all insights

We don’t need another hero: What makes a great project manager?

What distinguishes a great project manager from a good one?

by Davi Quintiere and Ivo Graf

A good project manager is the whole package. They show strong leadership to both the project team and the larger stakeholder groups. They have high emotional intelligence (EQ), and are effective communicators. They bring an extensive toolbox gained through their experience with a wide variety of projects.

The good project manager is confident but humble, and makes use of their network as a sounding board.

But how to go from good to great? In our experience, this requires holding two objectives above everything else:

1. Be a servant, not a hero 
Elevate the team’s talents over your own.

2. Prioritize the avoidance of setbacks.
But deal with setbacks swiftly when they do occur.

Although at face value these are obvious objectives, they’re often neglected. Let’s take a closer look at why they’re so critical.

You’re not the hero. The team is.

When the going gets tough, we often see PMs trying to find solutions themselves instead of enabling the team to do it. This is the hero fallacy: PMs feeling the need to put themselves at the center of the project. While this may be effective in short spurts, or on small teams, it’s not sustainable for large and more complex projects.

Another bad habit of hero PMs is marginalizing the team by working in a vacuum because they don’t trust (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not) their team members. Regardless of how expert a PM is, their time is better spent coaching and enabling others rather than doing things themselves.

The other side of the hero fallacy is when the PM plays the martyr and takes the fall for the team when things go wrong. The relationship with the team may be preserved, but team members are denied an opportunity to learn and grow.

Instead of focusing on their own efforts, great PMs cultivate insight into what makes each team member tick—as an individual and as a member of the team. This includes not only an understanding of their skills and passions, but also their wellbeing and happiness. Happiness at the workplace has been demonstrated to increase productivity.

The next step is to use this knowledge of each team member to organize the team. Great PMs create synergy. The combined output becomes greater than the sum of the individual skills and efforts.

One simple and effective way to get the team focused on high performance is to use SAM: Set the vision, Align the team, and Motivate the people.

  • Set a vision that captures the hearts, minds, and imagination of your team, while being simple and easy to understand. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” At the same time, your vision must be authentic. It needs to be recognizably related to the company’s values.
  • Align the team by first committing that vision to paper. Getting on the same page is hard if there’s no page. This document is often called a project charter. It provides a clear statement of the purpose of the project and how it will be executed. This clear purpose should pull team members toward a common goal, which is often called the North Star. Refer to the North Star often for continued alignment.
  • Motivate the team by using your knowledge of each team member. Beware of the one-size-fits-all approach. Different people are motivated in different ways. Public recognition, happy hours, exposure to senior leadership, financial rewards—each of these can potentially play a part. Understanding what the right combination is for each given team is one of the skills that sets apart good PMs from great ones.

Beware of icebergs

It’s important for a PM to maintain a spirit of optimism in the face of the setbacks that any project will encounter. But optimism must be tempered with realism. When hyped expectations meet cold reality, we can be sure of the outcome. That all-important realism should be focused on the issues that have the potential to wreck the project. The PM needs to watch out for these like a captain looking out for icebergs. In other words, look out for the big things, and let your team handle the smaller everyday nuisances and fire drills that come with any project.

There are a few simple actions any PM can do to keep failure at bay, such as setting and maintaining an appropriate risk register. This should be kept as a live document throughout the project, with team members encouraged to contribute, and should be revisited at the end of the project for insights. Another simple and effective practice is to constantly ask “what if” questions and keep in mind different scenarios of how the project may develop. Expect the best but plan for the worst.

To use another metaphor, a great PM will think of project delivery as a golf match. You may have a couple of birdies and even an eagle, but you must above all avoid the shot that goes into the river. Avoiding failure, rather than picking up short term wins—which should be done by the team—is a key attribute of great PMs.

And so…

The next time you need to select a project manager, or if you’ll be one yourself, don’t picture a lone hero dramatically battling a villain. Instead think of an experienced captain who will work with the crew to foresee bad weather and reefs and ensure the ship arrives safely at its destination.