What makes a great project manager?

What makes them successful?

There are many blog posts and discussions on this question – it’s another question you could write a book on, but 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 and 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, understanding the broad qualities, skills and competencies, that are required to be a successful project manager in any industry, is a question of huge value and importance.  It is also a question that is not defined well enough yet, and also is a question that is not applied well enough by far too many businesses, in 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 a communication are of paramount importance. By this, we do not just mean the ability to communicate clearly, but to understand how to manage communication on projects and in particular how to reduce risks around communication, 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 inter-personal 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 not impossible for a highly skilled (and respected) person to manage a project where they have zero familiarity with the technology of the project, but 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, 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 role, 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/organisation in terms of 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 the 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 and even overlaps 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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