Seven Secrets of a Successful Project Manager

project manager streesedAs many of my readers know, I have been a project manager for longer than I care to admit.  In my career, I have mentored many young project managers at the start of their careers.  I hope that I have helped steer them in the right direction.   At the same time, I have seen project managers burn out mid-career for multiple reasons (perhaps the topic of a future blog).

In this blog article, I would like to share my experience as a project manager working in some of the world’s largest companies and a few startups.  Hope this will help the new project managers to learn from my experience and other project managers and become a better project manager.  So here goes.

1. Project manager needs to Trust, but verify

Trust is an earned commodity that needs to be earned.  I don’t mean to be skeptical of others, but make sure to verify your trust is justified.  Let’s say you have been assigned to a new project and some of the team members have never worked with you before.   How do you trust the team to provide realistic deadlines for deliverable?   One approach is to give team members small assignments with the simple purpose of testing their ability to keep their commitments. You should also talk to project managers and department managers the new team members have worked before. Ask them to list the strengths and weakness of each new member.

2. Show  love

Some project managers use a carrot and stick approach to motivation.    Here is another approach:   show appreciation for a job well done.  Don’t be the project manager shown in the picture at top of this article! Celebrating the completion of a milestone does not have to be expensive; a small gesture of recognition can go a long way.    If feasible, secure a small discretionary budget for group activities. Throw a small party for the team when milestones are met. At the end of each project give souvenirs or small financial awards to the team so they know they have done a job right.

3. Don’t waste your team’s time

Your team is busy working hard.   You need to make sure every minute of their time is spent on the real work and not on activities which don’t contribute to the completion of the project. One thing to avoid is having endless project status meeting and reports. Keep status meeting short and standing room only. Only invite people who absolutely need to be in those meeting.  Shield the team from unwanted emails and questions by people not directly responsible for the project.  Make sure when an email is sent out only people who have to respond or know about it are CCed and not the entire team.   You can actively demonstrate respect to your team by limiting redundant or low priority communications.   Status meetings are necessary, but keep them brief and focused on the project. Don’t let disruptive employees hijack the meeting.  If someone is trying to take over the meeting, be direct and tell her or him we could have that discussion later with fewer people in the meeting. If the meetings regularly take longer than half an hour, you are doing something wrong as a project manager. Have goals for the meeting. Only discuss what is urgent in these status meetings.

4. Use the right tools to empower the team

With so many project management software solutions, project managers can authorize the project team to update their own project plans, post questions to the group or flag issues or concerns.   To some extent, the project manager could lose control if he or she is no longer the gatekeeper, but project management is not about control.  It is about guiding a group of people to get to a common goal fast with minimum stress in both human and monetary capital. When managing is done right, team members will be more productive and effective. They will be more forthcoming and willing to share knowledge & help others and take responsibility for the good of the project.

5. Add “mentor” to your job description

Project managers who are willing to invest time to help advance the career of their team members will be rewarded in the long term.   As a mentor, you can help team members navigate their way through the organization. Remember hopefully you will be managing other projects in the future. It will be a great sign of your management success if people who work you know, be better qualified and willing to work on your future projects.

6. Keep feedback productive

There are different ways to share feedback.  Feedback is not criticism. The only reason you should give feedback is to help the person receiving it do better a better job in the future. Perhaps in some cultures, being direct is the norm and that is a good thing.  In other cultures, people are hesitant to be direct, but even in those instances be direct but as always be sensitive not to insult the person you are dealing with.  In most instances, you can get far better results by giving honest feedback and at the same time be helpful in finding solutions to overcome shortcomings you see in a direct report.

7. Don’t cut-and-paste your team’s assumptions

A project plan is not an exact science, but that does not make it art in the traditional sense.   You need your team’s input in developing a plan but your job is to interpret this input.   Challenge assumptions, deadlines, and dependencies.    There will be times that team members miscalculate and the successful project manager flags these mistakes.

I highly recommend reading resources for project management, we post there in-depth articles about the issues related to project management discipline regularly.

If you are an experienced project manager and look for new career paths check this article about differences between Project managers and product managers.   

Dan Smiljanić

Dan is a practitioner of project management and our resident geek. With a background in computer science, Dan is the lead product tester at Binfire. When Dan not writing code, you will probably find him cycling and hiking with friends.

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