Over the past few years, I have spoken to students at multiple universities on a variety of topics related to their future careers. One school where I have guest-lectured many times is Clemson University. My focus at Clemson has been on students in the Nieri Family Department of Construction Science and Management, specifically those who are only a few weeks away from graduation.
Dr. Dennis Bausman is one of the tenured professors in that program. I have known Dennis since 1986, when as a new college graduate myself, I went to work at a divisional office of a company where he was then a young executive. He now regularly invites me to speak to his students while allowing me to select the topic I feel would be of interest and value to these future professionals. Recently, he asked me to speak to his Project Management class. Of course, I wanted to speak on the topic of Project Management, so I decided I would title my presentation, “The Excellent Project Manager.” My plan was to determine the qualities and attributes of an excellent Project Manager, then share my wisdom with these eager young minds.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the fallacy of that idea. Once I started to put together my list of qualities and attributes, I realized I was working in a vacuum, drawing purely on my perspectives and opinions. It occurred to me that I should turn this into a research project.
When considering an excellent Project Manager, I was interested in two aspects of this individual. First, I wanted to understand the identifying markers of the excellent Project Manager. More specific, if one were to label a Project Manager as excellent, what are the traits one would cite to justify the label of excellent. Second, I wanted to understand what attributes or skills one needed to either possess or master to become an excellent Project Manager. Specifically, if an individual were to ask what skills or attributes they must acquire or learn to become an excellent Project Manager, how would I respond to that question.
I decided to reach out to a small but diverse group of managers, ranging in experience levels from only three years graduated to veterans with over 40 years of experience. In addition, everyone I surveyed was either presently working as a Project Manager or had been a Project Manager during their career. About half were also currently managing Project Managers. I then asked participants to give me their top five identifying markers, and top five attributes, of an excellent Project Manager. I did not give them suggestions or a list from which to choose, understanding I would possibly receive in return a mix of answers. I further suggested they not respond with their immediate or gut reactions but take their time and give thought to the answers, considering multiple answers to determine their best responses. Each participant was given two weeks to complete their assignment.
Since the survey group was small, I had conversations with many of the participants during their response time. Practically every participant gave me two similar pieces of feedback. First, they found the task much more difficult than they initially expected. As they considered their answers, they struggled not with their answers, but with determining which identifying markers and attributes were the most important to vault a Project Manager into the realm of excellence. Second, the participants found their responses and opinions often changed from their initial reactions to what were their final responses. Regardless, I did receive a 100 percent rate of response.
Loaded with the data, it became an exercise to analyze the responses, and attempt to determine if there existed a level of consistency in the responses. Fortunately, there was. In both categories, there was a clear number one response. In fact, there were five or six top responses in each category. However, for brevity of this article, we will only focus on the top response for each.
What does it take to be considered an Excellent Project Manager?
For the category of identifying markers of an excellent Project Manager, the clear top response was “A Team Player or Team Leader.” It was clear the survey participants valued an individual’s ability to work with others as a necessary element of being a successful Project Manager. To support their positions, participants cited examples including the ability to work well in team environments, to motivate other team members, to be a teacher to others on the team, and the capacity to allow other team members to succeed. One of the veteran participants stated he even asks all potential hires if they participated in team activities or team sports as a youth to gauge their experience and ability to work within team environments. Given the high level of team involvement required for successful management in design and construction, it makes sense that one must be a team player or a team leader to be considered an excellent Project Manager. What this survey demonstrated was that we in management consider it the most important marker.
For the category of the attributes and skill sets of an Excellent Project Manager, the overwhelming top response was “Excellent Communication Skills.” The survey participants across the board cited the ability to communicate with a diverse group of individuals within a variety of situations was necessary for one to succeed at Project Management. They cited the ability to listen well, to take a complex situation and break it down into an easily understandable subject, and to foster an environment of communication among their teams. Many also noted that both verbal and written communication skills were necessary, as well as the ability to determine which is necessary at any instance.
I found the results of this research highly interesting and was excited to present my findings to the Clemson students, many of whom would soon be young managers for some of the best construction firms in our region. While making my presentation, I found myself becoming more and more passionate about the subject matter. As a final slide, I listed a summary of each of the top five identifying markers and top five traits of an excellent Project Manager. When this slide was revealed, I told the students that although I typically would not instruct my audience to take notes of my presentations, I suggested each one of them record these identifying markers and traits. “This information,” I said, “is golden, and should be a blueprint for how you mature as a manager.” Immediately, every young man and woman began to write down the points or take a picture of the slide. When we opened the floor to questions, I received a barrage of questions and comments not typically found from a group of college seniors. It was one of the greatest responses I have ever received from a lecture I have given to university students.
My takeaway from this exercise is clear. For individuals to be considered as an excellent Project Manager in the design and construction industry, they must be a strong team player and consistently work well within a team environment. Ultimately, they should also strive to become a team leader. In addition, they must possess excellent communication skills, as well as the ability to communicate with a diverse group of individuals clearly and succinctly in a variety of situations. While there are certainly other identifying markers and traits that are valuable and important, these two are necessary to achieve the level of excellence in Project Management.
About the Author – Brian T. King is the Founder and President of A M King, a Design-Build firm that provides multiple services required of highly complex facilities in niche markets throughout the United States. To connect with Brian and gain more of his insights, visit www.briantking.com.