There's a vast difference between an average project manager and an excellent project manager. Yet if you google "how to be a great PM", or "what makes a great PM", you only get a list of lowest common denominator qualities: organized, good communicator, blah, blah, blah. Of course it's important to be organized and communicate well. But that's just the starting point.
From the article Good Project Manager vs. Bad Project Manager:
A bad project manager is all over the place. They fit that stigma of "glorified secretary or an admin" because they only ask simple questions like, "When are you going to be done with that task?" Bad project managers scramble at the last minute to produce any type of documentation as they do not see it coming in the first place. A bad project manager puts out fires all day long instead of focusing on leading a project. They simply voice their opinions and don't take action when it comes to documenting these decisions or taking written positions when it comes to important issues.
I agree. Except I think the author is being a bit charitable. Even average project managers fall into these traps.
So what specific traits are we looking for to truly separate the top tier project managers from all the rest?
NOT JUST ORGANIZED, PROACTIVE
Like a chess grandmaster, a great manager is always thinking many steps ahead. They see all the possible pitfalls and are constantly taking action to dodge or mitigate them.
Being proactive is not just a personal quality, although some people are naturally more proactive than others. Rather, being proactive is the result of a lot of hard day-to-day work:
Learning a lot about the subject matter. PMs are not subject matter experts, yet they must ramp up a lot on the subject matter in order to understanding enough about what's happening now and what should be happening next to be able to flag deviations and risks.
Constantly consulting lessons learned from other projects. PMP focuses a lot on lessons learned from other projects, and for good reason. The project you are trying to deliver is never as unique as it feels. What other companies, or even other teams within your company, have already delivered something? What have competitors done? A great PM is never re-inventing the wheel. If someone has learned from a similar experience, they find out about it and bring those lessons back to the team.
Always monitoring risks with the team. Another PMI staple, a great project manager spends as much time working with the team and other stakeholders to identify and monitor risks as they do monitoring progress and taking status. Risks are your window into the future.
Interview question: Give me an example of a time that you were proactive. What techniques do you use to be proactive?
NOT JUST COMMUNICATION, ALIGNMENT
Everyone knows that clear communication is the cornerstone of delivering successfully. So many delivery issues and delays result from the silliest of miscommunications. Communication has to be verbal, non-verbal, in writing and live, with the support of spreadsheets, powerpoints, and more sophisticated tools.
But communication is also about listening. A great PM can listen and understand what each team member is telling them. And ultimately, it's exemplifying the right soft skills - empathy, collaboration, cultural sensitivity (country cultures and corporate cultures), assertiveness, negotiation - that allow them to arrive at an aligned plan where all team members and stakeholders are on the same page.
Interview question: What's the most important thing about communication? What do you do at the beginning and end of every meeting?
NOT JUST TAKING STATUS, BUT UNPACKING AND CHALLENGING
One of the greatest sins of average project management is being an order taker. Whether you do daily stand-ups, a weekly team meeting, you need to go beyond just asking team members "What's the status and when will it be done?" Indeed, 90% of projects go over time, and that's because so many sub-tasks within a project go over time. Team members are naturally optimistic and want to please, so they aren't always recognizing all that goes into a task and when it's going to be late.
Being able to talk with team members using a Socratic method - asking lots of questions to surface all the sub-steps of an activity - is vital. "When you say it'll be ready next week, do you mean Friday? Do you mean a first draft or an approved version? Who has to approve it? Is there a meeting booked already with the approvers? Are there reasons why they might not approve? Are there other dependencies to this work - who else is involved in the draft?" Questions can become exhausting, but for really important tasks it's so important to talk through and understand exactly the steps to "done".
Dependencies are probably the most crucial to unpack and highlight. When a task is entirely within the control of the team, the risk is lower. But in practice, whenever success depends on an external group, another company, a senior stakeholder, any other 3rd party - risk, proactivity and vital is suddenly at a premium.
Interview question: what questions do you ask to figure out if a deliverable is going to be late?
FOCUSED ON WHAT'S MOST IMPORTANT
A great PM should be thorough and detail oriented. Everything is captured in the WBS and accounted for. But across all of that detail, they also need to be hyper focused on priorities, spending almost all their time on what's most important.
What is most important? Most likely:
Everything else is noise and distraction.
The PMP exam is notorious for asking questions that are long-winded and filled with confusing, irrelevant information. That is to simulate the experience of being a PM, where you are constantly being confronted with new information and you need to filter out what's really important and worth your time compared from everything else that may just be a time waster.
Interview question: how do you identify what's important compared to what is detail or noise? Give some examples.
ASSERTIVE, BUT FLEXIBLE
With so much focus on being organized, proactive, the project management profession tends to attract some rather rigid thinkers (ESTJs and ISTJs in Myers Briggs). And of course, it's important to be assertive about the plan and hold team members accountable to their agreed deadlines.
But it's also important to remember that in practice, no project ever unfolds according to plan, and you constantly need to improvise and devise new ways of achieving the results with your team.
If you think of all the aspects of project management - soft skills, stakeholder relationships, judgement, team leadership, keeping up with constantly changing priorities - being flexible in your thinking and open to deviating from the plan and process when necessary, becomes a primordial skill that easily sets you apart from other PMs.
Interview question: Tell me about a time you had to deal with an unexpected change to the project.