Monday, May 16, 2016

Character Qualities of Great Project Managers

Project managers will usually have the knowledge about the project fundamentals, tools (Excel, PowerPoint, and maybe even MS Project), industry knowledge, past experience as subject matter experts, and such. However, mastering those skills is not sufficient to become a great project manager. The great project managers will also have some character qualities that make them better than the rest. This blog identifies four of the most important character qualities that you will find in very good project managers. The content of this blog is drawn from personal experience in various IT roles, as well as from observing other great project managers that I have had the pleasure to work with.

They Say It Like It Is

Whether the audience is the project team, or the stakeholders, great project managers will say it like it is. Stakeholders are generally not very close to the day-to-day activities of the project, so they rely on the project manager to help them understand the true health of the project. They already know that projects are not going to be perfect all the time, and there will be risks and issues along the way. But what they don’t know is what those risks are, when they will begin to surface, and how impactful can they become. It is the project manager’s responsibility to be fully transparent about this information. In many cases, when the project begins tracking off the plan, the natural instinct for project managers is to wait until it is back on track, and then send out the next round of communication to the stakeholders that everything is fine. Sometimes, they will postpone the status meeting with the hope that the project health will get better soon. Their tendency is to avoid having to deliver bad news to the stakeholders, and their intent is usually good; they want to avoid a false panic among the stakeholders. This mode of communication with the stakeholders appears to work fine most of the time, but inevitably, there will be situations in which the project goes so far off the track that it needs re-baselining. By the time the stakeholders find out about it, they are shocked and disappointed. They feel compelled to ask the project manager, “Why didn’t you tell me about this EARLIER?” Great project managers will usually not find themselves facing this question, because they create full transparency regarding the health of the project and communicate it regularly, regardless of whether the news is good or bad.

It’s important to note that there are good reasons why many project managers do not communicate the bad news early and often. Stakeholders could develop a perception that the project manager is pessimistic if he or she tends to communicate bad news too often. Project managers are afraid of losing the trust of their stakeholders in case if they falsely associate the bad news with the project manager’s performance. To say that more simply, stakeholders might shoot the messenger. This is clearly a risk that the project manager would have to take if they are going to communicate candidly about the project. But in the long run, stakeholders will respect these project managers a lot more than the ones who tend to sugar-coat the bad news and then create shock and awe later.

They Remain Calm

As a project manager, you are the nucleus of the project. The stakeholders and the project team members will be influenced by how you react emotionally to the daily ups and downs of the project. If you project an image that you are stressed out and tired, people around you will start believing that the project is not going well, regardless of what you put on your status report. If the project is going through tough times and you start panicking, your team will start feeling the same way. If a boatload of defects were just handed to you, or you came back from a very tough meeting and you are visibly stressed out, your team will become demoralized too. If one of the project team members missed a deadline and you get noticeably angry, it will damage your merits of being a project manager with the rest of your team. The team will look at you for leadership, and your emotional quotient will influence how effectively you can lead them. Try and remain calm at all times so that the team can believe that project might be going through tough times, but there is a path forward and there is hope.

They Are Not Afraid of Making Decisions

Every day, a project manager has to make many micro decisions. A developer might walk up to you, tell you that he just ran into a technology constraint, and wants to know what to do about it. A tester might ask you whether an issue that she just ran into qualifies as a defect or not. The product owner might ask you if a change in requirement can be accepted or not. Make these decisions as quickly as you can. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you should make every decision instantly without gathering the facts. But if you need to ask someone about it, who needs to ask someone else, who needs to check with three other people before you can make a decision, that will slow down the project and worse, it will take the energy out of the team. The organization is trusting you to lead the project if you have been designated as the project manager. So, making decisions comes with the territory. Some decisions will be easy, but there will be others that will fall in the grey area. You will not always have the luxury of having empirical data to make decisions, so you will have to use your experience and judgement to make some decisions and that is okay. You might not always make every decision correctly, but over time, you will find that your margin of error will improve. And you will also find that the project will perform much better if you are making decisions, including some flawed ones, rather than if you are being indecisive.

They Respect People

Always keep in mind that your project team members are people. People have distinct personalities. They will have strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone on the team will be superstar, and even the really talented folks on the team will have weaknesses in some areas. Everyone’s ability to contribute to the project will vary. But if you want each person to perform at their best level, always treat them with respect. Tell them and show them that you appreciate them putting in their best effort. Treat even the weakest members of the team with respect, and also the person who just made a big mistake. As Dale Carnegie has written, never take away a person’s dignity; it is worth everything to them and worth nothing to you. Respect the people who disagree with you, and respect even the people who are trying to oppose your project. Be mindful that when people disagree with you, it is usually because they genuinely believe in their own reasons.

Just to be clear, respecting people is not mutually exclusive to having tough conversations with them, being assertive with them, giving them performance feedback, or giving them bad news. If someone is not performing at an acceptable level, give them the support and opportunity to improve. But if they don’t improve and they are not putting in their best effort, then sure, go ahead and fire them. Don’t become a pushover, but do treat everyone with respect for as long as they are on your team.