The 5 Most Powerful Project Manager Characteristics

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Why These 5 Qualities Build GREAT Project Managers

Apr 16, 2019
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“Operations keeps the lights on, strategy provides a light at the end of the tunnel, but project management is the train engine that moves the organization forward.”  — Joy Gumz

What separates a solid project manager from the really great ones you remember?

If Joy Gumz is correct, and I believe she nailed it – then the conductors that keep those individual project engines locomoting towards that light at the end the tunnel are the project managers.  Good project managers handle the schedule updates, track risks and issues, and faithfully complete all the blocks on the weekly reports.  Nothing wrong with this.  And many of these folks will keep their fingers crossed that they will satisfactorily traverse the project finish line, with satisfactory grades in cost, schedule and quality.

The exceptional project managers will not only engage the more mundane aspects of managing the project but will be deeply involved in team building and the tactical execution of their portion of a strategic plan.  It is this concept of the team that is this project managers concern.  This team!  This team is the project manager’s reason for being.  In the end it is the team that brings the project to a successful conclusion – not the project manager.

Let’s examine what experience and research indicates are the 5 major characteristic building blocks that distinguish the truly outstanding project managers from the common place.

Team Builder

"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”  — Henry Ford

Project managers who are competent team builders will realize tremendous benefits.  In the days that PMs worked for me, I considered that if nothing at all were done correctly besides constructing and managing the project team, there was a good chance we’d be alright for any given project.  If nothing else, give me a team builder.

A team builder can best be defined as a central figure who provides the substance that holds the team together in common purpose toward the right objective.  This ‘substance’ often starts out as a title, but good team builders know this does not carry the day.  Here is what you’ll see in great teams –

  • Working together and communication
  • Collaboration and fostering innovation
  • Boosted team performance.
  • Competition and bragging rights.
  • Networking, socializing and getting to know each other better.
  • Celebration, team spirit, fun, and motivation.

Of course, great teams are the exception.  In order for a team to progress from a group of strangers into a single cohesive unit, the leader must understand the process and dynamics required for this transformation, including the appropriate leadership style to use during each stage of team development.  Place “8 Tips to Build a Successful Team” into your reference library.  

Great project managers understand how to harness each person’s skills the right way at the right time for the maximum effect.  

Inspirational Visionary

“To the person who does not know where he wants to go there is no favorable wind.”  — Seneca

It’s true that the majority of PMs will not be a grand strategy maker at the corporate level.  But the great PM fully understands where, in the strategic design  of the organization, his/her project fits and the corresponding vision of how the team is driving the organization.  This vision extends beyond the mechanics of the project’s business case.  It transcends requirement and design documents.  This understanding includes the need to inspire the project team with that vision and be able to articulate it and abstract it to the various characters involved.  

Visionary leaders enable people to feel that they have a real stake in the project.  This PM will offer people opportunities to create their own visions and explore what that vision could mean.  Individual contributions from project team members can be astonishing when they have the opportunity of connecting with a greater vision than daily task completion.  The project manager is empowering the team and providing the favorable wind Seneca refers to.  


“The art of communication is the language of leadership.”  — James Humes

The ability to communicate with people at all levels has to be considered the fundamental building block of project management.  There is no better way to maintain focus, keep expectations aligned, and ensure the right work is being performed at the right time by the right person than with good project communication.  Building the great project teams is effectively impossible without genuine, heartfelt communication from a competent and seasoned leader.

…it challenges you as PM to consider your project team as the epicenter of your project world and its formulation and continued care the real drivers of project achievement

Project managers who overlook the importance of communication are putting their projects at serious risk. In fact, according to the Project Management Institute, 40% of all project failures can be directly attributed to a lack of effective communication.

The communication challenges for PMs are significant and extend far beyond the day-to-day team interactions.  They have to interact with stakeholders of all types, from all levels, from all perspectives, and now, from all cultures.  Checkout’s “What Is a Project Management Communication Plan?” for excellent information in project communications in general.


“Competence is a great creator of confidence.”  — Mary Jo Putney
"Nothing rots morale more quickly and more completely than the feeling that those in authority do not know their own minds."  — Lionel Urwick

Simply stated – as Mary Jo Putney does – to enlist one in another’s cause, we must believe the leader of said cause knows what they’re doing.  And if we don’t have that belief – as Lionel Urwick puts it – we’re not going to be feeling very good about our prospects.  As such, many a project team has proceeded into and through a project lifecycle, with dreadful morale and dismal prospects of success, let alone any sense of fulfillment.

award winning project manager icon

When we discuss competence, we’re not talking about a project managers technical abilities in some core project technology – see “Project Manager Maturity the Easy Way“ for Axelerate’s take on PM technology competence requirements.  As project management continues to be recognized as a field in and of itself, project leaders will be chosen based on their ability to successfully lead project teams and execute projects, rather than on technical expertise, as in the past.  In my decades of experience, I’ve yet to see a project fail because the PM wasn’t a technology bear, but seen many fail due because the principles in this article were ignored.

The ability to build teams, inspire, communicate, and delegate must be demonstrated if leaders are to be seen as capable and competent.  Perhaps the ultimate measure of competence is having a winning track record.  I can tell you as both a former team member, project manager and manager of project managers, nothing establishes a certain comfort level going into a project more than knowing your PM is competent.  This can make all the difference!


“If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”  – John C. Maxwell

The project manager should be able to delegate with ease. He/she should be able to recognize the skills and expertise of their assigned team members and designate or delegate the tasks accordingly.  

Delegation is more state of mind than action.  I was fortunate, this has always come natural to me.  But it’s not so much delegating that comes naturally as it is trust.  It’s the project manager’s trust in the team that allows the abilities of the project team to manifest themselves with maximum effect.  When trust evaporates – for whatever reason – it cascades through the project like a disease.  Your trust in the team, their trust in you and in each other is the glue that differentiates the great PM and the high performing teams from their mediocre counterparts.

The great  project manager will demonstrate trust in others through actions – how much you check and control their work; how much you delegate; and how much you allow people to participate in project decisions.  PMs who cannot bring themselves to trust their teams and properly delegate their authority run high risks of failing as a leader.  They will attain the reputation of micro-manager, work themselves to death, and be miserable into perpetuity.  As I once heard a very capable team member say, “A good leader is a little lazy.”  “Hmmm…” was my only response.  


I’m hoping that everyone who reads this article realizes that it’s not intended as a laundry list of PM attributes that will inevitably lead you and your teams to success.  It was intended as a thoughtful exploration into the nature of the project manager-to-team dynamic in the context of project leadership.  At its highest level it may talk to 5 major characteristics, but at its core it challenges you as PM to consider your project team as the epicenter of your project world and its formation and continued care the real drivers of project achievement.

Written By:
Kerrie Gill, PMP, ITIL

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