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Superheroes needed: 5 heroic qualities of the best project managers
When you work in a task-driven team with a lot of punishing deadlines, champion project managers are an essential piece in the puzzle. As all who have worked in a room where the clock is ticking and tensions are high will agree, the right character types can defuse most ticking time bombs – while the wrong ones can be a grenade in a room that’s ready to blow.
At any stage of your career, the ability to effectively ‘carry the clipboard’ and take a key project from inception to approval, is an excellent skill. And while certainly not everybody’s idea of fun, if you have good people skills and can handle a lot of detail, project management can be a great spur to career advancement. Here are five behaviours of a champion project manager.
The project manager is not necessarily the star of the group in terms of effectiveness or output: the PM is more like a coach who allows all the stars to look after their tasks, while you guide the team goals. Key to this is owning the timeline from beginning to end. It’s not enough to brief everyone at the start, put names against tasks, then assume it’s job done. Projects often fail due to midway complacency: ownership involves staying over each step of the production – and where needed, maintaining a clear lines to the client as well. Insist on open communication: where delays occur, identify them while being reassuring and not panicky. Focus on finding additional help, and putting the tasks back on track. Ideally, build ‘buffer’ into your timeline early to allow for such issues.
A devil for the details
If there is one thing that you find with any complex and dynamic project, it is that the devil lies in the details. Ensure that you fully check everything that comes in and comes back – and intimately know the stages of production, understanding each different step and the various push-factors. Don’t accept anyone’s word on something: instead, whether it’s a pitch request or a contract negotiation, pour over the fine-print, and attack any ambiguities early. As somebody who is good at complexity, you need to be the one who not only understands the major factors that are at stake, but embraces the less sexy nitty-gritty details that nobody else cares about.
Be a pleasure to deal with
Not everyone can stay best friends where tough deliverables are involved. But throughout the process, the project manager should have everybody’s ear. Sidestep all politics, listen to people generously, but don’t over-absorb negativity (“I’ll buy you dinner after this and hear all about it”). Most importantly, be good to everyone, including vendors and partners. In any equation where time is a key factor, people are much more flexible for those who are ceaselessly nice to them, appreciate their role, and personally thank them for their teamwork. A rich and slightly dark sense of humour, and excellent empathy skills are also a real asset.
The most flexible beats the purist
Don’t let anyone tell you that project manager is not a creative role. There are invariably those characters who when the heat comes down, lose their cool. These types lean on the notion that someone else has already failed to fulfil their side of the deal – therefore excusing a raft of delays down the line. Whether or not that’s correct, the project manager can’t be ruled by this logic. So long as there is still time on the clock though, you have the chance to get things back on track. Flexibility and decisiveness become massively useful under pressure. Perfection is the enemy of finished – attack the details, engage those strong at problem-solving, and find a way.
Isolate drama and rally the team
Finally, while you can't prevent conflict, you can try to make sure that you're the calmest one throughout. Having people under pressure to achieve big things will invariably lead to drama: and that’s okay. A strong project manager gets good at taking people aside for one-on-one chats. In the event that people are upset, they mostly need to be listened to. But you don’t need to buy into their mood. Having a bit of a wobble is often just a sign that a person is putting everything into the task – and that they care about the outcome. Where tempers flare, isolate it, refocus those involved and then rally the team to unite again for the final push ahead.