On the eve of my current contract closing (for now), it feels like a natural time to reflect on the experience. Lessons learned. Successes. Failures. But really all of these are wrapped up in the biggest takeaway from the experience: just how important soft skills are for project managers.
(And that 10 hours a week isn’t enough to effectively manage a project, especially with constituents who don’t see eye-to-eye internally. That’s fodder for another post).
Anyone can gain technical skills. It’s a matter of studying and practice. But developing soft skills is something that takes a little more intuition. It’s harder to teach soft skills–possible, but not as easy as sitting down to a Khan Academy session everyday. In my own life, I’ve found that cultivating empathy and actively practicing mindfulness (for me at least, it has to be mindful…it’s not something that’s inherently in my nature) have had an effect on how I listen to people, and learned to ask the right questions.
CIO.com has a great article on non-technical skills that project managers should have. They’re not wrong, but they could use a little refining. They feed into each other, and it’s the sum of these skills that allows others to emerge effectively. I’m condensing them down into 4 principles.
Project Manager Soft Skills
- Listen with empathy
Bring this to every stage of a project, not just the planning and kick-off phases. When you’re contracting, and not a part of an organization, listen carefully for issues that seem to be trigger points or could be sources of conflict. Pay close attention to terminology and *talk the talk* to show that you understand not just the technical aspects of a project, but the organization as a whole. Most importantly, close listening will help you to recognize problems as they arise. Even if they don’t seem like problems quite yet.
- Be proactive
Proactive sounds like a buzzword, and it’s super annoying, but think of it like this: When you are proactive, you’re also organized and delegating efficiently. You’re getting sh*t done. It’s being the person leading the pack, whether it’s through check-ins, status meetings, checking off project details, and those other kinds of seemingly small steps that lead to hitting milestones and accomplishing tasks. Sounds time-consuming? It is. In my personal experience, the activities that fall under *proactive* to me are the majority of the role. It isn’t doing technical work, it’s working with those who do to make sure they have everything they need.
- Communicate effectively
In my current closing role, there were several times that communication broke down. Not being onsite and only contracted for (an inflexible) 10 hours a week limits my ability to physically drop in and how hard I can push for answers (how many emails, IMs, etc can you send without receiving a response? A lot, I learned). Effective communication should be a pillar of every organization. Sometimes you’ll come into organizations where communication is lacking, or there’s an accepted tolerance range for ignoring missives. When this happens, find the people who have the authority to assign work to get things done. Unfortunately, even this isn’t 100% foolproof, in which case you’ll have to find alternate methods to get the information you need.
- Learn to flex
More buzzwords, right? Just like you need to find alternate communication flows to bust things out sometimes, you need to have some degree of flexibility. Whether there are changes in scope, timeline changes, crazy requests midway through the project…learn to roll with it and keep things in line. Sometimes the client wants something incongruous to keeping the project in line and consistent. That’s when it’s time for deep breathing and assessing the effects.
What other soft skills are necessary for project management?