7 critical skills for project managers

Jason Westland
October 10, 2013

If you’re looking for a project management job, the list of skills that employers expect can be pretty daunting. Certifications aside, there seems to be dozens of skills required to do the job, and employers have high expectations from their applicants.

Don’t be put off by long job advertisements. Broadly, employers all want similar things from a project manager: someone who can get the job done with good grace and who won’t alienate the project team members. Technical skills are also important, but in reality there’s a finite list of what a good project manager needs to do a good job, however they are dressed up in flowery language for the advertisement by a recruitment consultant.

Here are the 7 critical skills that every project manager should have.

1. Scheduling

What is a project manager without a plan? The project managers in your company probably walk around almost surgically attached to their project schedules, and being able to organise tasks in the right order to hit the right outcome at the right time is a major part of project management.

Along with scheduling comes monitoring the progress as the project moves forward and making tweaks to ensure that everything stays on track.

2. Resource allocation
Resource allocation is closely linked to scheduling. It may sound like all you have to do is type names next to tasks on your project plan, but in reality there is a lot more to it than that. You have to find the right people, and negotiate with their managers to ensure that they are available at the right time to work on their project tasks.

There’s delegation involved when you give tasks to individuals to complete, along with possibly coaching them or organising training if they don’t already have the skills. Then there are the technical aspects of updating the schedule, calculating whether someone is overloaded and balancing the work appropriately so that it all gets done without burning anyone out.

All of this takes excellent communication skills, not least so that everyone on the project knows what it is they have to do and why.

3. Risk management

Things go wrong on projects; experienced project managers know this and plan for it. Managing the unexpected in a calm way is another important skill for a project manager, even if it might feel that you are being pessimistic at times! Sitting around debating all the things that could trip you up with your team isn’t the most cheerful way to spend an afternoon, but it’s important if you want to get as prepared as you can for what might hit your project in the future.

On top of risk identification you also have to plan what to do about them. This involves using risk management strategies that are suitable for the risk and the appetite in the company or team for things going wrong. These action plans need to be incorporated into your main plan and tracked as well.

4. Budgeting
A project costs money, even if it is just your time spent on it. Increasingly, project managers are having to track their own expenses and budget, often without formal templates or support from the finance department. This also includes forecasting, especially if your project will last long enough to push some of the budget into the next financial year. As a minimum, you’ll have to work out how to spend what you’ve been allocated and whether it is enough to deliver what the project sponsor is expecting.

You’ll need to be able to use a spreadsheet application and have confidence that you know how to handle the numbers. There are also likely to be company-specific processes to follow to actually procure services, receive goods and spend money paying invoices. Some companies will expect you to use earned value analysis: it will say this in the job ad if that’s the case, although if you don’t have experience in this please don’t let it put you off applying, as it is something you can learn once they hire you.

5. Team management
Assuming that you aren’t the only resource on the project, you’ll be managing a team of people. They could have a lot of project experience, or none, but either way they will be looking to you for advice and guidance about how to get this project done.

Team management skills sound a bit vague and include motivation, leadership, coaching, inspiring others and all that. But really it’s about making sure that they have what they need to get their bits of the project done, whether that’s equipment, skills, cash or just the space to get on with it.

There is a lot of administration in project management and managing a team is no different. As well as all the interpersonal skills stuff you’ll be expected to track holidays and sickness absence, keep their line managers updated on progress and maybe contribute to their end of year reviews.

6. Change management
Just as you can always expect to hit something unexpected, you can also always expect something to change on your project. As the project customer and stakeholders get a better idea of what you are delivering they are likely to have some ‘good ideas’ to put forward. Or you’ll realise that you can’t do things exactly as you had planned and need to change your approach. Or you’ll find that it is impossible to deliver everything in the timescales and you need to drop something out of scope. For whatever reason, as a project manager you have to be able to handle changes.

Change management isn’t difficult. It’s mainly about recording and assessing each change request, and making sure that it is approved or rejected by someone in authority. Get your team to do a full analysis of the impact of the change on the project and the approve/reject decisions should be straightforward as you’ll easily be able to see whether the change will cost you money or time. Then your sponsor can make a decision about whether it is worth going ahead.

7. Issue management
When you do hit a problem on a project, a successful project manager knows how to deal with the issue in a way that minimises the disruption and allows an action plan to be put in place with the least fuss possible. You may already have identified the action plan, especially if you saw the problem on the horizon and added it to your risk register with a list of what to do if it did happen.

Even if you didn’t do that, it is important to handle issues quickly and with a recognised process. Many companies will already have issue management processes in place, but if you are hoping to join a company that doesn’t, stick to the basics: record the issue, assess the impact on the project and then come up with a strategy to deal with it.

You probably can’t deal with it by yourself, so you’ll need to get your team and subject matter experts involved as soon as possible. Collectively, you will be able to come up with a solution—stay positive!

The job ad that catches your attention may have many more skills listed than these seven, but these are the ones to focus on. If you don’t have experience in these areas, don’t worry. Each project you work on builds your experience and your confidence.

Even if you aren’t managing the project yourself at the moment you can still make a note of how you have contributed to each of these project management processes or techniques and use these at the interview to demonstrate your understanding of what project management is all about. Good luck!

Author avatar
Jason Westland
Jason Westland is CEO of ProjectManager.com, an online project management software company. He’s also the author of The Project Management Life Cycle. You can find him on Google+.
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