The Subtle Personality Traits of a Great Technical Project Manager
We all know the skills of a good project manager – organization, process-focused, diligent – pretty much everything mentioned in any project management book or training. What’s less covered, though, are the personality traits of an amazing project manager. Some studies have tried to isolate some of the key personality traits, but most of the conclusions I’ve seen are too generic and too tightly coupled to established personality frameworks (MBTI, Big Five, etc) to be applicable in a technical project management context. It shouldn’t be a surprise that organized individuals make good project managers 🙂 So what are the more nuanced, specific personality traits that make for the best technical project managers.
In the last 10 years, I’ve worked under project managers as a lead developer, side-by-side client project managers as the technical PM of our development teams, and hired and led technical project managers. The following personality traits are the ones I’ve seen predict a project manager’s success.
It’s obvious that a project manager must be accountable for the project, but some take this responsibility lightly. They’re excited to be labeled accountable when things are going right, but will often find excuses when things become challenging. I’ve seen PMs, especially junior PMs or those who operate in stressful environments with unrealistic expectations, blame their team members under the bus when a deadline was missed or a feature failed, or someone dropped the ball. These are the times when it is most essential for project managers who stand up and own the fact that they didn’t manage the project. An amazing project manager is not only accountable for their own performance but those of the team. It’s difficult, but owning the project means being accountable for all constituent parts, players and processes – especially when things go wrong. It’s tough to inherit the responsibility for your whole team, but that’s the job of a project manager.
Predictively plan for roadblocks
Obviously it’s impossible to determine what exactly will go wrong in a project. It is possible, however, to rehearse what could go wrong to prepare contingency plans and redundancies. After managing a few projects with a team or within a vertical, you come to know the potential pitfalls or weak links to be aware of. The best way I’ve learned to prepare my teams for roadblocks is to first identify the most crucial components, and then pretend that the key stakeholder or team member responsible for actioning that component just quits. How would the project continue without the key person involved in that step? Other examples of hurdles to plan for are legal & compliance, external approvals, or dependence on third-party partnerships.
Charisma that matches the culture
So much attention is paid in psychology to introversion and extroversion as a personality measure. I don’t think either of these has much influence on a PM’s success; charisma that matches a team’s culture is much more important. By charisma, I mean a personality that members of the team find compelling. It is difficult to motivate, communicate, and inspire a team in those tough times if your personality isn’t simpatico with the team you’re leading. Leading a tight team of data scientists who prefer to keep to themselves while grinding on math you couldn’t possibly understand is much different than leading a large team of junior developers who like to banter and discuss the latest episode of their favorite TV show. Having a personality that not only matches the team but is inviting to the team, is essential in the rough times.
Authority that stops just shy of annoying
Being a technical project manager means being responsible to the business, which means keeping personnel and processes on track. In today’s often lax work environments, having tough discussions about performance is difficult, but it’s still vitally necessary for a project’s success. If an employee is “working” from home but not delivering, or someone spends more time on Reddit than they do in an IDE, there needs to be an honest discussion. Annoying micromanagement is not the goal, but establishing regular check-ins, tracking time, objectively measuring progress, and constructively addressing underperformance (by creating personal improvement plans and working collaboratively to meet that improvement) is vital. The project manager is there to provide structured processes to meet a business goal; it’s essential that they exercise the authority to meet that expectation.
Don’t settle for someone who merely calls themselves a project manager
Unfortunately, the role of a project manager has been muddied to mean anyone who manages JIRA and conducts weekly meetings. Most project managers we encounter are not project managers; they are merely the most senior developer of a team or someone with decent organizational skills. A true, effective project manager is much more than that, and the differentiators outlined above help define the outstanding PMs that are required to launch extremely complicated technical projects on time, in budget, and with expected quality. When time, money, and delivery matter, make sure you’re working with the best project managers.