Project Managers: high performers and what they do differently

I have already written articles about what it is to be a good project manager. Yes, and I am not referring to myself. I am still somewhat surprised – though I probably shouldn’t be— that the behavioral characteristics of a good project manager are still the same, but what attributes makes a great project manager?

High performers actively and regularly seek out reviews and feedback

How do project managers perceive their performance? In general, we project managers tend to view our own performances very positively, and this becomes even more pronounced when we compare our performance against our fellow project managers. The truth is that most of us have a terrible ability to self-assess. We simply don’t see ourselves or our performance the way our stakeholders do. The most common way this manifests is that we overestimate how well we do common tasks. Sanity check: We can begin by realizing that the way others experience us is different than how we perceive ourselves, and the news is not all bad. Top-notch Project managers  know that feedback – no matter how it feels – points out those blind spots and helps reinforce and improve on natural talents. If you can get a handle on both your strengths and weaknesses, then you improve your project management skills and steer your career in great directions.

High performers harness and direct the motivation of team members

Anyone who has seen the 2004 movie “Miracle” saw a great depiction of how a united team performs better than a group of individuals. For this to happen, there’s always a leader who unifies the team by getting everyone to focus on a common goal. This leadership can come from a team member, a coach, a manager, you name it. You probably already know that management and leadership are different disciplines. Leaders set a vision, inspire and motivate, while managers produce the results within the given constraints. You can certainly be both a leader and a manager, but each role requires two different skill sets. In order to build a team, however, you have to get the right people in place and align their interests toward a common goal. This becomes even trickier when you realize that everyone has his or her own agenda, and it might have nothing to do with the project. Your value shifts over time. Early in our careers, we’re rewarded for being highly efficient and task-oriented. If we manage to climb the corporate ladder, our value usually shifts to being more relational. In other words, your value is no longer tied so much to the number of lines of code you can sling out in a day. If the team is focused and highly effective, you can actually multiply your value several times over. If the team is dysfunctional, your value drops. Not only are you not producing code anymore, but the team isn’t either. Sanity check: Building leadership skills is a lifelong pursuit. The first step is to understand what drives the people on your team.

High performers keep teams aligned to project priorities

Stakeholders are constantly competing for ways to move their interests to the top of the project list. It’s the project manager’s job to help the team stay aligned with the project priorities that deliver the highest value. In the Agile world, one of the key functions of a coach is to communicate the priorities and to remove obstacles so that the team can stay productive. On waterfall projects, project managers often help identify and set the priorities themselves. The most important priorities are known as critical success factors (CSFs).

Here’s what project managers need to do to keep their teams aligned and focused:

  1. Identify the correct critical success factors.
  2. Apply the appropriate resources to the critical success factors.
  3. Handle risk appropriately critical success factors.
  4. Protect the team from distraction or priorities and don’t let anyone hijack the priorities.

Top performing Project Managers spend enough time determining the true critical success factors; then, they apply resources to those projects and tasks above all else. Project managers bring order to chaos. Sanity check: By taking a hard look at our own performances, focusing the team, and keeping resources applied to the most important work, you can rise to the top of the PM pack, while giving your project the best chances for success. To rise to the top of the pack, it helps to know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and practice a lot. The good news is that basic habits are something you can start practicing right now!