Advice for Project Managers: Soft Skills Needed for Success
Dear Elizabeth: I’m currently a technical project contributor, but I would like to be a project manager. In my experience, technical leads don’t always have the people skills necessary to manage teams and processes. What soft skills do I need to develop in order to be successful as a project manager? —Climbing the Career Ladder
Dear Climbing: First, congratulations on having clear career goals and knowing where you want to go. Being a project manager is a fantastic career move, if I do say so myself!
I think it’s also great that you are aware that people skills are important. Working on your interpersonal skills, and being aware of what’s needed to succeed as a project manager, will give you a huge advantage when it comes to being interviewed for the job.
So, what sort of skills should you be developing? Here are my top three.
Skill #1: Asking people to do things without being rude, especially when they don’t work for you.
You most likely will work in a matrix environment where the team members on the project have a line manager somewhere else in the business. They won’t work directly for you. Therefore, asking them to do anything is an exercise in tact and negotiation. It’s likely they also have day jobs to keep up with and other project managers asking for their time. Learn how to delegate work and get commitment to deliver tasks without being seen as domineering.
Skill #2: Noticing when people are struggling and stepping in to offer just the right amount of help.
No one likes to be micromanaged, but the alternative can be letting your team members get on with their work only to find out they weren’t actually doing anything after all. There is a fine balance between asking for updates to the point of annoying your team and leaving them to their own devices.
Work on finding the sweet spot between those two extremes. I recommend using weekly check-ins to ask the probing questions about progress and step in to keep things moving if you need to.
Being able to uncover and understand why progress isn’t happening is also important. It could be that the individual needs training, confidence, more time, less stress, or something else. It will be your job to identify those issues and support the team. You’ll need to know them well enough as individuals to be able to do that.
Skill #3: Being able to say the things no one else wants to say to protect the project and the team.
A huge part of being a project manager is communication skills. You need the confidence and communication skills to to speak up when it’s necessary. The sponsor wants a ridiculous change? It’s your job to explain why you think it’s ridiculous, but she can have it if she wants and the implications would be X, Y, and Z. The head of department wants everything delivered by Friday? When your team just spent a month working overtime to hit the next milestone, you know you’ll have mutiny if you push them harder. You’ll have to explain why that isn’t possible with the current resources.
You may need to have some tough discussions with your team too. It’s easy to talk about hitting milestones, delivering benefits, and creating awesome stuff. The hard part comes when you make mistakes and have to own up to them, when you need to say no to people, and when you have to challenge decisions and report failures.
You need to protect your team from the office politics that all this brings, so being able to handle conflict, stay unruffled, and yet still celebrate success all contribute to the interpersonal skills you’ll need to succeed as a PM.