The best project managers go the extra mile for their teams. Not only do they wrestle with undefined gray areas to find win-win scenarios for all stakeholders and remove roadblocks that prevent people from getting work done. But they go beyond Gantt charts and project schedules to cultivate a happy and productive work environment.
So how do they do it? What exactly are the key attributes of a project manager?
If you’re ready to step up your PM game, or if you’re going for your first PM role, these are the characteristics that you should be aware of.
Crucial project manager characteristics (that’ll never change)
No single exhaustive list of the must-have characteristics of a project manager exists. Each project is unique and requires a unique set of project manager traits. Plus, just like many other roles, project manager qualities evolve over time based on market demands and environmental changes.
But some will always hold true, regardless of the project type, scope, or size.
We’ve listed 14 characteristics of a good project manager that’ll never expire.
1. Strategy-driven: Ability to tie project tasks back to key business outcomes
When it comes to attributes of an effective project manager, “leadership” might be one of the first things that comes to mind. And while yes, it’s definitely on the list of good project manager traits, one thing trumps all else: strategic thinking and the ability to effectively tie tasks and deliverables back to key business outcomes. Aka, the money makers.
Highly effective project managers prevent resource constraints or technology limitations from getting in the way of achieving business outcomes. They use granular reports to keep track of billable hours on every project and set project goals that align with overall business objectives.
For example, successful project managers don’t stop at identifying a project task that is causing delays and budget extensions. They gather anecdotal evidence on how that task is affecting customer satisfaction and reputation. And they build forecast reports that show how this task impacts profits. By positioning projects in terms of business outcomes, they rally the necessary resources.
All project management models focus on the timely delivery of products and services within a certain timeline and budget. But the best project managers find ways to tie project goals back to key business outcomes like profit, customer satisfaction, and reputation.
PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2023 report states that “organizations that place a high priority on power skills are significantly better at completing projects that meet business goals.”
In other words, prioritzing project manager skills doesn’t only matter—but it pays off.
Which power skills came out on top? Project professionals rated these as the most important traits of a project manager in 2023:
- Collaborative leadership
- Strategic thinking
Power skills, as PMI defines them, are the “abilities and behaviors that facilitate working with others and help project professionals to succeed in the workplace.”
(In other fields, they might be called “soft skills” or “interpersonal skills.”)
Sara Gallagher, president at The Persimmon Group, highlights the importance of achieving business outcomes in a PMI article, “Scope, schedule, and cost are important, but subservient to the ‘big picture’ results the organization is trying to achieve.”
It’s hard for everyone in a business to keep track of the big picture. Frontline employees in your development, sales, and support teams are busy solving problems, one after the other. They aren’t often in a position to take a step back to understand how their work ties back to key business outcomes. Project managers are uniquely qualified to fill that role.
Interview tip: Hiring managers will want to get a sense of your current project manager attributes and skills. They may ask candidates to provide an example of tackling a delayed project that went over budget. What they really want to understand is how you are able to prioritize business outcomes.
Your ability to talk sensibly about confronting reality, augmenting resources with a business case, and winning customers’ trust will send a strong signal that you can be trusted as a strategic partner that will make sound decisions with the business’ best interest in mind.
2. Stakeholder-focused: Ability to create a shared sense of purpose for all project stakeholders
Good project managers are aware of competing priorities. They’re proactive when it comes to aligning all stakeholders on what’s best for the business and its customers. This helps remove friction points and address concerns that may otherwise snowball into project delays.
Businesses are limited by resources. For example, a company may have many engineers and a small marketing budget, while another has a huge sales team but not enough developers. Shortfalls in the wrong resources can jeopardize entire project lifecycles.
In addition to this, different teams also have different priorities. If you’ve ever been in a room where marketing demands more new features and engineering pushes back due to existing backlogs, you know what this means. However, good project managers gravitate toward such conflicts and use their unique, neutral vantage point to align all project stakeholders on a shared purpose.
For example, an experienced PM may steer this features vs. engineering capacity argument by using customer feedback data to highlight the features users need and nudge stakeholders to make a customer-centric decision. They also will provide a high-level viewpoint that’s less about individual workloads and more about maximizing overall team capacity.
Interview tip: Hiring managers ask for examples of how you handled friction in projects. What they really want to understand is whether you’re able to align and energize stakeholders toward a common purpose.
