What Makes a Great Project Manager, Great?

by Chris Holbrook

What a fantastic question. This question is commonly asked either by people looking to hire stellar project managers or by managers trying to develop their existing project manager’s into exceptional PM’s. There is no doubt that understanding project management methodologies, such as PMI, Agile, RUP, etc., are extremely important to PM development but these are, I’m sorry to say, not what makes a project manager great.

So then, what makes them great? Think back to all of the extraordinary PM’s you’ve met. What do they all have in common? Most likely they will possess a subset of the following attributes, qualities, etc. So what makes a great project manager, great? Here they are:


A Positive Attitude (aka, Can Do Attitude)

Ever had a project manager at the first sign of trouble on a project, become the naysayer, the doomsayer and completely collapse? Fortunately I haven’t seen this extreme too often but there is no question about the enormous impact (either positive or negative) your attitude can have on your team. The project manager who maintains an unwavering positive attitude and that “Can Do” attitude, even through the inevitable tough project times, will keep the team equally as optimistic.


A great project manager knows that nothing wrecks the morale of a team quicker than when the project manager, the leader of the initiative, becomes negative. As you have probably heard, it’s a true trickledown effect. “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” ~Winston Churchill


Problem Solving Ability

The first misconception is that problems are catastrophes. Although they can be, try not to think of it that way. Think of Project Management Problem Solving in terms of a difficult math problem when you’re on the clock. Many people just stare at the problem and poke at it without really understanding where to begin (translated to project, “hold a string of meetings, talk in circles, document and accomplish nothing” – sound familiar?) If left unsolved, it does become a catastrophe because time runs out and you get the answer wrong. Yikes! Such is the case with project management. Problem solving is the ability to look at a complex project and break it down into simple, easy to understand parts so that those parts can be completed.


Great project managers can quickly decompose projects or programs into manageable pieces that are both easier to understand and easier to take action on. They also possess the ability to work at a macro level and can dive to the micro level when necessary.


Understanding of Their Team

Great project managers realize that it’s their team that, in the end, makes or breaks the project. These PM’s have the ability to determine what kind of players make up a team. They truly get to know team members (personally and professionally), ascertain what they’re capable of and most importantly, what it takes to motivate them to realize their full potential.


These project managers, like great football coaches, understand the weaknesses of our fellow teammates and know how to play to the strengths of each team member, aligning work tasks with resources that best ensure success. They set well-defined goals for the team and for the individual players on the project team and most importantly they allow the individual talents of the team to shine through. A great PM recognizes that they are ultimately servants of the team.


Actively Listens

Who enjoys going to project meetings where the PM rattles off the agenda, rattles off a status and then adjourns the meeting without so much as entertaining thoughts from the team? Yeah, me neither. The art of listening has been discussed so many places and by so many people that I’ll just reference the one that most of you have heard of, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, written by Stephen R. Covey. Its habit number five, “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.”


Great project managers understand that they are the leader of the team but the knowledge and, ultimately the project effort, will come (in part or in whole) from the team. The ability to actively listen (this mean not thinking about your reply when someone is talking to you) is a very important attribute of a great project manager. You will gain the respect and ultimately, the true understanding, of the team and will help you manage and lead projects more successfully.


Note: Old dogs, CAN learn new tricks. Great Listening can be learned even by the biggest offenders of the “bad listening” clan. Just ask me if you’re curious how.


Be Organized

This one seems so simple. Just be organized. However you’ve probably all been a part of projects that were run by project managers that were not well organized, showed up to meetings late (by the way, NEVER do this to your own meeting) and were not well prepared to use peoples time wisely. There is no better way to frustrate your team than by not having an organized and well documented plan for the project.


Great project managers hold the ability to organize and prioritize tasks, focusing on only the most import items, issues, risks and tasks, thereby maximizing project efficiency.


Self Confidence

Self-confidence is faith in one’s own abilities. Project Managers with high self-confidence typically have little fear of the unknown, are able to stand up for what they believe in, and have the courage to risk embarrassment. Many times PM’s are asked to sit in a room of very accomplished professionals and act as their leader for the project duration. When coupled with a very politically charged, complex, time constrained project, a great project manager will need to possess unwavering confidence in his/her ability. It is important to make the distinction that there is a point where confidence becomes cockiness or overconfidence. By definition cocky equals arrogance and is of course not good while overconfidence means that confidence has outpaced capability and capacity.


A great project manager knows his/her strengths and weaknesses and has unwavering confidence to deliver at his/her capability level.


Certainly there are other things that make Great Project Managers, Great but if a project manager or for that matter any leader has the six qualities described in this article, they will certainly be in the very top echelon of their trade.

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Scrum as Project Management: Comparing and Contrasting Agile Development Scrum from Traditional Project Management Methodologies.

Agile Development & Scrum Meets the PMP: Agile Development and How it Compares and Contrasts to the PMI’s Methodology.

Daily Scrums in a Distributed World: Formal Collaboration to Reduce Overhead.

Integration of Waterfall and Agile Development: Tips for integrating Waterfall and Agile Development Methodologies.


(Dec 8, 2011) Joe Cardillo said:

Love #1 & 3. Positive attitude is a massively under appreciated quality. When everyone involved lets go of territorial or defensive stance there’s great potential for a partnership instead of just a client/vendor relationship. It’s extremely important to understand the teams you work with too. Knowing what their concerns, limitations, and strengths are will allow you to speak their language. When everyone has a voice projects succeed. This doesn’t mean the PM bends to everyone’s will of course, but making sure people feel appreciated and that their skills are being put to use gives them motivation to do great work.


(Aug 27, 2011) Thomas Naylor said:

Hi Chris,

Very good piece: it has the voice of experience. Great to have a spot on list of attributes needed in order to be a great PM. If one was to extend the list: Communicates Effectively would be the next item on my list – while agreed that a project will be nowhere if the PM is not a good listener, the great PM must also be a strong communicator – eg as comfortable drafting an email to be sent out by a senior executive, to facilitating voice conferences with participators from around the world, to creating documents (visual and written) that clearly articulate what needs to be accomplished and how, what the status is, along with issues and how they are to be resolved. The great PM will communicate with diplomacy to ensure that charged political environments do not impact the focus on achieving the project goals.