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Do You Have What It Takes to be a Project Manager?

By: Tom Kendrick
Last updated 5/21/2014

Although every project is different, each requires a planned, organized approach. Do you have what it takes to be a project manager? The project management Q&A below, excerpted from 101 Project Management Problems and How to Solve Them, by Tom Kendrick, will help you decide.

What personality type fits best into project management?
Depends on:
—The type and scale of the project
—Experience of the project team

There are a large number of models used to describe personalities. One of the most prevalent is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). One of its factors describes a spectrum between introversion and extroversion. Projects are about people and teams, so good project leaders tend to be at least somewhat extroverted. Introverted project managers may find their projects wandering out of control because they are insufficiently engaged with the people responsible for the work.

A second factor is the dichotomy between a preference for observable data and a preference for intuitive information. Projects are best managed using measurable facts that can be verified and tested. A third factor relates to whether decisions are based on logical objective analysis or on feelings and values. Projects, especially technical projects, proceed most smoothly when decisions are based on consistent, analytical criteria.

The fourth MBTI factor is the one most strongly aligned with project management, and it describes how individuals conduct their affairs. On one extreme is the individual who plans and organizes what must be done, which is what project management is mostly about. On the other extreme is the individual who prefers to be spontaneous and flexible. Projects run by this sort of free spirit tend to be chaotic nightmares, and may never complete.

Considering other factors
Project managers need to be “technical enough.” For small, technical projects, it is common for the project leader to be a highly technical subject matter expert. For larger programs, project managers are seldom masters of every technical detail, but generally they are knowledgeable enough to ensure that communications are clear and status can be verified. On small, technical projects, the project manager may be a technical guru, but that becomes much less important as the work grows. Large-scale projects require an effective leader who can motivate people and delegate the work to those who understand the details.

Good project managers are detail oriented, able to organize and keep straight many disparate activities at a time. They are also pragmatic; project management is more about “good enough” than it is about striving for perfection. All of this relates to delivering business value—understanding the trade-offs between time, scope, and cost while delivering the expected value of the project to the organization.

Finally, good project managers are upbeat and optimistic. They need to be liked and trusted by sponsors and upper management to be successful. They communicate progress honestly, even when a project runs into trouble. Retaining the confidence of your stakeholders in times of trouble also requires communicating credible strategies for recovery. Effective leaders meet challenges with an assumption that there is a solution. With a positive attitude, more often than not, they find one.

What are the most important responsibilities of a project manager?
Depends on:
—Role: Project coordinator, Project leader, Project manager, Program manager
—Organizational requirements and structure

The job of a project manager includes three broad areas:
1. Assuming responsibility for the project as a whole
2. Employing relevant project management processes
3. Leading the team

Precisely what these areas entail varies across the spectrum of roles, from the project coordinator, who has mostly administrative responsibilities, to the program manager, who may manage a hierarchy of contributors and leaders with hundreds of people or more. Regardless of any additional responsibilities, though, the following three areas are required: understanding your project, establishing required processes, and leading your team.

What are the habits of successful project managers?
Effective project leaders have a lot in common with all good managers. In particular, good project managers are people oriented and quickly establish effective working relationships with their team members.

One of the biggest differences between a project manager and an individual contributor is time fragmentation. People who lead projects must be willing to deal with frequent interruptions. Project problems, requests, and other imperatives never wait for you to become unbusy, so you need to learn how to drop whatever you are doing, good-naturedly, and refocus your attention. Project leaders who hide behind “do not disturb” signs and lock their doors run the risk of seeing trivial, easily addressed situations escalate into unrecoverable crises. Between urgent e-mails, phone calls, frequent meetings, and people dropping in, project managers don't generally have a lot of uninterrupted time. You may need to schedule work that demands your focus and concentration before the workday begins, or do it after everyone has left for the day.

This is a crucial part of being people oriented. Project leaders who find that they are not naturally comfortable dealing with others tend to avoid this part of the job and as a consequence may not stick with project management very long, by either their own choice or someone else's. Being people oriented means enjoying interaction with others (while being sensitive to the reality that some of your team members may not relish interaction as much as you do) and having an aptitude for effective written communication and conversations.

Getting started
Initiation into project management often involves becoming an “accidental project manager.” Most of us get into it unexpectedly. One day you are minding our own business and doing a great job as a project contributor. Suddenly, without warning, someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “Surprise! You are now a project manager.”

Working on a project and leading a project would seem to have a lot in common, so selecting the most competent contributors to lead new projects seems fairly logical. Unfortunately, the two jobs are in fact quite different. Project contributors focus on tangible things and their own personal work. Project managers focus primarily on coordinating the work of others. Novice project managers will need to invest time gaining the confidence of the team, determining their approach, and then delegating work to others.

What is the value of project management certification? What about academic degrees in project management?
Depends on:
—Age and background
—Current (or desired future) field or discipline

Considering project management certification
Project management certification has substantially grown in popularity in recent years, and some form of it or another is increasingly encouraged or required for many jobs in project management. The Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification from the Project Management Institute in the United States—and similar credentials from other professional project management societies around the globe—is not too difficult to attain, especially for those with project management experience. For many project managers, it is often a case of “it can't hurt and it may help” with your career. For those early in their careers, or looking to make a move into project management, or seeking a type of job where certification is mandatory, pursuing certification is not a difficult decision.

For those project managers who are in fields where certifications and credentials are not presently seen as having much relevance, the cost and effort of getting certified in project management may not be worthwhile. For some, investing in education in a discipline such as engineering or business could be a better choice, and for others certification in a job-specific specialty will make a bigger career difference. Even for jobs where project management certification is not presently much of a factor, though, there may be trends in that direction. A decade ago, few IT project management openings required certification of any kind; today for many it's mandatory, and similar trends are visible in other fields.

Considering project management degrees
A related recent movement has been the growth in academic degrees in project management. More and more universities are offering master's degrees in project management, often tied to their business curricula. Such programs may help some people significantly, particularly those who want to move into project management from a job where they feel stuck or wish to transition into a new field. A freshly minted degree can refocus a job interview on academic achievements rather than on the details of prior work experiences.

Embarking on a degree program is a big deal for most people, though. It will cost a lot of money and requires at least a year full-time (or multiple years part-time while holding down a job). Before starting a rigorous academic degree program in project management, carefully balance the trade-offs between the substantial costs and realistically achievable benefits, and consider whether a degree in some other discipline might be a better long-range career choice.

© 2011 Tom Kendrick. Excerpted by permission of the publisher from 101 Project Management Problems and How to Solve Them, by Tom Kendrick, PMP. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

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About the Author(s)

Tom Kendrick  is a project management consultant, formerly with Hewlett-Packard and Visa Inc. He is the author of Identifying and Managing Project Risk, Results Without Authority, The Project Management Tool Kit, and 101 Project Management Problems and How to Solve Them, of which this is an excerpt.