Talking about an example where you steered a tactical-level argument to a more “what’s best for the customer and our team” discussion can highlight your stakeholder alignment skills.
3. Embrace innovation: Ability to nurture ideas without sacrificing execution
The best project managers nurture new ideas, strategies, and prototypes that pave the way for future work. But they also efficiently allocate resources and plan capacity to avoid overruns in existing projects.
In his book Innovation Project Management, Harold Kerzner, Senior Executive Director for Project Management at the International Institute for Learning, argues that the heavy focus on scope and forecasting of conventional project management is insufficient for managing innovation projects. This is a factor that many project managers overlook.
Astute project managers recognize the need to perform a balancing act between managing innovation without eating into the profits or reputation of a business. They achieve this by performing accurate forecasting, planning, allocating, scheduling, and managing resources.
Project Management Institute’s Pulse of the Profession 2023 report reveals that despite the stagnant economic growth, project talent is still in demand, with communication, problem-solving, collaborative leadership, and strategic thinking standing out as the top attributes of a project manager.
Failure to embrace innovation can prove to be a costly mistake. Innovative competitors, business models, and technologies are rapidly reducing the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company. So businesses need to embrace change and innovation if they want to improve their market share within their rapidly changing industry.
Interview tip: Hiring managers often ask about a challenging project that you’ve managed. What they want to understand is if you’re able to deal with uncertainties and problems without delaying projects.
Talking about an innovative project, especially the challenges you discovered and how you overcame them, will position you as a strong candidate.
4. Eyes on efficiency: Ability to identify efficiencies and cost containment
Project managers sure don’t have an easy job. But budgeting, identifying efficiencies, and cost containment is part of it. It ties into every single part of the project life cycle, so as a project manager, you should know the ins and outs of how to identify efficiencies and contain costs.
That starts with understanding exactly how it affects different project components:
- Optimal resource allocation: Identifying efficiencies helps project managers allocate resources more effectively, ensuring that time, money, and teams are used in the best possible way. This allows the team to achieve more with the available resources and reduces waste.
- Improved profitability: It’s an obvious one, but let’s go there. Cost containment contributes to a project’s financial success by keeping expenses within the project budget. When project managers can minimize costs (without sacrificing quality), the overall profitability of the project, and in turn, the company, increases.
- Client satisfaction: It’s no secret that clients appreciate projects that are completed on time, within budget, and meet or exceed their expectations. Client satisfaction is at stake as soon as there are issues with a budget. By identifying efficiencies and managing costs, project managers can help ensure client satisfaction and foster long-term relationships.
Plus, efficient project management processes and cost-containment strategies can provide a competitive advantage. If you consistently deliver high-quality projects on time and within budget, word will spread—bringing you more business.
- Better decision-making: It’s not just about pinching pennies. Identifying efficiencies and cost-containment opportunities allows project managers to make informed decisions regarding the project’s priorities, scope, and resource allocation. This leads to more effective decision-making and (unsurprisingly) better project outcomes.
- Risk mitigation: Efficient project management and cost containment help mitigate risks associated with cost overruns, scope creep, and resource constraints. By proactively addressing these risks, project managers can minimize their potential impact on the project’s success.
- Scalability: Identifying efficiencies and cost-containment strategies can help project managers develop repeatable processes that can be applied to future projects. This scalability can lead to increased efficiency and cost savings across the organization.
- Meeting company goals: By focusing on efficiency and cost containment, project managers contribute to the overall success of the company, not just the project itself.
- Employee morale: Steph Dix, Operations Director at DDB Sydney, has a mantra: “Happy teams make for great work.” So what does that look like in practical terms?
Efficient processes and cost containment can lead to a more focused and engaged team. Because when team members see that their efforts contribute to the project’s success and that resources are used effectively, they are more likely to feel motivated and committed to their work. (That’s right, it’s not rocket science.)
If you want to hear the story behind Dix’s mantra, download our eBook Confessions of a Project Manager.
Interview tip: This is an important one for hiring managers. You might receive a case study or a mock budget to identify inefficiencies and present solutions.
Be sure to ask questions about project goals and objectives (they might leave them out on purpose to test you). Depending on the case, it’s potentially the one question that can solve all your problems.
5. Great communicator: Ability to actively listen and communicate effectively
You can’t talk about the traits of a good project manager without mentioning communication skills. And as PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2023 report showed, great communication skills grab the top spot (67%) among the long list of project manager traits and skills.
