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Skills maketh the project manager

Martin Vaughan
August 15, 2011

In fact, most formal project management accreditation and competency assessments completely overlook soft skills since they are very difficult to measure and teach. Some people seem to be born with soft skills, others learn through years of experience. It may be better in the long term for recruiters to go with the people with natural soft skills over those who lack them, but who have more traditional project management skills.

There is a significant cultural element to soft skills: some international students struggle to reconcile Australian norms with their own upbringing. If international students aspire to long-term careers in Australia, then our advice is to supplement their social and part-time work networks with local Australians where possible. This is necessary if they wish to be effective in the Australian workplace. Fortunately, with global projects and global outsourcing, we believe professionals who can bridge the cultural gap will be highly sought after.

Skills development and accreditation

There will always be a role for formal, structured training. Technology innovation will see this supplemented with self-paced components. An astute project manager realises they, not their employer, need to push to make sure training happens and find the time to supplement training with reading and research. Skills development is an investment, mainly of time, so it will take effort on the part of employers and aspirants.

A blend of independent reading, hands-on practice with recognition that mistakes will be made, formal training and mentoring/coaching provides the optimum skills development approach. People need to make the time, particularly in busy projects and busy roles. This is particularly true of project managers who often work on a casual/contract basis rather than in full employment.

Accreditation is a necessary goal for project managers, whether aspirational or accidental, though it will take time as accreditation can only be gained after skills and experience are demonstrated. There are significant numbers of project managers looking for work and accreditation provides one tangible differentiator between them. Recruiters are time poor too, so when comparing people, any obvious differentiator will be used during selection. Once chosen for an interview, it is down to soft skills and communication to land the role.

Coaching and mentoring

Industry has started to formally recognise the experience of senior project managers through formal mentoring and coaching programs. These programs can be quite effective, with benefits to both the mentor and mentored. Programs only work where there is a strong desire, on both sides, and there is a commitment to making time available.

The mentor/coach should not be the line manager of the mentored and, ideally, should be co-located. The mentor/coach provides a sounding board, different strategies for dealing with a problem, advice on difficult people, independent deliverable review as well as emotional support through difficult times. It will take at least an hour or two on a fortnightly basis to fulfil this role.

Peer review, particularly of deliverables, is an important aspect of project manager development. Through a network of similarly experienced people, a significant amount of support and advice can be sought through peers. There is sometimes a role to be had by the mentor/coach to make peer review happen.

Whether aspirational or accidental there is a need to develop skills to be successful in project management. The key skills for effective project managers are the soft skills; unfortunately recruiters focus on experience and more traditional project management skills. It is unrealistic for aspirational project managers to secure a project management role straight out of university. There is, however, a large demand for jobs in the project management support functions, which provide ideal foundations for a project management career.

Martin Vaughan
Martin Vaughan started his career as a specialist planner/scheduler in construction before moving to defence, then into IT. He progressed through project management and program management into consulting and advisory roles. Meanwhile he maintained an interest in tools and technology, on the way building and managing small businesses and squeezing in some lecturing in IT Project Management at the University of Melbourne. He is now a director and senior consultant at Core Consulting Group.
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