When people ask me what I do for a living, it can be hard to explain. When I say 'project manager' more often than not I get an expectant silence. Sometimes I go on to say that I keep the trains running on time, but it does get me to thinking about some of the key skills and responsibilities of a project manager.
Sure, there's Microsoft Project, critical path calculations, scheduling and tracking. Those are mechanics, though - you need to be able to deal with them but they're not enough to make a successful project manager.
Some of the characteristics shared by the most successful project managers I know don't necessarily come in the same packaging from person to person, but these are key:
- Broad shoulders / thick skin: you have to take one for the team. Sometimes every day. That means that you need to run interference for the team, and to take responsibility to keep from spiraling into the blame game. I can't tell you how many times I've put my hand up in a meeting and said 'blame me if you need to and let's get back to work.' That doesn't mean that you don't work with people causing problems - in private. That doesn't mean that you don't do root cause analysis to keep issues from re-occurring. But it means that your team can count on you to defend them and represent them, whatever storm is brewing.
- Tough but fair: you expect people to do their job. Sure, you'll remind, nag, cajole, but you're clear about the boundaries. You'll draw a line and say 'Don't cross this or there will be trouble.' If someone crosses the line, there's trouble. There's no 'I'm sure it will be done tomorrow', no blaming other team members, and no ignoring the rules. Discussion is for *before* the rules are broken, not after.
- Flexible: other than the boundaries, you're pragmatic and willing to try new things as long as they'll benefit the project (or the team - without harming the project)
- Utility player: you're willing to chip in and do almost any job on the project - most experienced project managers have already done them all in the past and are quite willing to help out when necessary. Family emergency? Sure, you'll do some QA. Project slip threatening a vacation? You'll write some specs. People know that you understand what they're going through (and that they can't fool you with jargon or excuses).
- Celebrator: you cheer your team and team members through victories large and small. You're the one with the URL for oriental trading company memorized; you know all the fun team activities available in your area; you talk up your team's achievements every chance you get.
- Automatic contingency planning: it doesn't stop with the job. You know what you'll do if it rains on the birthday party, where the extra cars will park, what to do if the recital runs long. You're the one that brings backup music to the dance show just in case, and no party at your house ever runs out of food. All this translates into being eerily ready for most project emergencies that come your way.
- Constant risk assessment: another thing that doesn't stop when the work day ends. You're the world's most defensive driver. You don't even have to stop what you're doing to catch the plate falling off the table (you knew it was too close to Uncle George to be safe). At any given moment you can rattle off the list of risks that are threatening your project along with the likelihood of occurrence and probable impact.
- Forest and trees: you can see both. You love putting the pieces together to get to the big picture that you have constantly in front of you.