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For a successful project manager, look for qualities of a good leader

For a successful project manager, look for people skills and the qualities of a good leader, among other traits. Learn what else to look for.

When it comes time to manage key projects in the IT portfolio, CIOs need successful project managers who exhibit the qualities of a good leader, including the ability to motivate people, as well as some more specific skills.

The new leaders in project management

In a world of Twitter, wikis and other social networking tools, new generations of project managers are utilizing these technologies to stay connected, regardless of where their team members are.

At MSU, project managers developed wikis to share project information and deadlines. "Now, teams in Indiana, Iowa and Michigan are communicating together. It's a far cry from what project management was, where you get the whole team in one project room and wait for results," McGill said. "These bright young people are willing to learn and work hard, and I can almost guarantee this is where project management is going."--KC

And as the traditional, hierarchical approach to project management gives way to more collaborative efforts, successful project managers are collegial, said Michael Hanford, PPM service research director at Gartner, Inc.

"[In a hierarchical environment], many project managers coordinate but don't manage. They get orders from above, pass them along to the team and then deal with the issues, complaints, problems and questions by transmitting them back to their managers," Hanford said. "[Project managers] can't deal with these issues directly or they get their hands slapped." Today, he said, project managers are more often working directly with the team to solve problems in a more collaborative setting.

Some midsized organizations can, however, be reluctant to devote resources to project managers when funds are tight. Such was the case at Michigan State University, where the director of administrative information services, Scott McGill, wasn't keen on hiring one for his 10-year legacy system overhaul. But he was persuaded to do so -- and became a believer.

"At least 50% of the project's success rate can be attributed to how it was managed," McGill said. "It's been a struggle for me to get behind it, but I'm glad I did. It's essential for the future."

Successful project manager qualities

Your project manager should know how to manage a budget, plan and size a project, and work well on a schedule. He or she should have experience and, ideally, certifications. But to be an effective project manager, the person must demonstrate the qualities of a good leader, according to Hanford. He suggests looking for these three traits:

  • Solid people skills: It's important for a project manager to have a good sense of the people he or she will be working with and for. "Project managers need to understand the person sitting across from them," Hanford said. "They need to be able to summarize what they're looking for and get results through other people. They need to be [able to] motivate folks and understand what gets them excited. If you can't do these things, you can't be a project manager, in my opinion."

  • Excellent administrative skills: A successful project manager is like the head of a small business, Hanford said. Oftentimes, projects have limited funds, limited resources and limited time to completion, and the project manager should be able to move the team members in the right direction without overlooking other matters such as legal issues, regulatory issues and multiple agendas – quite similar to running a small business.

    "Sure, there's going to be stacks of paperwork on your desk and bureaucracy to work through, but the project manager needs to manage the projects closely – looking out for issues and potential trouble spots," Hanford said.

  • Communication skills:"As a project manager, you spend half your life talking to people," he said. A good project manager spends time informally meeting with individuals in the group to get a feel for what's going on from within the team. This also makes the project manager accessible if team members have questions or concerns to raise. "Become available to them," he said. "Listen and let them tell you what's on their minds."

    Hearing from the team, even on issues he or she may have no control over, gives the project manager a mental gauge of how the project is progressing day-to-day and how team members are holding up.

As far as certifications go, designations such as project management professional (PMP) from the Project Management Institute (PMI) should play a role as you evaluate candidates but shouldn't necessarily be the deciding factor.

For McGill, a PMP was not a must-have when selecting project managers. But it was a plus. "For me, certification [is] important because it shows that someone had the drive and the tenacity and the direction to go out and get certified. It takes a lot to achieve that, and I look at those work skills that brought them there," he said. "But this is just one indicator. Experience and leadership qualities could trump that."

McGill hired some project managers who were young, bright and willing to work hard. What they may have lacked in experience or training, he said, they made up for by being dedicated and fast-learning.

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