14 Project Management Skills to Look for in a Hire

Grace Pinegar
Grace Pinegar  |  October 30, 2018

I have lived in the same, albeit developing, body and mind for 25 years now, and I still manage to freeze any time an interviewer asks me to talk about my strengths and skills.

It can be hard to talk about yourself, to really sell what you’re good at and hope a decision-maker is willing to buy it. Can we even know what we’re best at? Or do we give an answer that reflects what we wish we were best at?

Whichever it is, it’s important that we understand and can openly discuss the things we’re good at. Not only for our confidence, but also for self-actualization and understanding. Knowing what we’re good at helps us find our rightful fit in this world.

It’s why we study love languages and Enneagram tests; we’re obsessed with knowing ourselves better.

Project management is one of those roles that requires a supremely self-aware persona. The role cannot be done by anyone, and, therefore, requires candidates who know much about themselves and are able to communicate it.

If you’re looking to hire a project manager, but aren’t quite sure what to look for, or if you’re aspiring to become a project manager, but aren’t sure which skills to hone, settle in.

In this article, we’re going to discuss the ideal skills associated with a project manager to help those in the industry either determine what to look for or what to become. 

Project management skills

In an effort to help you better grasp the concept of project management as a whole, I’ve previously written an article about project management

This content explains the ins and outs of project management, such as the definition of a project lifecycle and a rundown of project management software.

More importantly, it gives readers an introduction into the top skills necessary to have in any person who is managing a project. While only seven characteristics appear in the original article, I’ve included more here in the hopes that it will help hiring managers, or other professionals in their quest, to appoint or become project managers.

The following are important professional and personal characteristics to look for or develop in an individual before putting them in charge of your company’s projects.

Organization

Can you imagine a scatterbrained person trying to coordinate every aspect of a corporate-level project? Not that there’s anything wrong with scatterbrains – I myself am part of that club. But in order to properly manage a project, a person should have excellent organizational skills.

They should be more than someone who keeps a daily planner, but who keeps a daily planner that is color coordinated by task and level of importance. This type of organization will keep your team and its tasks running smoothly. An organized individual responds to emails on time, keeps deadlines, and has checklists for most everything.

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If you’re going to choose a project manager, be sure you understand their organizational talents. What are some examples of a time they needed to stay really on top of a project or event?

Delegation and task management

Another aspect of project management is the ability to know who is best at what. In the event of a school project, this might mean asking who is the best at numbers versus who could come up with a creative project title.

In the professional world, this means knowing your employees and how to read people. Many projects fail simply because they were tasked to the wrong person or group.

Everyone wants to feel known and heard – an excellent project manager knows how to assign tasks in a way that best uses their team’s talents. A lot of companies might take the mindset that their teams should happily accept whatever assignments they are given.

While this may work for them, it often fails. Employees are stuck doing jobs they don’t want to do while feeling their talents are being wasted. For this reason, look for or try to be the project manager who knows how to properly delegate aspects of a project by personality or talent.

If your team is struggling with task management, consider some training or extra research on How to Prioritize at Work

Strategy

A good project manager knows how to choose the best strategy for your company, the project, and all those involved. Strategy is similar to delegation in that it requires a discerning person who knows how to read a room.

What is a team good at? What would they be capable of with the right guidance and leadership? What would absolutely drive them crazy and make the whole team miserable?

For example, as a creative, I would get a huge headache trying to work off of a Gantt or PERT chart. No offense to engineers, but I need something more intuitive. Project management methodology shouldn’t serve as a challenge in and of itself.

When deciding on a project manager, ask what their strategy would be and why. They don’t have to have every detail planned out, but it would help if they had some critical analysis behind their answer.

For a closer look at two of the most common strategies, read Project Management Strategies: Comparing Agile and Waterfall

Communication

Project managers wear a lot of hats, one being the head communicator. They are speaking to everyone. They communicate with every manager involved in the project, including every employee, those higher up at the company, and anyone external to the organization that might be partnering with your company to accomplish this project.

For this reason, project managers have to be excellent communicators. This job isn’t for the person whose email inbox stays bogged down for days or speaks in circles looking for what they mean. They should be a quick responder who is able to state the point they are trying to communicate concisely.

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Communication is an issue at many companies. We don’t say what we mean, and we’re afraid of stepping on toes. When it comes to project management, there’s no time for this apprehension.

If something has changed, an employee has missed a due date, or the designs aren’t at all like the approved drafts, the project manager needs to be able to professionally communicate the situation to other employees or those in leadership.

