16 Project Manager Traits

I'm often asked what skills one needs to be a project manager. My answers often emphasize hard skills which are easy to describe. The truth is that there are also many soft skills or traits which are critical. Alfonso Bucero recently wrote about the results of an informal survey he conducted with many IT project managers in the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, and Russia. Although the US wasn't included in the mix, the results, I imagine, wouldn't be all that different if he had. Here's his list with additional commentary from me.

  1. Common Sense – Toss away extraneous ideas and get to the core of what matters. Easier said than done of course especially when team members get hung-up on unimportant issues.
  2. Specialized Knowledge of Your Field – Experience in a particular area reduces risk which is particularly important with companies (often the large ones) that desire security and continuity as part of the culture.
  3. Self-Reliance – Tapping in to your own abilities and pressing on through a sheer force of will.
  4. General Intelligence – This includes an extensive vocabulary as well as good oral and written skills. Communication is often assumed to be easy, but being an effective communicator is not easy.
  5. Ability to Get Things Done – Successful project managers have strong organizational abilities and work habits. This means more than being able to plot tasks in Microsoft Project.
  6. Leadership – Focus on motivation and not intimidation. Treat people as human beings and not “resources”. Four more traits in this area are described below.
  7. Knowing Right from Wrong – Be sensitive to moral and ethical concerns. It can be surprising sometimes how often such issues come up in the corporate world.
  8. Creativity – Natural talent plus insight or intuition equals creativity. Or for a more familiar description, think outside the box.
  9. Self-Confidence – This comes from knowing you have done everything possible to prepare. Part of it comes from experience.
  10. Oral Expression – You get your message across, even in front of a large group.
  11. Concern for Others – At the very least, you need to get along with others.
  12. Luck – It's never enough, but it certainly always helps. Yes, this really isn't a trait, but it's important to recognize that not all that is project management can be controlled.

The overall message is that successful project managers should have a winning attitude and a passion for their work. They have both a desire for and an expectation of success.

Dealing effectively with people is of critical importance to project managers. Some PMs are lucky enough to do so intuitively while others need to develop the necessary skills. Here are 4 additional traits centered around the people aspect of project management

  1. Empathy – Team members often confide their work frustrations, career disappointments, and even personal problems to a PM. In such cases you need to show understanding, not pity.
  2. Humor – Being able to laugh at yourself tells others you'll take responsibility for your mistakes. Pointing fingers is a good way to build resentment. If you find any of these project management jokes funny, you should be all set with humor angle.
  3. Courtesy – Show that you're approachable and willing to engage in a relationship.
  4. Trust – To gain the trust of others, you must demonstrate you won't breach their confidence and that you'll keep their interests in mind.

And there you have it — 16 traits that define a project manager. Do you know of any you'd add to the list?

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  1. A few more: trust, delegation, mentor. The ability to trust your direct reports so that you can effectively delegate to them everything necessary so they have full responsibility, and the ability to mentor them through difficult issues. This way you don't get bombarded with everything that starts to go wrong.

  2. Never underestimate the 'luck' factor. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good (thanks for that one coach). Just be aware that it was luck and no amount of planning or skill that helped you avoid the bullet - part of giving credit where it is due. Although I do sometimes factor in luck - we all have to do that for 'best case scenarios' and the fact that a project is rarely executed as it was originally planned.

    Also, understand your role. I tell my teams that my job is to 'provide them with air cover and ground support' while they get to do the jobs they know and love. Then do exactly that - support your team, reduce distractions and 'empower them' (I normally hate that timeworn phrase, sorry) to excel and find better ways to complete the job on time, within budget and with high quality.

    Did I miss any other cliches? :-)

  3. Well done. One (slightly humorous) comment - I don't quite agree that Luck is not a trait! I lived in Las Vegas for a couple of years. Long enough to watch the hiring, and firing, of dealers whom I knew as acquaintances and friends. I noticed that "losing" dealers got fired. Now, keep in mind, this person is doing nothing that a machine couldn't do - deal cards or spin a wheel. Yet we find that there ARE "winning", and "losing" dealers. Not exactly a scientific study, but, to me, an interesting observation.

  4. Yes, I have one more trait to add. Share the spotlight for a job well done. If there is praise given for the job your team has done, be sure to redirect the praise to the appropriate team members. This shows you are not afraid for your job. Let others enjoy the spotlight. They will knock themselves out for a manger like that.

    I also like what Patrice said about mistakes. We don't want anybody hurt but, mistakes, if handled properly, can be a great learning tool. Less serious mistakes properly handled can prevent more serious mistakes later on.

  5. Yes, I have one more trait to add. Share the spotlight for a job well done. If there is praise given for the job your team has done, be sure to redirect the praise to the appropriate team members. This shows you are not afraid for your job. Let others enjoy the spotlight. They will knock themselves out for a manger like that.

  6. I would add perserverance. Have passion, learn from mistakes and commit to continuous improvement. Never give up.

  7. Avatar photo


    You make a good point. Related to that is recognizing when you, as a PM, may not know all the nuances in a project that at first blush looks trivial, but in fact is complicated.

  8. Hi Marios

    I have an extra trait for you.

    Being a good actor.
    A colleague of mine has been banging on about the importance of "appearing the part." This means that even if you think the project is easy or trivial, give the client the respect due to them and treat the assignment as serious and important. Why else would they come to a skilled professional like you?

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