Successful project managers listen deeply and strive to understand what motivates each of their team members. And they use their listening skills to evolve into a good communicator.
“A good project leader listens. They listen to their team, and they create safety for the team as well. They’re okay with a bit of discomfort and conflict, as long as they turn that conflict into something healthy,” says Shahina Patel, Product Manager at Jobber, in an interview with TeamGantt.
For example, an effective project leader will readily consider the input of a developer on how to incorporate a new feature. They wouldn’t suggest ready-made solutions. And they would frame problems in terms of consequences and trade-offs, encouraging team members to come up with their own solutions. This, in turn, paves the way for open communication.
Interview tip: Hiring managers will want to hire good listeners and effective communicators for a customer-facing project management role. Sharing examples of how you frame project tasks, inviting collaboration, and getting team members invested in a particular course of action can help demonstrate your soft skills.
6. Collaboration-oriented: Ability to bring teams together and get the best out of them
Successful projects happen when teams work well together. The key? Collaboration. Now, there are plenty of reasons why a project manager should aim to foster collaboration in their project team, but these are our top five reasons:
- Team synergy: A project manager who fosters collaboration creates an environment where team members can work together effectively. This synergy often results in better project outcomes and higher-quality deliverables, as the team can capitalize on each member’s strengths.
- Effective communication: Collaboration-oriented project managers facilitate open and transparent communication among team members, stakeholders, and clients. This helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding project objectives, progress, and any potential challenges or changes.
- Problem-solving: When a project manager encourages collaboration, team members are more likely to share their ideas and perspectives, leading to more innovative and effective solutions to challenges that arise during the project. (We’ll dive into this one as a separate skill next!)
- Knowledge-sharing: Collaborative project managers promote knowledge-sharing and learning among team members. This can lead to increased productivity and efficiency, as team members can benefit from each other’s expertise and experiences.
- Improved decision-making: A collaborative approach to project management often results in more informed and well-rounded decision-making. Input from diverse team members ensures that different perspectives and ideas are considered, leading to better decisions that support the project’s goals.
Interview tip: Hiring managers will ask about how you fostered collaboration in previous teams and projects. Now, there are a few things worth mentioning when answering this question. It all starts with resource allocation and building a project team that has the right skills for the project they’re on. But it’s also about creating a project culture that’s transparent and collaborative at its core. How can you do that? By creating clear project team values that you set out from the very beginning.
7. Tech savvy: Ability to identify and adopt the right project management tools across teams
Successful project managers intuitively know what customers and internal team members need. However, they also use software like resource management tools to augment their decision-making skills with data.
For example, as a team grows in size, skills, and locations, it becomes exponentially harder to match team members with the right set of tasks. Scheduling tasks around team members on PTO, vacation, and maternity leave is just as challenging as easing the workload of already-stressed employees. Repeated mismatches can result in team members feeling overworked, underutilized, or undervalued.
Good project managers avoid such situations by using resource management software to match the best employee to every task based on factors like location, skillset, and availability. Similarly, they will use other tools for product analytics and CRMs to get facts, KPI metrics, and other important data points to make better data-driven decisions.
Interview tip: Hiring managers often ask about the various resource management, budgeting, analytical, and project management software you have used. But on a deeper level, they want to understand if you’re comfortable making data-driven decisions.
Talking about the popular tools you’ve used, your experience learning and adapting to new tools, and how those tools were used to make data-driven decisions positions you as a stellar candidate.
8. Skilled at negotiation: Ability to resolve conflict with integrity and humor
Great project managers use both integrity and humor to resolve tense and conflict-ridden situations.
Ambiguous expectations, poor communication, personal conflicts, project scope creep, or a combination of such factors can snowball into conflicts. The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) says managing conflict is one of the biggest challenges a project manager will face.
Jason Gadsby, assistant vice president at AT&T, goes one step further to draw the connection between leadership, trust, and managing conflict. In a PMI report called The Essential Role of Communications, he says, “Just as the technical language for managing a project helps to define outcomes, the language of leadership assists a PM to understand and apply communication skills in a way which creates trust, manages conflict, invites commitment, and embraces accountability, while producing the right results. Successful PMs have both project management and leadership skills.”
And when tensions get too high, humor can diffuse tense discussions by articulating the lighter side of changing project specifications or scope creep. A PM who has the ability to inject lightheartedness at the right moment will keep the team motivated and reduce conflict among team members.
