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This is a guest post by Ben Snyder, CEO of project management training and consultancy firm Systemation.

In this article, Ben Snyder looks at the different skills/behaviors that lead someone in a project manager’s role to become successful. His analysis is based on over 10 years of data capturing PM role profiles and success.

The challenge of finding the ‘perfect’ project manager

Management often wishes it had a very clear mechanism for identifying candidates who will turn out to be better-than-average project managers. They know that having to rely on their gut works fairly well but still feel there must be a better way to evaluate candidates in order to succeed more often.

For more than a decade, Systemation has evaluated project managers using its comprehensive Project Manager Assessment.

The overwhelming majority of project managers we assessed were part of a larger training and coaching program in which a Systemation coach mentored each project manager for two hours, every other week, for six months.

Because of this, Systemation became intimately aware of the project managers’ strengths and weaknesses in performance and was able to reflect back on the assessment results and draw specific conclusions.

Ben Snyder
Ben Snyder

Before we discuss these findings, you need to know some background information.

How the assessment works

The assessment has three distinct categories: knowledge, skills, and aptitudes. The knowledge portion identifies, through multiple-choice questions, the amount of The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) the project manager comprehends.

The skills component targets the softer skills and assesses them using an evaluation tool given to everyone involved in the project. Lastly, the aptitudes evaluate the core characteristics of the project manager through a battery of psychological tests.

Before we received the results, it was clear that the knowledge and skills categories would improve over the course of the program, but aptitudes were core to the individual and could not be easily changed without a major environmental change and 5 to 10 years of time.

Given that, we were not sure what trends would develop in the years to come related to aptitudes and the ultimate profile for a good project management.

Hundreds of assessments later, the profile for a good project manager looks like this.

Skill 1: People-Oriented

Good project managers must be people-oriented. They must enjoy interacting with people, recognize emotions in others, and empathize with others.

Good project managers must be people-oriented. They must enjoy interacting with people, recognize emotions in others, and empathize with others.
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Less than 14% of the people chosen to go through the assessment scored low on their people orientation. All of those who did score low in this aptitude struggled significantly in building relationships and in getting the most out of their teams; they ultimately had to be reassigned to other positions.

The lesson here is that people orientation is the most important aptitude in project managers, and those who select from project manager candidates usually have a good feel for the presence of this aptitude too.

Skill 2: Centered

The next aptitude in importance is how centered a project manager is.

Project managers are centered when they’re confident, aware of their own assets and liabilities, their desire to achieve, their ability to remain calm in stressful conditions, and flex when plans don’t go as expected.

If their score was moderate to high, as it was for 81%, their performance was not negatively impacted by this aptitude.

If the score was low, they tended to be seen as emotionally volatile and not safe for their team members to get behind and follow.

If this aptitude is not strong enough, it can undermine a project manager’s other strengths to the point that they too cannot remain in project management positions.

One of the biggest surprises was the remaining four aptitudes (big picture-oriented, creative, systematic, and detail-oriented) had a distinct correlation. Let’s look at each of these before we dive into the correlation.

Skill 3: Big Picture-Oriented and Creative

Big picture-oriented is when one sees the future in high resolution, keeps a vigilant focus on the project’s goal, and acquires the appropriate level of perspective in order to comprehend the whole.

Creative project managers think in ways outside the norm and identify multiple solutions to problems.

Every project manager scored high or low in both of these areas in the same survey. This makes sense since they both come from the right side of the brain. Project managers who scored low in these areas tended to struggle with comprehending the project as a whole, seeing the over-the-horizon consequences, and coming up with solutions to maneuver the project to keep it on track.

Skill 4: Systematic and Detail-Oriented

Project managers who are systematic are organized and structured in their approach to work and accept regimented consistency for the sake of efficiency. Those who are detail-oriented focus on the here and now and strive for breadth, completeness, and correctness at the lowest level of detail.

Here again, each project manager scored high or low in both of these areas, which come from the left side of the brain.

If project managers score low in these areas, they don’t consistently acquire detailed status reports from project team members, they don’t put in the time to re-forecast regularly with precision, and they generally become disconnected from the current state of the project.

The Links Between Aptitudes

The surprising correlation is that project managers either scored high in big picture-orientation and creative and low in system and detail-oriented, or vice versa. Ultimately, this data resulted in the identification of specific strengths and weaknesses in good project managers. No more than 3% of the project managers assessed scored low on all 4 aptitudes.

Only 6% of the project managers evaluated scored high on all 6 aptitudes. All remained project managers for only 18 to 24 months before they moved on to the next rung of the corporate ladder.

They were stellar project managers and excellent in all facets of the discipline.

If you look at the spectrum of poor to excellent project managers, very few who are considered candidates for project management positions will fail, the vast majority will meet the profile of a good project manager, and very few will be stellar.

From this data, management has to realize that their chance of finding a top-notch project manager and having them around for some time is remote. They have a far greater chance of finding a good project manager who will have a specific set of weaknesses that can be identified and helped using some coping mechanisms.

It’s not the idea dream management envisions, but at least it’s a reality that can be managed.

About the author: Ben Snyder is CEO of project management training and consultancy firm Systemation . This is an edited extract from his book, Everything is a Project: 70 Lessons from Successful Project-Driven Organizations.

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