What makes a great project manager?

What makes them successful?

There are many blog posts and discussions on ‘what makes a great project manager’. It’s a question you could write a book on. Here we are summarising a few important ideas, observations and experiences.

Firstly, let’s deal with one point that gets us absolutely nowhere! Places like Linkedin abound with questions like “what is the single most important quality of a great project manager”.  There is no one such thing.  It’s a pointless discussion.  Sure, there are things that are high up the list, but none on their own will get you there.

Great project managers have a broad range of skills and competencies, that set them apart from all other project managers.

Being successful as a PM even at the basic level is very challenging. It is therefore unsurprising that few people in business will ever make a ‘great’ project manager. No matter how you chose to measure great (1).


However, it is hugely valuable to understand the broad qualities, skills and competencies, that project managers require to be successful in any industry.  It is also not defined well enough yet, as a question. Nor is it applied by far too many businesses well enough, within the selection and development of potential project managers.

In short, far too many project managers are ‘chosen’ by far too informal and unstructured methods.

So, let’s look at some of the most important areas. In short, they break down into the following:

Leadership qualities:

All great project managers have at least an understanding of the importance of leadership to the role of a project manager.

If they get to carry out the role for long enough and their personal performance improves, they will develop an understanding of the degree of leadership that is required.

Two very simple examples of this would be their ability to lead the resolution of serious issues on a project, and the degree to which they are personally willing to take responsibility for the breadth of their role and the project as a whole.

Personal Qualities and Skills:

Again, all great project managers have an innate and fundamental understanding of planning and management concepts, skills and processes. Coupled usually with high levels of organisational skills, (2)  which is a much under-rated and hugely important aspect of delivering projects successfully.

Additionally, other key skills such as communication are of paramount importance. By this, we do not just mean the ability to communicate clearly. We mean the ability to ensure successful communication on projects and in particular how to reduce communication risks, constantly. By far the most important single communication skill is listening, effectively.

They also often have high levels of emotional intelligence, which helps greatly with interpersonal relationships especially when there are challenging times.

Technical Skills:

It may surprise some people that we would include technical skills. We do so for two reasons:

  1. it is sometimes possible for a highly skilled (and respected) person to manage a project with zero familiarity with the technology of the project. However, it would be a challenge for them and possibly a large risk in itself;
  2. our view is that the project manager should have at least some appreciation of the processes that will be undertaken in the development environment itself. This is to retain the respect of the team and a minimum level of understanding of the development process within the project.

Final note – Combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills:

Great project managers have an unusual combination of hard and soft skills.  Most people excel at one or the other, rarely both.

That is one of the primary reasons why most of us in business may be great at our individual roles, but may not make a ‘high-performing’ project manager.

And the cat’s eyes – what’s that all about?

Great project managers see things, other people just don’t see.



  1. “Great” would be a PM who stands out in their field by their ability to repeatedly manage the delivery of projects successfully, as defined by the sponsor/customer of those projects. And able to do it more than once. By this we mean, all of the project.
  2. Kelly Johnson was a pioneering Engineer and project manager and developed his famous 14 rules of the Skunkworks.  He was known as an organisational genius as well as being a gifted Engineer. In 1943 the XP-80 aircraft (the USA’s first jet fighter) was delivered (by a team managed personally by Johnson) in only 143 days, seven less than planned. His 14 rules underpin much of what we still think today is crucial in product development/project management. They even overlap considerably with some of what is behind approaches such as Agile.

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  1. Linky on January 30, 2015 at 8:52 pm

    Good perspective as it will always be a combination of different skills, competencies and qualities applied in a way that’s fit for the project based on past experience that will make up a great project manager.

  2. Chris Green on February 18, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    The video is a good complement to the article, I think. Sometimes it can take exceptional people skills to understand team members, motivate and lead them. If you ever do write a book on this subject, or already have done so, please let me know!

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