Why a Successful Project Manager Is Like a Boy Scout

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Apr 12, 2023

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.

Defining Your Working Style
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.

Referring to an Old List
As part of a workshop on project management some time ago, I challenged the participants in small groups to brainstorm what they thought made a good project leader. The lists from each group were remarkably similar, and quite familiar. In summary, what they came up with is that good project managers:

• Can be counted on to follow through
• Take care of their teams
• Willingly assist and mentor others
• Are sociable and get along with nearly everyone
• Are respectful and polite
• Remain even tempered, understanding, and sympathetic
• Can follow instructions and processes
• Stay positive and upbeat
• Understand and manage costs
• Are willing to “speak truth to power”
• Act and dress appropriately

Reviewing the results, I realized that the items from the brainstorming closely mirrored those of another list, one familiar to lots of eleven-year-old boys for about a century; that list is “the Scout Law.” The version I'm most familiar with is the one used by the Boy Scouts of America, but worldwide other variants (for Girl Scouts, too) are essentially the same.

Effective project leaders are trustworthy; they are honest, can be relied upon, and tell the truth. They are loyal, especially to the members of their team. Project managers are helpful, pitching in to ensure progress and working to build up favors with others against the inevitable need that they will need a favor in return some time soon. Wise project leaders remain friendly even to those who don't cooperate, and they value diversity. They are also courteous, because the cooperation that projects require is built on respect. Project managers are generally kind, treating others as they would like to be treated. We are also obedient, following rules and abiding by organizational standards. Good project managers are cheerful; when we are grumpy no one cooperates or wants to work with us. We are thrifty, managing our project budgets. Effective project leaders also need to be brave, confronting our management when necessary. Good project managers are also “clean.” It is always a lot easier to engender respect and lead people when we are not seen as sloppy or having low standards. (Actually, there is a twelfth item on the Boy Scout list: Reverent. Although it did not come up in the brainstorm, praying for miracles is not uncommon on most projects.)

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