By Dale Bethea
To many, the role of a project manager—or PM—is something of a mystery. Our omnipresent involvement in projects can give the impression that we’re subject matter experts. Over the past 10 years, I’ve been asked many times by clients to explain the rationale behind a training solution and have had to tell them that while I’m not the best person to communicate that, I can certainly schedule a conversation with someone who can talk about next steps!
So what does a PM do? The basic definition lies within the title itself—PMs manage projects. But what does that really mean? As a PM, I’m responsible for leading projects from initiation through execution. This includes planning and managing tasks, resources, and the scope of the project. How managing projects is best accomplished, however, is up for debate.
In my experience, the success of a PM comes down to how well they hone 3 skills: effective communication, adaptability, and forethought. Though these traits are vital to PMs, they’re also applicable to almost every professional role. Let’s take a closer look at each.
1. Effective Communication: PMs manage steps and expectations within a process, working with multiple people towards the same goal. Communicating effectively may be the most important tool involved in getting the job done well. While this may sound simple, it’s not. In fact, several skills come into play, including:
• Good listening – It’s paramount to truly understand the ask. Doing that requires being an active listener and asking questions to gather information not provided or clarify information not fully understood.
• Organization – Concise and clear communication starts with having a system and a clear process. If you aren’t clear on next steps, it can slow—even derail—a project.
• Authenticity – Being yourself may be easier said than done, but establishing a productive working relationship begins by being genuine.
Of course, every professional interaction requires effective communication. I’ve found the following tips help me to achieve it.
• Keep it simple and concise to reduce clutter and hone attention.
• Repeat what you’ve heard the other person say to demonstrate and ensure understanding.
• Know your audience and find points of commonality from which you can work.
2. Adaptability: Projects often change scope in both subtle and dramatic ways during their course, proving the old maxim “the only thing constant is change.” So being flexible and versatile is a must for any PM. There isn’t a profession, however, that doesn’t require adaptability to some degree. The following traits are key to owning this skill.
• Open-mindedness – Understand that a project won’t go according to plan and be willing to listen and adapt.
• Acceptance – There will never be a project plan that doesn’t have some type of unexpected turn. Knowing this going in can save you frustration once you get the news!
• Knowing your audience – There are many ways to overcome challenges. Applying creative thinking will help you to come up with different solutions and land on one that matches your current situation.
3. Forethought: Don’t confuse foresightedness with clairvoyance. It’s not a superpower; rather, it’s the ability to anticipate what’s coming down the pipeline. Improving forethought allows for better strategies—and greater opportunities for success. Consider these tips if you’re looking to sharpen your forethought.
• Review earlier projects – Learn from past hurdles and mistakes. Though some people are adept at visualizing potential issues, most of us learn from experience.
• Be pessimistic (for a while) – Take time to imagine how your current project might go sideways. What are the most likely roadblocks you may face?
• Consider different scenarios – By imagining yourself—alone or with your team—within difficult situations, you’ll be able to better prepare yourself for the next real-world crisis you face.
Ultimately, these three skills overlap and affect one another. By improving your forethought, for example, you’ll better be able to adapt to the future and communicate to your team and your clients. As a result, you’ll create a cascading impact—improving your client relationships, boosting your emotional intelligence, and honing your listening and understanding skills!
Dale Bethea brings over 10 years of project management experience to his role, primarily drawing from work at printing and training companies within healthcare and life sciences. A communications major, Dale earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee.