There's a vast difference between an average project manager and an excellent project manager. But if you google "What makes a great project manager?", you find only generic lists of 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. Let's get more specific. What are the traits are we looking for that truly separate the top tier PMs from all the rest?
BEYOND ORGANIZED: PROACTIVE
Like a chess player or rock climber, top project managers are good at thinking many steps ahead. They see all the possible pitfalls and are constantly taking action to dodge and mitigate.
Some people have a natural aptitude for thinking ahead: visualizing dependencies and risks and thinking through different options. Others managers know what to look for from experience. If you've been burned before and it was painful enough, you'll remember it, and you'll be looking out for it the next time.
But mostly, anticipating what's going to happen many moves ahead comes from hard work:
BEYOND COMMUNICATION: ALIGNMENT
Clear communication is the cornerstone of delivering successfully. Delivery issues and delays result from the silliest of miscommunications. Communication has to be done verbally, non-verbally, written down, and supported with spreadsheets, powerpoints, and other tools.
Communication is also about listening. A great PM listens and understands what each stakeholder is telling them. And ultimately, it's making use of 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.
Soft skills are a life-long learning, but it starts with recognizing that your job is more than just keeping everyone informed. An average PM can read a schedule from a powerpoint slide out loud. A great PM goes the extra mile to ensure everyone is bought in and aligned.
NOT JUST TAKING STATUS, BUT UNPACKING AND CHALLENGING
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?"
Great PMs go beyond asking team members "What's the status of that task and when will it be done?" For one thing, team members are naturally optimistic and want to please, so they have a tendency to give an optimistic date. Moreover, in that moment when you are asking for a forecast date, they don't always think of all the sub-tasks involved that will get the task to "done".
If an activity is critical, being able to talk with a stakeholder to unpack all of the sub-steps to arriving at done is vital. This may involve asking lots of questions. "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? What happens leading up to Friday? Are there other dependencies to this work - who else is involved in the draft?"
This "Socratic method" of asking questions can be exhausting for team members, so it's important that they see you're coming from a good place. Even better, establish ground rules for the definition of done so that the team knows exactly what 'done' means and they can surface the information without anyone having to ask!
Dependencies are 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, or any other 3rd party - the risk of getting to done just went up tenfold.
We've all read stats like this one: 90% of projects go over time. Projects go over time because so many individual tasks go over time. Great PMs that work with their teams to chart the exact steps of the most critical tasks. They get a realistic picture of the road ahead and can work on how to clear that road of obstacles.
FOCUSED ON WHAT'S MOST IMPORTANT
A PM should be detail-oriented and thorough. Everything is captured and accounted for in the project plan, the work breakdown structure, the risk register, etc. But across all of that detail, great PMs are keenly aware of what the highest priorities are, and spend almost all their time on those priorities.
What are the highest priority areas? Most likely:
Anything that is not the highest priority should occupy a small sliver of their time.
Anything that is raised to them by a stakeholder should be immediately filtered: is what this person telling me among the highest priorities? If not it may just be 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.
ASSERTIVE, BUT FLEXIBLE
With so much focus on being organized and proactive, the project management profession tends to attract some rather rigid thinkers (think of ESTJs and ISTJs in Myers Briggs). This can be a good quality: it's important to be assertive about the plan, stick to the plan, and hold team members accountable to the plan.
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. This is the essence of agile!
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.
Embracing change is a competitive advantage.
A project manager sees what's happening across all aspects of the project and should have the best sense of anyone whether the project is really on track, where the bottlenecks are, what's working and what's not working.
They decide how to explain how things are going to their stakeholders. The PM could choose to shape the narrative in some way, emphasizing or downplaying some problems over others.
Maybe they will prefer to "not worry" leadership with problems and try to resolve them on their own. Maybe they know that if they highlight certain problems, leadership will demand further explanations and mitigations which will make their jobs more difficult.
Maybe they worry that exposing certain risks will reflect negatively on them, especially if their workplace is full of unrealistic expectations, intense competition, or harsh consequences for failure.
But I believe the best managers are radically honest, erring on the side of highlighting problems and risks very directly, whenever possible. If you have a hunch that something is at risk - and let's face it, on large projects, something is always at risk - state it very directly and clearly. Even if it's bad news, and even if it risks reflecting negatively on you.
Of course, you don't just point out problems, you also offer solutions. But sometimes there is no good solution. You just have to be the bearer of bad news, and that in and of itself is a valuable service you are bringing to the organization.
In the long run, you build more trust, and your project will have more success, if you are consistently radically honest.