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The Top Three Skills of a Project Team Leader

Many people feel that the ability to manage a project and a team is an innate skill—that anyone should be able to do it, that it is so easy that it should be a part-time job, that there really is no “talent” involved.

Not true!

As projects become bigger and more complex, with more functions affected by them, the ability of a project manager to manage both the big picture and the details is critical for success. In fact, the “easy” part might be to learn the hard skills, such as using the project management tools, learning the software, writing the reports, doing the presentations.

What becomes more critical is managing all the relationships with and among the people on the project. Here are the three “must-have” skills  for every successful project manager:

1. Communication and interpersonal skills
It is often said that the primary reason projects fail is due to communication mishaps, not for technical reasons. As a project manager, you are at the hub of the wheel, the central focus-point for all the communications that go on surrounding the project. It is critical that you model exceptional communication skills with your team and stakeholders.

You must be able to communicate well:
—Verbally
—In writing
—In front of a group
—In one-on-one conversations

Interpersonal skills also need to be operating at a high level. Ask yourself:
 —How well do I share what I am really feeling or thinking? Can I do it without the recipient going on the defensive?
—How approachable am I? Do people come to me easily with issues, no matter how severe?
—Am I liked and respected by my team members? Am I easy to get along with?
—How well do I empathize with others when they hit a crisis, either on the project or in their lives?
—Do I prefer to work with others in a group versus alone?

Some people are born with magnetism and charisma; others might have to work a bit to develop it. As a project manager, much of your time is involved in interactions with people, even if you are a “technical” project manager. Given this, doing some objective self-analysis of how you interact with others and making refinements, if necessary, will serve you well in the long run.

2. Ability to negotiate and resolve conflicts
How capable are you of aiding two team members in resolving a conflict? Can you negotiate with a functional manager to get the person with the critical skills assigned to your team? As a project manager, your probability of success will increase if you have, or can develop, these skill sets.

3. Building commitment within the team
Building team commitment starts with having a clear reason and purpose for being together in the first place. Once that is established, it is always wise to do some relationship building while the team is going through the project definition and planning process. Underlying this is your understanding of how team dynamics operates. It is not only “getting the job done” that is important—HOW you get it done counts. There are people who would rather be on a less important project and enjoy working with the team rather than on a “hot” project where there is constant battle, personality issues, and conflict. Do you know how to optimize the possibility for your team to be committed? To you? To the team? To the goal? To the project?

Concluding thoughts
Communication is often cited as one of the most frequent reasons that a project “fails,” that is, comes in late, over budget, and/or with marginal performance. If communication is open, honest, direct, accurate, and used both vertically and horizontally throughout an organization, efficiency is enhanced, second-guessing stops, and hidden agendas cease to exist. The result: Project teams experience less stress and a much higher success rate.

Remember, we choose how we communicate, whether consciously or unconsciously. So pay attention to what you say and how you are perceived by others. When you speak to the project team, watch them to see how they respond to your words, and adjust accordingly.

© 2004 American Management Association. All rights reserved. Excerpted and adapted from Project Team Leadership: Building Commitment Through Superior Communication

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