When looking for someone to manage a project, ask yourself who really gets the point across the first time. Who is someone people listen to, and why?

Leadership

As a project manager, a lot of people will look to you for answers, guidance, or solutions. Project managers should exhibit, among other things, strong leadership qualities.

By this, I mean your manager should be someone who can command attention easily. They should be well respected by others at your company, as well as by external stakeholders and participants. Project managers retain a certain level of authority over their colleagues.

For this reason, you have to ensure they are someone others will listen to. Without respect, your project will remain at a standstill with employees who don’t want to take orders or don’t take the orders well. Some employees are natural leaders. Others have the potential to lead after some coaching.

If you have the perfect, organized communicator on your team, but you doubt their leadership abilities, consider putting them on as project manager with the knowledge that you’ll have to coach them through a lot of the stages.

If you don’t want to deal with the potential risks of bringing a brand new project manager on the team, go with someone whose leadership skills have already shown themselves. You know your company, and you know who its employees will be most likely to listen to.

Negotiation

While this is never the hope, projects can sometimes get rough. Maybe the price you were quoted on doesn’t align with the final invoice. Maybe a graphic design team isn’t getting images back to you by the times you agreed upon.

Whatever the issue is, project managers need to be able to negotiate a solution. This characteristic is adjacent to leadership and communication skills. While they’re not identical, you often see all of these features within the same person.

Before hiring a project manager, consider how you think they would react in a time of crisis. Ask them how they have previously reacted in times of crises. Were they ever at risk of not getting their way, only to find a satisfying compromise for both parties?

Negotiation is challenging, and not many people want to do it. It can feel a lot like arguing with other professionals, which I myself have no interest in. But a great project manager knows how to find the middle ground between various parties or even between teams working for the same company.

Although we’re all adults who would like to believe our age deems us immune from drama, complications always arises. When something does happen, you want to be sure you’ve hired a project manager who can help get you out of the hole as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Risk prediction and management

Risk management is the process of forecasting any financial risks that might occur before they become a reality. In addition to forecasting these issues, risk management includes coming up with potential solutions to help avoid or minimize their impacts.

A good project manager is, you guessed it, skilled at risk management. With many project methodologies, you truly don’t know where a project is going to go until you’re in the thick of it.

Consider agile, for example. With such an emphasis placed on flexibility, it is incredibly easy to go over budget or time trying to reroute and fix aspects that didn’t work out the first time.

Risk management strategies are a great way to ensure you have the capacity to recover from things that haven’t happened yet. By forecasting troubles and readying your company for anything, you’re able to solve problems before they happen.

Risk management does not necessarily have to be narrowed down to financial trouble. Especially as a project manager, much of your team’s success depends on its ability to meet due dates.

One risk management strategy might be presenting each due date as a week earlier than it actually needs to be, ensuring the team works hard to meet it, but allowing for some emergency circumstances. If you’re in the process of choosing a project manager, ask candidates about their risk management strategies.

In what situations have they had to solve problems before they made themselves fully known? Were those solutions successful? Consider the specific types of problems that might arise in relation to your project. No two projects are identical and neither are the risk management strategies.

Scheduling

Scheduling goes beyond delegation and task management. Scheduling includes payment and billing scheduling, due date scheduling, meeting scheduling, and more. A quality project manager should exhibit excellent scheduling skills.

Scheduling is important. Other people rely on you to meet your deadlines. This is especially true if your team is contracted for projects. A quality project manager will make sure all clients are delivered work on time and in a quality manner.

These individuals should be able to juggle multiple calendars with tactics like color-coding and prioritization labels. They should be able to multi-task and should not be stressed by the idea of keeping track of multiple projects or assignments at once.

Cost management

We’ve spoken before about how easy and detrimental it is to go over budget. Exceeding your team’s budget can not only throw off the project at hand, but affect your team and company for the rest of the fiscal year. This is why cost management is of the utmost importance in a project manager.

Cost management basically means the individual is a skilled budgeter. This ensures the team stays under cost while delivering a high-quality product or service.

Some costs to consider throughout the duration of a project are supplies, human resources – such as contractors or freelancers, equipment or space, and any payments that may need to be made should the job require more work than originally anticipated.

It’s important to hire a project manager who is skilled at cost analysis and management because they’ll keep your business above water.

Critical analysis

If you had to take standardized tests in grade school, you remember the emphasis placed on being a critical thinker. It meant you had the ability to arrive at the best conclusion with the information you had. As a project manager, this skill not only comes in handy, but is necessary.