Interview tip: Hiring managers are looking for ways to get a sense of your personality traits. Experienced managers look for subtle clues that may indicate you’re a good fit for their team.
Talking about a conflict and how you managed to resolve it opens up an opportunity to discuss your interpersonal skills in more detail. This will help you stand out from other candidates. Examples don’t just have to be from a professional setting, you could also use personal examples to show off these transferable negotiation skills.
9. Empathy-driven: Ability to create a positive work environment for team members
Effective project managers actively save their team members from interruptions, unnecessary meetings, and other distractions.
An HBR study revealed that nearly two-thirds of managers said: “meetings keep them from completing their own work.” The best managers already intuitively realize the need for team members to have large chunks of uninterrupted work slots, so they reduce interruptions and meetings. This significantly reduces stress and creates a happier work environment.
For example, savvy PMs won’t interrupt 10 team members with a “Who is available to work on this task?” email. Instead, they’d use a resource scheduling tool to check the availability and existing workloads of team members before assigning a new task.
As the author of the best-selling book Getting Things Done, David Allen, says, “Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.” So the best project managers do the little things that keep unfinished work from lingering on.
Interview tip: Hiring managers want to understand how you will fit into their existing work culture. Talking about your views on teamwork and a positive work environment is a great way to find out if you share mutual values with the hiring company.
10. Problem-solver: Ability to understand and resolve complex issues across multi-disciplinary teams
Most project managers have at some point worked on projects that at completion didn’t look anything like the project plan when they started. This is no fault of their own. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Projects often encounter unexpected challenges, such as resource constraints, technical issues, or changes in project requirements. A project manager with strong problem-solving skills can quickly identify and address these issues, minimizing their impact on the project’s timeline and overall success.
What are the benefits of effective problem-solving skills? Here are five favorites:
- Efficient decision-making: Good problem-solving skills enable a project manager to analyze complex situations, evaluate potential solutions, and make informed decisions. And guess what? Better decisions are exactly what can help your project stay on track and ensure that resources are used effectively.
- Improved risk management: Problem-solving abilities are crucial for identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks that may affect the project. By proactively addressing potential risks, you can reduce the impact, maintain momentum—and, worst-case scenario—avoid project failure.
- Faster conflict resolution: Projects are often made up of a selection of different stakeholders with different perspectives, priorities, and expectations. As a project manager, you need strong problem-solving skills to effectively mediate conflicts, find common ground, and develop solutions that work for all stakeholders involved.
- More innovation: Good problem-solving skills can lead to more creative and innovative solutions. Project managers who are great at problem-solving are often more open to exploring new ideas and approaches, resulting in better project outcomes. And who doesn’t want that?
- Improved team performance: A project manager who excels at problem-solving can empower and support team members in finding solutions to challenges. This fosters a positive work environment and encourages team members to be proactive and collaborative, leading to increased productivity and efficiency. A great project team means great project outcomes!
Interview tip: Hiring managers might ask you about an example from a previous project or present you with a case or scenario.
Your greatest weapon in any situation like this is to ask questions. This shows that you’re trying to fully understand the situation and gather all the necessary information to solve the problem to the best of your ability.
If referring to your own experience, don’t forget to include what you would have done differently to demonstrate what you learned from the experience.
11. Collaborative leadership: Ability to foster collaboration and instill a sense of team culture
Collaborative leadership means having the ability to work cross-functionally with different teams to make decisions and drive projects forward.
They need to be able to inspire commitment and foster collaboration while advocating for accountability and building trust. Effective leaders listen deeply, take decisive action, and manage interpersonal relationships well. Above all, they coach team members with constructive criticism and positive feedback.
Effective project managers also possess the technical know-how to resolve tactical problems. They need to understand the nuances of their technology stack, IT infrastructure, and budgeting protocols. For example, understanding the true implementation and maintenance costs of data infrastructure can guide managers to make more informed decisions for data migration.
Similarly, a technically-savvy project manager who is skilled at using resource management tools will preempt bad resource allocation decisions and manage teams more productively.
Researchers Warren Opfer and Fred Abrams conclude their paper on Leadership by saying, “Effective leaders nurture a project team approach that balances the need for technical project management and the flexibility to creatively deal with uncertainties and change.”
