Born to Lead Projects

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - You can train somebody to be a good project manager, but great project managers seem to be born, not made. Excellence depends on certain innate characteristics: Some of us got 'em, and some of us don't.

"Project management requires competencies in three subject areas: technology, business and behavior," says Linda Pittinger, CEO of People3, a human resources consultancy in Somerset, New Jersey. Ideally, project managers should have all three, she says, but if you had to choose only one to focus on, it should be behavior. "People can go to school to learn the technical things, and they can learn the business over time," she says. "The behavioral competencies are the ones people are least able to learn. They're intuitive."

Recognizing who in your workforce exhibits these behaviors will help you identify people who are predisposed to success as project managers. Determining whether someone knows C++ is easy. Figuring out whether he has the right personality to be a great project manager is trickier.

"Project management is a chemistry job," says David Foote, a managing partner at Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Connecticut. "It requires all these soft skills that have to do with getting things that you want [and] adjudicating issues between people, managers, egos and agendas. It's how to get a job done without annoying people."

"The ability to deal with people will make or break a project manager," echoes Kevin McGuire, who has been a project management consultant for nine years as director of services at Primavera Systems Inc. in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

But that doesn't mean that great project managers have to be huggy bears. "I divide them into the ‘touchy-feelies' and the ‘let's-get-down-to-business' people," says Johanna Rothman, president of Rothman Consulting Group Inc. in Arlington, Massachusetts. She has 18 years of project management experience and teaches the subject at The Gordon Institute at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Where to Look: If you're looking to spot potentially great project managers, you might start at a company softball game or picnic. "I always look for people who organize social activities - ski trips, big group luncheons. That demonstrates an ability to get a group of people moving toward a common goal," says Nancy Johnson, who worked in corporate project management for 20 years.

She is now an assistant professor of MIS in the College of Management at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis.

Communication: Strong leadership requires strong communication skills - not oratory, but the ability to connect. "You want someone with the ability to bring people together," Pittinger says.

Great project managers find a way to share their vision with everyone. "With some people, they do it with just words," Rothman says. "With some, they have to paint a picture of how it's going to feel. [Others] have to explain each of the pieces, but they want to get people in the groove with them."

They also have an intuitive understanding of where people are coming from, says Johnson, and it's easy to spot. "When I explain something to them, I only have to start explaining the first two steps and they intuitively know the next steps," she says.

Another key aspect of communication is getting people to respond to you. "They have to be good at drawing the best out of their people," says Jim Oswald, a project manager with 20 years' experience who does project management consulting as vice president of professional services at Project Management Solutions Inc. in Philadelphia.

And that, says Rothman, requires faith. "Project managers really believe that people want to do a good job and they want to help," she says. "They don't take mistakes personally; they don't think people are out to screw them."

Good communication requires good listening skills. "Look for very effective and active listeners," says Oswald. "Project managers have to be able to hear what people are saying."

The ability to see things from another person's perspective is extremely valuable, says Bill Berghel, a project manager at FedEx Corp. in Memphis. He looks for "somebody who can restate each person's view to his satisfaction."

Effective project communication also requires an ability to get beneath the surface when the whole truth may not be apparent. "A certain radar tells you when people are being completely open and honest with you," says Dennis Johnson, an assistant vice president at USAA, a San Antonio-based insurance company. "A project manager needs the ability to question without alienating - to listen and watch people's body language and really see what's happening."

For example, says Johnson, who has developed that ability during his 25 years in project management, "someone will be nodding his head as if he understands, and I know he'll go back and say, ‘What did he really want?' Then someone else will ask questions that show he's trying to get to the next level and truly internalize this stuff. I can see it in his eyes. You need that radar."

