And deflect any outside concerns away from your team and stop them before they become an issue.

When problems do arise, address them quickly with answers and support, not blame and drama.

What challenges face you as a PM?

Possibly the biggest challenge you will face as a PM is human resources management. It doesn’t matter how good your scheduling is, or how good you are at dealing with company politics, or managing change… you will eventually reach a point where one of your key resources is off sick for a week, or even worse, hands in their notice to leave.

I like to make sure that the key people working on my projects have all the support they need and I work hard to remove any roadblocks that might slow them down. Every team member plays their part, but some play bigger parts than others… right from day one, you’ve got to be thinking about how you’re going to handle those situations where key people aren’t available when it’s getting close to crunch time and deadlines are fast approaching. It happens. More than I would like.

As the PM, you need to always be looking for signs of burnout – how are you going to reduce stress on your team members if they aren’t handling it particularly well? You need to be thinking a few steps ahead and be considering whether you need to start securing some additional resources for you project – do you have the budget to do that? Do you know where to start – is there any possibility of roping in temporary help from some other business team or a week or two if you’re suddenly under the pump approaching a deadline? What’s the process for replacing a team member if/when they leave – what kind of lead time do you need to find a suitable replacement?

As a project manager, one of your biggest roles on some projects will be to shield your team members from what I will call upper management distractions… put simply, projects, by definition, involve change. Some upper level managers don’t like change. Or they are scared of the consequences of not getting it right. This often causes a bit of pain, usually around milestone deadlines and as the PM – it’s your role to make sure that any distractions are stopped at the PM level and deflected away from your project team… they’ve got plenty of work to do as it is. Protect your team members; empower them to do the work. Internal politics get handled by you. By all means, discuss it with them – especially if it’s something they can help you with. But ultimately, it’s you as the PM who has to deal with what can sometimes be nothing more than just unnecessary stress. Some people like to think they are important. And they like to remind people that they are important… it’s not a management style you should take IMO, but you will come across it.

What kind of person makes a good Project Manager?

As you can probably tell from the PM Styles I described earlier, I think the best personality for being a project manager is someone who can encourage passion and energy in their team members, remain calm when things get stressful and really care about making sure everyone on their team has what they need to do their job as good as possible.

If you care about the people on your team… and I mean really care – you’ll reduce turnover on your team, you’ll know about problems before they become bigger problems, you’ll empower your team to do the work they are there for and ultimately you’ll have the best chance for success.

You should like to create conversations and build relationships – get your team members, and the project sponsors – talking to you as much as possible. You want to know about problems before they are really problems. Project managers hate surprises, and team members hate drama… build those relationships, empower your team members and shield them from any unnecessary noise.

If you can do all that, I’ve got no doubt that you’ll have a successful career as a Project Manager.

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