project manager skills

3 Essential Skills for New Project Managers

Being a new manager is a BIG challenge.

In my first project management role, I was thrown into the deep end, with no preparation and very little support.  It wasn’t pretty, but I figured out which skills were crucial to managing both the people and the work.  And I bootstrapped my way into effective processes and procedures.

But I wish I’d known just a little bit of what I know now.  

Since that first management gig, I’ve led dozens of teams and hundreds of projects.  And I’ve learned that there are three main areas that require the most skill and attention from managers.  

Keeping your focus trained on these areas will make your projects run better and your team work more productively — while keeping your own stress levels within reasonable limits.

1. Communicating Clearly and Often

As a human being working with other human beings, good communication is vital.  You should always strive to keep lines of communication open, adjust your message to your audience, and listen carefully to feedback and responses.

The ideal communications will be clear and relevant, and they’ll provoke the desired response from your audience. Consider the following questions before you send that email or address your team:

  • What is the main purpose of the communication?
  • What are the 1-3 key messages to convey?
  • What do you want the receiver to think, feel, and do as a result of the communication?
  • How will you measure the effectiveness of the communication?  In other words, how will you know if it has been successful?

It’s no accident that the best managers and leaders are also the best communicators.  When you prioritize communication, you’ll build a stronger, more motivated team and create the conditions for delivering successful project outcomes.

2. Building Strong Relationships

Fostering good relationships with your team, colleagues, stakeholders, and clients enables you to call on the support and resources you’ll need to do your best work.

Take time to get to know your team and stakeholders personally, so you can understand their perspectives and you can serve them better:

  • Get to know what is important in their lives and work
  • Develop a relationship where they can be open with you
  • Routinely solicit feedback from your team
  • Respond quickly to stakeholder questions and concerns
  • Communicate using facts and examples so they can relate to the information you’ve provided
  • Maintain an open door policy, so your team and stakeholders can connect with you when they need you

This will help you build powerful teams with a shared vision, where everyone can respect, trust, and depend on one another. That makes for better team function, better project outcomes, and a better working environment for everyone (including you).

3. Enabling Others

Rather than monitoring and micromanaging, the best managers create environments in which their teams can be successful — and then they trust their teams to perform well. 

Your first priority as a manager, then, is to enable your team to do their best work.

  1. Begin by conducting a SWOT analysis of how the team is working right now — including their pain points, the barriers and challenges they face, and their most pressing concerns.
  2. Then get perspective from seniors leaders, colleagues, and others in the organization. What do they see as the barriers to your team’s success? What do they need from your team to be successful? What problems do they hope you can solve quickly for your team? 
  3. Finally, prioritize. Take some time to identify:
    • Quick wins that can help alleviate stress or give your team space to do the work that they need to do 
    • What your team needs from YOU in order to be most effective
    • The changes or interventions that will make the biggest difference in your team’s experience and performance

You’ll likely discover some fast, easy changes that can make an immediate impact. You’ll also find that some necessary changes will require more sustained time and attention from you.  And you’ll probably also identify some changes that require buy-in or support from other teams, managers, or senior leaders.

Once you’re clear on what your team needs to succeed, you can set goals and create a plan to make it happen.

* * *

New managers are often tempted to focus first on deadlines, deliverables, and key performance indicators, since those are the most urgent and concrete measures of their success. But their ability to deliver in each of those areas is highly dependent on the skills I’ve outlined here — communicating clearly, building strong relationships, and enabling others.  

These are the core competencies for successful managers. Without a consistent focus on these areas, new managers often end up feeling like every project and deadline is dependent on their personal force of will and ability to drive results. At best, this is exhausting.  At worse, it sets managers up for burnout and the project up for failure.

In contrast, when you focus your attention on communication, relationships, and enablement, you’ll be able to rely on your team and your colleagues to support your progress.  Moreover, you’ll be able to trust your team to manage their own time, work, and deadlines — which removes a big burden from your shoulders. And maybe it will even be fun 😉

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