Key Characteristics of Successful Project Managers

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In this episode of Project Management Paradise Richard Newton, of Enixus, speaks to Johnny about the key characteristics of successful project managers.

Richard wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well-known project management book is “The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery”. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

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Transcript Episode 50: “Key characteristics of successful Project Managers”

I have a long background in project and program management, and increasingly change management over the past 30 years. That’s everything from relatively small projects to big projects and programs. I split my time, so half of that has been in the industry and half as a consultant—that’s how I work now as a consultant. I help companies with big projects and complex changes and writing about it as well.

Why is the human side of project management important?
Fundamentally it’s because I think it’s one of the critical determinants of project success. I can trace my interest back a long time. About 20 years ago I was running a big team of project managers, and I observed that there was limited correlation between how much formal training they had or how qualified the project manager was, and how successful they were at managing the project.

I started thinking, well if it’s not just about project management training, then what is it? I started to think about this, collect my findings, and eventually, I wrote my first book on it — The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. The title was deliberate. As the project manager, the project wasn’t about project management, but more about the person of the project manager—their behaviors, characteristics, and how they operate.

I think project management has come a long way in the past 20 years, but I still think that the human side is absolutely critical to the success of project management.

Do you think there is a gap in the training?
If I’m honest, I still think there is a gap. There’s not so much a gap in the training, but it’s often the trainers. You know the difference between the trainers who make the project real and talk about human stuff and the ones who just learn the course and spit out materials. I’m afraid there’s a factory like a mentality in getting the qualifications. Now don’t get me wrong there are some fantastic trainers out there, but there’s also a bit of weakness in the market.

How have the characteristics of project management changed and what are they today?
They’ve changed in the sense that things, which say 20 years ago when I first started getting interested in this I thought most people weren’t talking about, but some people are. For example, externally facing behaviors like the way project managers interact with people, how they communicate and manage their stakeholders. Basically, that human dimension interaction has become much more prevalent and more and more people are talking about and understanding it.

I still think there are a whole series of personal characteristics that make a difference which tends not to get talked about. For example, the ‘look up, look down’ characteristics. We all know project managers who are very detailed focused. They’re looking down on their project plans, they know the work break down structure well, and they understand all of the details, but they don’t necessarily take the time to look up and think about, “is this still going in the right direction?”

And on the other side, we probably all know project managers who spend their whole time looking up and at the bigger picture, and they sometimes forget the details. I think one of the characteristics of a great project manager is that they have this ability to flip between detail and the big picture—what I call looking up, looking down. One of those characteristics, which we all know is important but don’t talk about is their ability and willingness to flex their style to the context their in.

Project management is pretty generic, but there aren’t generic projects—they’re all different. There aren’t generic organizations—they’re all different. The way we interact needs to vary. For example, I’ve been involved in a project doing business start-ups with six people, very dynamic, constantly changing the scope and who’s involved. I’ve been involved in large corporate programs with 500-600 people who work differently.

You can’t use the same style although the tools stay the same. Your way of interacting with those people needs to vary. Those sort of characteristics is what I think are important. It’s the way project managers make judgements and choices. You can look at the sorts of choices project managers make, and have the ability to make the right choices is another one.

Project Management Game
Unlock Project Management. The game is aimed at those who are new to project management. It reflects the same beliefs about project management and education. Often, when people are new to project management they go on a training course, focus on project management skills like planning or risks, and that’s a great start. If you just do that in isolation to running a project, it can be very abstract and dry.

I wanted to give someone in a safe environment exposure to a project. We came up with the concept of the game to be engaging and interesting, so it’s running a project. There’s a scenario where there’s a disaster on an island, and you run a charity that has to recover the facilities and living accommodations. We chose something like that so everyone could associate with it rather than a specific business scenario.

The player plays the game through several rounds—scope out the project, plan it, run it, deliver it, deal with risks, and then close it down. It ends with some scored feedback from the stakeholders. It takes about an hour-hour and a half to play, and it seems pretty popular. It gives you a taste of project management, so if you went on to do a project management course, you’d be able to put the information into reality. Hopefully, it gives people the sense of what project management is really about.

Delivery and Deliverables

It’s about change and change management. One of the things I’ve seen with working with project managers over the year is that they become so focused on making sure that they create a deliverable. Deliverables are great, but you’ve got to get people to use them and get them adopted. We all know it, but we forget over time and just focus on the goal of getting those deliverables produced. The article was focused on let’s open up our minds to the projects and not just the deliverables. It’s about the wider factors in delivery and change.

Change Management—Time For a New Vocabulary
Most of my client work nowadays is still in projects and programs, but it’s mostly organization change related or improving an organization’s capabilities in change. Change management is a word we all throw around. Although it’s evolving rapidly, it’s not quite as mature as project management. It’s been along for a lot longer than people think, but in the last 10-15 years, it’s started to become prominent.

One of the problems I find is that people use the term change management in different ways. For some people, it’s that bit you do at the end of a project when you’re getting into that transition and cut over phases, and it might include things like training and communications.

Other people might associate it with a broader discipline like program management, thinking about how you shape change and deliver it to an organization. Other people see it as an even wider discipline linked to something like strategy. If you see a strategy shaping the change agenda, then change management the process by which you take that whole agenda as it evolves, and deliver it to the organization.

Those are all valid interpretations, but they’re quite different. The problem risks confusing because I could be talking about one of those and the person listening could think I’m talking about one of the other interpretations. My article suggests that it’s time we reach a consensus across the industry about what’s the name for those different things so that we can communicate better.

Why Buy “Mastering the Art of Delivery”?
There are lots of project management books out there, so it’s a tight market. What different about my book is that it looks at project management from the eyes of the project manager. It’s what do you need to do as a project manager on a day to day basis. You can look at a risk log, but then what do you do?

Project managers have all the tools for managing other people, but the project manager is about what you as a person need to do and how you can use those things to become successful in project management. Rather than just project management itself, this book is about how you personally can thrive as a project manager.

Any Big Lessons?

  1. Project management is a practical rather than theoretical discipline. Learn the theory, use it, and think about what works in practice. Do what works and don’t worry so much about theory.
  1. Project management is about people, not deliverables. If you get the people side right, the deliverables will just fall out. Think about people, who you work with, and the best way to get them excited to deliver that plan.

Big Changes in Project Management?
The whole shift to agile is still rolling out, and I’m one of the people who think that agile has made a permanent change—I’m a big fan.  One of the interesting things now is how organizations work in multiple ways in the sense that they have some projects and programs running in a traditional way and others in agile, and how they combine that into a coherent portfolio. I think that will continue to evolve, but that would be the space I’d continue watching of how they evolve those two.

Show Notes

Visit his Company website –

Visit his Blog –

Check out his Book “The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery” on Amazon

Connect with Richard on LinkedIn here or Twitter here

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