To project managers: It’s the soft skills, stupid!

To project managers: It’s the soft skills, stupid!

Yes, we all know this intuitively and often talk about the need to have two of the most critical soft skills to effectively manage projects: leadership and communication.  But the reality is that these skills are not so straight forward to identify right away in people, and even harder is train individuals who may lack these skills to get better at them.  This is why HR and hiring managers list mostly experience with managing specific technologies and specific technical skill sets such as using scheduling software or knowledge of project management process that usually validated with something like the PMP credential.

As this article by Russell Harley in Dice News points out:

I was having a great interview for a Project Manager position. It was a team interview and as we neared the end, everyone was acting as if I was a member of the group, I knew I had the job. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked my standard exit question, “Does anyone have any questions or concerns about my skills that have not been addressed yet?” Normally this leads to a bunch of “Nos” — but not this time.

Group InterviewOne of the team members asked the fatal question: “If someone on the project is out sick or on vacation can you step in and write test scripts and do QA analysis while they are out?” As it had been years since I had done anything along those lines, I had to say “No, I cannot.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

IT Project Management seems to be splitting into two camps, functional PMs and technical PMs. Technical PMs appear to need a skill set that is half technical and half project management. In this case, the PM is not just a PM, but also a stand-in for absent people, Tier III support, etc. For small and/or non-critical projects this is a good approach. But for anything else, this can cause a disaster.

It can definitely be a disaster especially for large, complex projects where the soft skills of a seasoned project manager makes or lack thereof breaks the success of the project.  As this section of the recent 2013 PMI Pulse of the Profession report illustrates, the overwhelming majority of executives polled felt that the soft skill of leadership was most essential to the success of the project:


As a professional trainer, when I’m tasked with conducting training on topics such as leadership and communication, the reality is that I get a little embarrassed with the title of “trainer” since I know this is not something you can really train someone to be.  Rather it is through deep and meaningful discussions , role playing and demonstration where you hope the attendees receive a better understanding of them, and even better to start utilizing them.  Furthermore, you have to avoid excessively resorting to platitudes, sound bites and “quotes from great leaders” as it often happens when the discussions revolve around how to better lead and communicate.

So yes, “it’s the soft skills, stupid” with the caveat that while this is the most sought after skill and characteristic for project managers or anyone for that matter who has to manage a group of people, the reality is that this is the most elusive and difficult to obtain!

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