"It's important to draw information out," Berghel adds. And that can require courage. "This is the person who will ask an executive a question and everyone else in the room will gasp," he says. "They have to have the courage to ask the questions that need to be asked, even if they think it might look silly," because these are the questions that can make or break a project. (Think, for example, of the stupid question no NASA project manager asked about the Mars Polar Lander project: "Are we talking miles or kilometers here?")Finally, says McGuire, that communications mix includes a touch of salesmanship. "You need people who can evangelize - act almost like salespeople for their projects," he says. "You have to sell the value of your project to upper management [and] make sure it's visible, and then you have a better chance of getting what you need when you need it."

Persuasion: A corollary of communications skills and a hallmark of great project managers is their ability to influence others over whom they have no authority. "In IT organizations, the project manager often is responsible for delivery of product but doesn't have authority over resources," McGuire says.

"They're vying for resources with everyone else in the organization."

"It's hard to find people who can influence others and create win-win situations," Pittinger says. "Your customer says they need it in 60 days, and you know 120 is a stretch. How do you influence that person who could totally ruin your career? That's the project manager I want to hire."

A by-product of this skill is the ability to build and sustain collaborative relationships. They're critical because project managers often need to work with people throughout the company and outside of it. "Look for people who build bridges instead of walls," McGuire says.

Generosity: Great project managers share the credit and take the blame. "Look for someone who gives credit to others - who doesn't talk about ‘I' but about what ‘we' as a team did," Nancy Johnson says.

"Look for a person who doesn't need the whole world revolving around him or her," she continues. For example, notice people who share their knowledge and skills to empower others.

That same generosity makes great project managers approachable. "It's not necessarily someone you want to have a beer with but someone you're not afraid to talk to," Rothman says. "They don't blame people when they screw up. They find out why and then say, ‘Where do we go from here?'"Vision: Great project managers also have vision. They look for patterns and understand cause and effect. This is easy to spot, Rothman says, because they talk about what has worked, what hasn't and why.

This kind of thinking leads to foresight. "A successful project manager often knows what is going to happen in a project from the beginning to the end," Berghel says, and that includes the risks. If you can ask whether it would be possible to deliver a certain project within a certain time frame, he says, some people will say "yes" and some will say "no." But a diamond in the rough will say, "Well, if you can get by problems A, B and C . . ."

Because they can see what's coming, great project managers are natural contingency planners. "A good project manager assumes the worst," says Nancy Johnson. "They think about, ‘If this happens, what do I do?'"Flexibility: Great project managers bend their own roles to accomplish a goal.

"You want a facilitator," Rothman says, "leading from the front, standing in the middle and pushing from the back. They change places depending on who they're with and what they need."

Humor: Given the crazy world they work in, great project managers need a good sense of humor. "So much wacky stuff can happen in a project that sometimes all you can do is laugh about it and move on," Berghel says.

No Sweat: Though you might be tempted to draft the guy who used to keep 15 plates spinning simultaneously on The Ed Sullivan Show, he's the one who will perpetuate a project-crisis mentality. Instead, check out the guy kicking back with a cup of coffee and his feet on the desk. "Look for a person who's like a duck," says Nancy Johnson. "On the surface of the water, it's very placid.

Underneath, they're paddling like hell."

"The really great project managers look like they're not doing anything," Rothman agrees. "They do some stuff that doesn't look like work to other people: They actually think."

It's important to look for what would make a great project manager, but you should also seek subtle tip-offs that tell you a person is wrong for the job.

Nancy Johnson offers some red flags that may indicate a person has the "wrong stuff."

-- The superhero: No one can do this except him.

-- The cleaner: Really enjoys cleaning up messes, often of his own creation.

-- The overoptimist: Always on the verge of nirvana, but somehow the darn compiler always gets in the way.

-- The finger-pointer: Deflects the blame, accepts the glory.

-- The foxhole bonder: Lives on pizza and sleeps on the office floor for 72 days straight, but - by God - he's part of a team!

-- The firefighter: More interested in putting out fires than keeping them from starting in the first place.

-- The martyr: Gains self-worth through suffering.

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