Project managers will have questions of budget, due dates, task delegation, scheduling, risk management, and more. They are required to make decisions day in and day out.

Essentially, you want a good decision-maker on your side. Someone who isn’t too irrational and takes all information into consideration before jumping to conclusions. You want someone who weighs all of their options and, nine times out of 10, is able to choose the best one.

Relational

This skill is quite underrated, and sometimes ignored, in many companies. However, it’s extremely important that project managers are also good people managers. Think about it.

Project managers are dealing with people on the daily. They’re a point of contact for their entire team, as well as other teams involved in that project. They’re also the point of contact for external participants.

If there’s an altercation or a dilemma, that goes to the project manager. If two team members disagree on the best way to complete an assignment, the project manager has final say.

For all of these reasons, it’s important for a project manager to be likable and good at managing a team. They should command respect and capture the entire team’s attention.

Problem-solving

This skill is related to critical analysis in that it deals with an individual’s decision-making abilities. However, this particular skill refers to a manager’s reaction in a time of conflict.

When large groups of people work together, there’s the possibility for butting heads or for disaster to strike in the form of a contract breach or going over budget. These scenarios require a manager to have decent problem-solving skills. They should be comfortable being the employee others come to when things go wrong.

Coaching

Different from leadership, coaching deals particularly with the way a manager interacts with and teaches their team. Coaching is a form of helping people come to the best decisions on their own by providing the tools to get there.

A good project manager is able to raise their team up by challenging its critical thinking skills, creating a more analytical team.

Meeting management

We’ve all sat in a chaotic meeting room and wished we had a gavel and powdered wig to empower us while screaming, “Order! Order in the court!” Project managers are people who know how to take control over a room without the title of honorable judge.

They’re skilled at scheduling meetings effectively and making the best use of their team’s time, as well as maintaining attention. They’re also skilled at making sure the meeting stays on task and answers the necessary questions.

We’ve already discussed exceptional scheduling abilities – these come in to play when discussing meeting management. When you hire or choose a project manager, make sure you understand their experience managing and influencing meetings.

Hiring a project manager

These are a lot of characteristics. Can one person truly embody all of them? Maybe, maybe not. The truth is, no person nor project will ever be perfect.

When looking for a project manager, start by making a list of the above features – which are the most important and valuable to you? Shortlist some of the skills mentioned above and consider those your must-haves.

If a candidate has extras, that’s great! Looking for someone who embodies every single one of them might limit your choices, as well as elongate the hiring process. By choosing the ones you know you can’t do without, you’re able to quickly gather a decent sized group of candidates for interviewing and potential hiring.

Internal candidates

If you’re looking to choose a project manager from within your team, you probably already have a good idea of your employees’ strengths and weaknesses.

For example, you might know Janet frequently misses due dates, but turns in incredibly detailed work. Or perhaps Eleanor is organized, but often fails to factor in potential emergencies.

If your team has made it difficult to choose a project manager, that’s a good problem to have.

Consider sitting down with different employees at various times, discuss whether they’d be interested in the opportunity, and ask if they’d be willing to challenge themselves in certain areas so as to keep up with the role.

External candidates

If you’re looking to hire a project manager from a pool of external candidates, you have a slightly different challenge. In the short amount of time you have to get to know someone during an interview, you must glean whether they possess these qualities.

A good way to accomplish this is by asking your candidates to come prepared with visual examples. In the same way a sales candidate would provide their quarterly numbers, ask a project manager candidate to provide some samples of their completed projects.

This offers a verbal explanation of the project and allows you to see the impact they’ve had in the past.

Final solutions

In this article, we’ve talked a lot about what to look for in a project manager. However, I would be remiss not to mention the options you have for developing a stronger project management strategy within your company as a whole.

For one, you can use our learn website as a perpetually updating resource on the latest and best practices for project management and other business problems.

For two, you can use G2 Crowd’s project management software to help pick out the best software solution for your team. I also urge you to check out our the  21 best free project management software solutions for 2018. 

A software solution takes much of the burden off of your team by automating tasks, such as scheduling and due dates. It provides transparency in the overall progress of a project, as well as generates reports on individual performance.

In short, a software solution can help take your team from indecisive to indestructible.

So, next time you’re in an interview, go ahead – talk about yourself. There are only good things to say.

Grace Pinegar
Author

Grace Pinegar

Grace Pinegar is a lifelong storyteller with an extensive background in various forms such as acting, journalism, improv, research, and now content marketing. She was raised in Texas, educated in Missouri, and has come to tolerate, if not enjoy, the opposition of Chicago's seasons.