Project managers are a fascinating lot. I am constantly reminded that it takes a specialized set of skills to do this job. A few years ago, I led a survey that studied the attributes of 860 project managers, known as The Alpha Study. It was part of a book I wrote called Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not. The goal was to identify and explore what the top performers did differently from everyone else. Some of the results were surprising—and I want to share the highlights.
Here are three key ways top-performing project managers stand out, and why these practices are so important for success in the field of project management.
1. Top performers actively and regularly seek out reviews and feedback
One of the survey’s biggest eye-openers was just how differently project managers perceive their performance compared to how their stakeholders do.
This particular finding was replicated by BusinessWeek magazine. In 2007 they published the results of a survey that revealed that 90% of managers believe they’re in the top 10% of performers within their organization, and 97% of managers believe they are shining stars.
This echoes the same findings from the Alpha study. In general, we project managers tend to view our own performances very positively, and this becomes even more pronounced when we compare our performance against our fellow project managers.
The truth is that most of us have a terrible ability to self-assess. We simply don’t see ourselves or our performance the way our stakeholders do. The most common way this manifests is that we over-estimate how well we do common tasks.
For example, 94% of project managers rated their communication abilities higher than their stakeholders. It seems that from where we PMs sit, things look just fine; but from our stakeholders’ perspective, most of us need improvement.
The gap is even more pronounced when you look at the percentage of how project managers rank themselves on leadership vs how the stakeholders rank them. This is not good news for our teams.
Getting a better sense of ourselves
We can begin by realizing that the way others experience us is different than how we perceive ourselves, and the news is not all bad. For example, a Psychology Today article, The Beguiling Truth About Beauty discusses how our lack of objectivity about ourselves usually drives us to undervalue our appearance. In short: most of us are “hotter” than we think.
Self-appraisals can work for or against us, but perhaps the more important point is that they usually don’t line up well with the way others perceive us. So just as we might over-praise ourselves, we can also be harder on ourselves than we need to be.
What reviews and feedback tell us
Anyone who has ever participated in a 360 review has seen this firsthand. In these assessments, the reviewee rates her performance on a series of scales, and then the same performance is assessed by a variety of stakeholders. Rarely do our self-assessments match the assessments of our reviewers.
Top-notch PMs know that feedback – no matter how it feels – points out those blind spots and helps reinforce and improve on natural talents. If you can get a handle on both your strengths and weaknesses, then you improve your project management skills and steer your career in great directions.
2. Top performers harness and direct the motivation of team members
Anyone who has seen the 2004 movie Miracle saw a great depiction of how a united team performs better than a group of individuals. For this to happen, there’s always a leader who unifies the team by getting everyone to focus on a common goal. This leadership can come from a team member, a coach, a manager, you name it.
You probably already know that management and leadership are different disciplines. Leaders set a vision, inspire and motivate, while managers produce the results within the given constraints. You can certainly be both a leader and a manager, but each role requires two different skill sets.
In order to build a team, however, you have to get the right people in place and align their interests toward a common goal. This becomes even trickier when you realize that everyone has his or her own agenda, and it might have nothing to do with the project.
Your value shifts over time
Early in our careers, we’re rewarded for being highly efficient and task-oriented. If we manage to climb the corporate ladder, our value usually shifts to being more relational. In other words, your value is no longer tied so much to the number of lines of code you can sling out in a day. If the team is focused and highly effective, you can actually multiply your value several times over. If the team is dysfunctional, your value drops. Not only are you not producing code anymore, but the team isn’t either.
Building leadership skills is a lifelong pursuit. The first step is to understand what drives the people on your team.
3. Top performers keep teams aligned to project priorities
Stakeholders are constantly competing for ways to move their interests to the top of the project list. It’s the project manager’s job to help the team stay aligned with the project priorities that deliver the highest value. In the Agile world, one of the key functions of a coach is to communicate the priorities and to remove obstacles so that the team can stay productive. On waterfall projects, project managers often help identify and set the priorities themselves.
The most important priorities are known as critical success factors (CSFs). Here’s what project managers need to do to keep their teams aligned and focused:
- Identify the correct CSFs.
- Apply the appropriate resources to the CSFs.
- Handle risk appropriately.
- Protect the team from distraction or priorities and don’t let anyone hijack the priorities.
Top performing PMs spend enough time determining the true critical success factors; then, they apply resources to those projects and tasks above all else.
Project managers bring order to chaos. By taking a hard look at our own performances, focusing the team, and keeping resources applied to the most important work, you can rise to the top of the PM pack, while giving your project the best chances for success.
To rise to the top of the pack, it helps to know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and practice a lot. The good news is that basic habits are something you can start practicing right now. To learn more, download our free eBook, 5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager.