Project Management

5 Skills of the World’s Most Successful Project Managers

Daniel Threlfall
May 21, 2014
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If you read a book on project management, you’ll probably read about stuff like systems approach to planning, change management, teamwork, managing personnel, meeting deadlines, and implementation of management best practices.

And you know what?

That rocks. I hope you read every project book book in your Amazon wishlist. I really do. Best Books on Project Management 2014-05-06 15-41-17

But for all their awesomeness, these books sometimes miss the big picture. You don’t just want to be a project manager who succeeds at "processes implementation coherence” (whatever that means).

You want to be a project manager who is just plain successful. That’s why I’ve done some research into the project management skills that truly create success. In the article that follows you’re going to learn about the beneath-the-hood talents that turn ordinary cubicle-dwelling project managers into powerful, successful project managers.

1. Successful project managers put the right people into the right places.

Who did it right: George Marshall


George Marshall was such a good project manager that he actually won a war. Like a real war — WWII. Winston Churchill called Marshall the “organizer of victory,” which is a pretty nice accolade. And then after he won the war, he went on to win all kinds of sweet awards and positions. (Ever heard of the Nobel Peace Prize?)

He wasn’t called “project manager.” Instead, people saluted him and referred to him as “General,” but the fact remains — this guy could get stuff done. A Quora discussion relates that Marshall “had a genius for picking the right people for the right job.”

And therein lies his enviable skill — picking the right people for the right job. That’s a talent, indeed. No one can win a war on his or her own, even if his name is Captain America. You need help. Recruiting, advising, and directing that help is the sign of an excellent project manager.

Your mammoth project and surly employees are probably a pretty harsh reality to deal with on a daily basis. But then think about Marshall. He had some harsh realities to deal with, too: Bombs. Tanks. Stuff like that.

So he picked the right people, put them in the right places, and saved the free world from an untimely demise.

That’s successful project management for you.

2. Successful project managers plan way in advance.

Who did it right: Steve Jobs


Here’s one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotations:

Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently — they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things...they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Jobs, for all his talked-about harshness and prickly personality traits, was a really good project manager. Whether he was inventing a prehistoric personal computing device, or trying to put thousand songs in your pocket, Jobs knew how to dream a dream, then carry it through to completion.

That doesn’t happen without planning. Anyone who has watched Apple’s rollout of jaw-dropping game-changing products knows that planning great products is one of the keys to Apple’s success.

Much of that was planned by Steve Jobs. In a DailyMail article published after his death, it was reported that “Steve Jobs worked for more than a year on the products that he believed would safeguard the company's future.”

He planned, he projected, and he saw to it that a process was in place to carry it out. Even his succession plan smacked of project management success. That type of success requires long-range perspective, complete calendar mastery, and the insights brought from gantt charts.

In Jobs’s quotable about the crazy ones who change the world, we hear undertones of an inveterate planner. And we get a glimpse into a talent that every project manager would do well to imitate — plan, plan, plan.

3. Successful project managers make decisions based on data.

Who did it right:  Darth Vader


Though he may have lacked empathy, Darth Vader had some management skills. Geekwire reported that Darth Vader made a hard decision when he heard that Hans Solo was lost in the asteroid field. (Darth Vader choked an Imperial officer to death.) He had to make tough choices, but he did so in the face of hard facts.

A project manager walks a fine line between using his people-pleasing skills, and unleashing his killer project smarts. The tension between making people feel warm-and-fuzzy and making a project succeed is not an easy one.

Project managers should be nice, but they also have to look at the unblinking facts of life, and take action. Data-based decisiveness is the key to project management success.

4. Successful project managers are not perfectionists.

Who did it right:  Gretchen Rubin


Perfection can be your worst enemy. Perfectionists can morph into tyrants who doom themselves and their projects to failure.

Perfection is an ideal goal for which to aspire, but an unrealistic end for every project. Thus, a successful manager is willing to release his grip on perfection, and be willing to accept the good.

Voltaire wrote this:

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien

Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

I do not know what that says, but it looked really smart to put some Latin in this article. (I know. It’s not Latin. Take it easy on me.)

Basically, Voltaire’s message was this: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Popular author Gretchen Rubin has proclaimed Voltaire’s message through her books and articles. Rubin may have done some things imperfectly, but she did them. And that’s better than some people can say.

Here’s an excerpt from Rubin’s HuffPo article, Don't Let The Perfect Be The Enemy Of The Good.”

I told a friend that one of my happiness-project resolutions was to "Remember birthdays," and so I was sending out happy-birthday emails. He said, "Oh, you shouldn't email! You should call or write a hand-written note, that's much nicer." True - but I won't. And it's better to get something done imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly.

CBS News published an article, “Lessons from the world’s best project managers,” in which they interviewed Bill Wallace, a project manager on the GM Volt battery. He was tasked with an impossible deadline, and described how he pulled it off:

You scale back expectations. You’re better off doing 95 percent on time than 100 percent late. When you’re late, nothing happens: The battery isn’t in the car and you’re not learning anything. We made the date with about 98 percent complete.

I like reading articles on striving for perfection and doing awesome stuff, but frankly, it can get a little overwhelming. I’m not perfect. And the work that I produce? It’s not perfect. And the people that I manage? They’re not perfect. And that’s okay.

Success is not always perfection, but completion.

5. Successful project managers get out of the way.

Who does it right? Jason Fried


In my career as a remote worker and consultant, I’ve experienced two types of work environments.

The first one is the “Let’s Have a Meeting” environment. In this scenario, there are back to back meetings from the minute you step into your morning scrum standup, to the moment you crawl into your car, still on a conference call. Managers rule the workplace with an unmitigated torrent of Outlook invites.

And then there’s the polar opposite environment. This is usually just me and my Macbook, churning out my work while holed up in a coffee shop. Meeting? Huh? What’s that?

There is a happy medium, and I’m grateful for the company I currently work at, which has struck that ideal balance. But there are some environments where project managers get in the way of work getting done.

Jason Fried invented a project management software. You may have heard of it. It’s called Basecamp (If you're a Basecamp fan, learn how TeamGantt seamlessly integrates with your current Basecamp projects.)

Even though he’s totally on board with the whole project management thing, he also knows that managers and meetings — what he calls “M&Ms” — get in the way of work getting done.

If you’re a successful project manager, you can learn this valuable lesson — get out of the way, and the work can get done. One ideal way that this happens is through remote work, allowing an employee to free himself from the strictures of M&Ms, and simply do what he or she is supposed to do.

You’ll be surprised what will get done when you get out of the way.


Here’s to your becoming one of the world’s most successful project managers. You know the skills, and you can do them. You don’t have to be fighting World War 2, or emailing your friends on their birthday.

But you can start with number one on this list, and just see where it takes you.

I think success is in your future.

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