As a Project Manager, you’re expected to wear many hats and juggle a multitude of responsibilities. But what makes the perfect Project Manager? Is it technical skills, soft skills, or domain expertise?
The truth is that all of these qualities are important for a successful Project Manager. However, the specific mix of skills needed will depend on the specific requirements of the project and the team being led. Let’s start by making sure we understand each of the three types of skills:
It goes without saying that a Project Manager needs to be proficient in the tools and techniques of their trade. These might include being able to use software tools to build a Gantt chart, being able to optimize a schedule, being able to analyse risks, build a Risk register, capture Multi-Point Estimates and convert them to usable estimates, facilitate a meeting to create a Work Breakdown Structure, the list goes on. And on. For Agile projects, it is just as important to know the Scrum framework in detail and how to implement the various responsibilities described therein.
The terms ‘soft’ skills, ‘power’ skills, and ‘transversal’ skills are related though they are not exactly the same thing. However, in business vernacular, those terms are used interchangeably to refer to personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively with others. They are focused on communication, teamwork, problem-solving, leadership, critical thinking, and influencing. Some people are skilled communicators or great organizers – both fall under the ‘soft’ skills label.
Domain expertise refers to a person’s knowledge of a specific field or industry. It is valuable because it allows someone to make informed decisions, solve problems, and offer solutions that are specific to the industry. I can be a requirement for certain jobs or roles – for example, an engineer designing a bridge would need to have domain expertise in civil engineering and structural design. So a Project Manager who has worked in a specific field for many years will have built up a lot of expertise within that particular domain.
However, technical skills alone are not enough to make a great Project Manager. Soft skills, such as effective communication, conflict resolution, and building and maintaining relationships, are equally important. A Project Manager who can effectively communicate with team members, stakeholders, and clients will be much more successful in getting things done.
Now it’s time to come clean – the perfect Project Manager does not exist. Every project is unique and will have risks associated. There is no mythical PM of Perfection who can guarantee success. So now we are looking for the closest-to perfection we can find.
The close-to-perfect PM must have mastery of the technical skills. These are table stakes for anyone taking on the delivery of a complex project. He or she must also demonstrate mastery of the soft skills. The ability to bring people together in pursuit of a common cause is a fantastic attribute to have. The ability to change someone’s mind but in a way that leaves that person convinced they changed their own mind – that is indeed a valuable skill.
So that leaves domain expertise? Isn’t it just as important for a Project Manager to have a deep understanding of the subject matter at hand? Almost! Having domain expertise can certainly be a huge asset for a Project Manager. It can help with understanding the specific needs and challenges of a project and make it easier to communicate with subject matter experts on the team. However, I would argue that it is not quite as important as having the technical skills and soft skills to do the job.
Why do I say this? Because a good Project Manager will be able to adapt and learn as they go. It’s not uncommon for Project Managers to work in areas that are far outside of their original expertise. In these cases, it’s important that they be able to learn quickly and tap into the expertise of team members as needed. The ability to ask intelligent questions and to apply critical thinking to the situation are powerful tools that will quickly win the respect of a new team.
Ultimately, the most perfect Project Manager is someone who has a solid foundation in both technical skills and soft skills, and the ability to adapt and learn to work in different industries as needed. The insights they gain from one industry are often transferable and can be applied to a wide variety of projects and contexts – helping to solve problems in another industry by ‘thinking outside the box’.
So, if you’re considering a career in Project Management, don’t worry too much about having to be an expert in a specific domain right off the bat. Instead, focus on developing a strong foundation of technical and soft skills and be willing to learn and adapt as you progress in your career. With hard work and determination, you just might become the first perfect Project Manager.