I've often said the title project manager is misleading. As it implies, the highest level desired goal is to merely "manage" projects. But managing a project is not the same as leading it. Further, not all IT project managers can be considered "IT leaders," making it difficult for business owners, executives, and recruiters to seek out and hire the best candidates with the desired leadership capabilities.
If a PM is to successfully lead projects, they will need to have transferable leadership traits that can't be found in a classroom or a book and aren't project- or industry-specific. Here are some characteristics business executives have sought out in an IT project manager.
A fast learner: Jonathan Roger, operations director/certified scrum master at AndPlus, LLC, a mobile app and custom software developer, says he looks at a candidate's ability to pick up new skills and ideas and use them. During interviews and in the first few weeks Roger said he assesses how quickly the candidate, and later the new PM learns things like the company's processes and the team's roles.
Conflict resolution: Roger believes having, or not having, conflict resolution skills can make or break a project. "As a Project Management Office (PMO) that works in the agile process, our PMs and scrum masters need to ensure that our teams are high-functioning, and a major part of that is resolving conflicts," he said.
Exceptional verbal and written communication: Roger believes these skills are the sine qua non of being a project manager. Throughout the interview process, he said he tries to gauge a candidate's ability to talk with people at all levels. He might have an engineer, a salesperson, or someone from the PMO sit in on every interview. "I ask behavioral questions about their ability to interact with customers and also try to have as much of a 'conversational' interview as possible," he said. "The questions that candidates ask at the end of interviews are crucial — questions that are at least somewhat insightful and show that a candidate has done their research are key."
Initiative: As a 20-year veteran director of computer operations at Trader Joe's, Richard Lowe has hired several project managers — some as staff and some as consultants. Today, Lowe is now the founder of The Writing King, offering professional writing services. During his time at Trader Joe's, Lowe said knowledge about the company was at the top of the list for potential PMs: "I looked for someone who showed an interest in our company. In other words, when they came in for the interview, they had already researched Trader Joe's, walked into a couple of stores, talked to some people, and had an idea of the unique culture of our business."
Emotional Intelligence: At Trader Joe's, a project leader's composure when dealing with large and diverse groups with varying agendas under extreme pressure was key. "By this, I mean there might be a meeting of senior managers (C-level) from different departments, and they each had their spoken and unspoken agendas," said Lowe. He added that a leader has to be able to effectively, yet gently handle emotional and intellectual biases so as not to squash creativity, but also ensure everyone is progressing in the right direction. A project leader's ability to see "competing emotional currents and keep the group focused on the goals," was a highly desired skill, he said. Jonathan Roger also believes EQ is important, especially when it comes to customer-facing and project leadership roles. "The ability to empathize with a client is part of what makes our customer engagements successful," he said.
Stress management: Lowe also sought candidates who could work under extreme stress, when necessary. "We had projects that were 24/7 in nature, and a failure could cost millions of dollars and lose customers, and could even result in public relations problems. So they had to understand they might get called on weekends and after hours, and needed to be responsive from anywhere," he said.
It's important to mention these soft skills shouldn't be considered in lieu of technical skills, since having the foundation of project management is essential for effectively handling the day-to-day activities. These soft skills do, however, give an IT project leader and the companies that hire them an edge in terms of being able to recognize, navigate, communicate and resolve some of the more difficult human resource based hurdles. This is key since IT projects, no matter how technical, are primarily reliant on interactions with other people.Also see:
Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contributor and co-host of the "technically speaking" segment on the Price of Business Talk Radio. She has 20+ years in business (IS&T) and project management for small to large businesses in the US and Canada. To find out more about Moira, go to www.leadhershipgroup.com.