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6 Essential Project Management Skills for Smoother Work

Years ago I was in Brazil managing the installation of a monitoring system for a large construction project. As I told the chief electrician how a piece of equipment was to be mounted, he raised his eyebrows and said: “You’re the boss.”

I knew what was happening: Because I was the project manager, the chief electrician didn’t feel he could disagree with me, even though he did. In this case, he was right, I was wrong, and the result was a loss of time and resources.

Technical training in project management does not prepare you for dealing with such nuanced circumstances. As a project management professional, you’re a change agent working with teams that are made up of complex individuals in many different roles. Somehow you’re supposed to be a leader, and know-how to read body language, negotiate, and be a master at myriad other project management skills. How do you do it all?


Here is my shortlist of six must-have skills for project managers, and some books that will help you get there.

1. Communication

Did you know that 90 percent of a project manager’s time is spent communicating? It’s essential that project managers can effectively convey vision, ideas, goals, and issues—as well as produce reports and presentations, among other skills.

Communication is a broad topic, so it’s difficult to approach it from an all-encompassing angle. A good place to start is by improving your presentation skills, which translates into everything from a kickoff meeting to a pitch to clients and stakeholders. The best resources I’ve seen on this are the works of Nancy Duarte. Her books, “Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences” (free on iBooks) and “slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations opened my eyes to the power of an expertly executed presentation  As you read through the books, watch for different insights you can use in presentations and other aspects of your work.

2. Leadership

Leadership is the current buzzword in the project management industry, and with good reason: If you can lead, you can deliver. But most importantly, leadership is often what is missing in the project manager’s arsenal of highly developed technical skills. If you’re a project manager, I can guarantee you have felt the need to improve yourself as a leader at some point.

Thousands of resources exist that promote better leadership. Susanne Madsen, project management and leadership coach, who also writes for this blog, has a new book out that’s a must-read for any project manager interested in developing leadership skills. “The Power of Project Leadership: 7 Keys to Help You Transform from Project Manager to Project Leader”  is filled with actionable information you can implement immediately to become a better project leader.

You can also listen to Susanne talk about leadership in my podcast interview with her.

3. Team management

Besides leading a team from a strategic perspective, project managers also need to manage from an operational point of view. An effective team manager excels at administering and coordinating groups of individuals by promoting teamwork, delegating tasks, resolving conflict, setting goals, and evaluating performance. Leadership is about inspiring others to walk with you; team management makes sure your team has the right shoes.

As part of the Harvard’s Pocket Mentor Series, “covers all the basics on team management, including insight on how to create a team identity, resolve conflicts, address poor team performance, and many other areas.  It’s a short read and will get you thinking about the right topics when it comes to managing teams.

4. Negotiation

Going back to communication skills—a lot of this communication has to do with negotiating the use of resources, budgets, schedules, scope creep, and a variety of other compromises that are unavoidable. Knowing how to negotiate well so that all parties are satisfied is a key skill for the successful project manager.

I read “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” a couple of years ago and was impressed at how authors Roger Fisher and William Ury were able to explain the inner workings of negotiations, and how to make the most out of this unavoidable experience.

5. Personal organization

Have you ever heard that you cannot give what you do not have? How can you get things done and organize work for other people if your own personal life and projects are disorganized and going nowhere?  Get organized personally, and you will immediately improve as a project manager.

I read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” a few years ago, and that was a pivotal point in my life. I was already a project manager then, but was going nowhere with my career, and my work was not up to the standards it is today.  This book helped me get my life and my commitments under control.

6. Risk management

During my “Project Management for You” podcast series, I interviewed top-notch project managers and asked them about their go-to project management tool or technique.  I was surprised to see them suggesting risk management. They are absolutely right: If you can predict and create solutions to issues before they arise, you increase your chances of delivering projects successfully.  Risks by definition are not urgent; as a result, many project managers fail to consider risks as seriously as they should.

Managing Uncertainty: Strategies for Surviving and Thriving in Turbulent Times” by Michel Syrett and Marion Devine is a great introduction to navigating around risky environments in project management.

Project management is a job that demands a varied and vast skill set. Start by honing your practices in each skill set, and keep adding and incorporating them into your work.  I hope you continue working on becoming the best project manager you can be by honing these project management skills.


Organizations don’t just want to have broad goals that only top-level personnel are aware of – they want to set, track, and measure goals across the entire company. Download our new eBook to learn how your team can be using OKRs.

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