Interview tip: Hiring managers place a premium on hiring effective leaders over managers with the right certifications. So don’t just highlight your technical skills but also share examples that highlight you as a good leader. Proving how you managed to inspire commitment and coached other team members to hit their milestones will highlight you as a good fit for a leadership role.
12. Staying calm: Ability to remain composed during chaos
Successful project managers also have a knack for getting things done despite the chaos that surrounds them. Seth Godin, the 20-time best-selling author, calls this type of person a linchpin — someone who is absolutely irreplaceable to an organization, and everything would begin to fall apart without them.
You’ve met and interacted with linchpins who influence, make connections, and uncover new possibilities in a team. They drive projects forward regardless of their seniority or title. They also build project forecasting reports and predict resource bottlenecks to avoid major project overruns.
Jonathan Ive is a well-known linchpin who led the design of iconic Apple products, such as the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and Apple Watch. It’s hard to imagine where these products would be today without his contributions.
The best project managers are willing to roll up their sleeves, have those tough customer conversations, hold team members accountable to deadlines, and resolve resource management problems that others shy away from. Every organization needs linchpins.
Interview tip: Hiring managers want to hire other managers who are essential to the team. Discussing examples of how you managed to hold team members accountable and avoided resource bottlenecks will help you become a top-of-the-mind candidate.
13. Comfortable with the unknown: Ability to navigate uncertainty
Every project is bound to have a few surprises. Successful project managers are agile enough to respond to these unknowns.
While this was always the case, Covid-19 brought this to another level. Not even being able to anticipate what’s next, and being able to handle that, is what separates great project managers from good ones.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson once said that “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” While you don’t risk getting punched by your client or team member, your best project plans can suffer from unknown surprises, such as a pandemic, high inflation, or a new policy regulation.
Being able to wrestle with these unknowns, make sense of them, and change plans accordingly is a highly desirable project management skill. For example, the best project managers quickly adapted to remote project management practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, while other project managers struggled to cope with the new changes at work.
Interview tip: Hiring managers actively look for the most flexible and adaptable project managers. Illustrating how you managed unknowns in the past will give you an edge over the other candidates.
14. Adaptability: Ability to adjust to change without compromising business outcomes
Back in 2020, APM’s chief executive Debbie Dore said “By its nature, effective project management involves assessing and responding to risk. Now more than ever, businesses and communities will be dependent on talented project professionals who can adapt to new circumstances, in order to safeguard the benefits their projects are intended to deliver.
So how exactly did Covid-19 change the dynamics of project management and how did adaptability become a more important skill than ever before?
These are five of the most prominent shifts for project managers everywhere:
- Changing work environments: The pandemic has forced many organizations to transition to remote work or hybrid work models. Project managers need to be adaptable to manage their teams effectively in these new environments, ensuring clear communication, collaboration, and productivity.
- Economic uncertainty: The economic impact of the pandemic created financial pressures for many businesses, leading to changes in budgets, priorities, and project scopes. Project managers were faced with new challenges to quickly adjust to these changes and find ways to deliver successful outcomes with limited resources.
- Supply chain disruptions: COVID-19 disrupted global supply chains, affecting the availability and cost of materials and services. Project managers had to work hard to find alternative solutions or adjust project timelines to accommodate disruptions.
- Shifting client needs: The pandemic altered the needs and priorities of many clients, leading to changes in project objectives and requirements. Project managers need to be adaptable in responding to these new needs and delivering solutions that meet clients’ evolving expectations.
- Technological advancements: The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital tools and technologies. Project managers around the globe had to learn and use new tools to improve project management processes and enhance team collaboration.
Interview tip: We can never know what’s around the next corner, but as project managers, it’s our job to adapt to the challenges thrown our way. Hiring managers will want to understand how you handled shifts in client needs, budget constraints, and team well-being during the pandemic, but also how you’re applying the learnings from those years to today’s projects.
In your answer, be honest about the challenges you faced. No one’s expecting you to have had all the answers at the time—it’s more important how you figured it out and what you learned from it.
Holly Davis, Principal Delivery Manager at Torchbox, dealt with a project affected by the pandemic where they had to rethink it completely. How did they tackle it?
Challenge yourself to develop the best traits of a project manager
The list of traits of a successful project manager may be long, and some of them will be hard-earned and only acquired through experience.
Whether you’ve already identified the project manager attributes you’d like to foster or strengthen next, share it with your manager, make it known to your project team, and take opportunities to work on projects that’ll help you build the skill set you want to further your career in project management.