Approaching Perfection in a Project Manager

A Love Letter to the Best Project Managers I Know

Project Manager is title which covers all manner of job descriptions. It can mean so many different things to so many different businesses so finding the right person must be a nightmare for recruiters. Depending on the industry, Project Managers are often expected to be highly technical and experienced in niche functions. Be it IT, software design, construction, nuclear, finance, mechanical/electrical, medical, not-for-profit, events, infrastructure; whatever the industry, there is no doubt that having a specialism in the field is an enormous bonus. But is it enough to make someone a good Project Manager? Is it even essential? What does approaching perfection in a Project Manager look like?

The Right People for the Job

As per the company mantra, we believe Project Management is most successful when it strikes the right balance between art and science. That doesn’t necessarily mean the science of the industry you are in, rather the science of project management. Taking on a Project Manager purely BECAUSE they have good technical industry knowledge can be disastrous. My hairdresser knows more about the technicalities of hair treatments, styling, cuts and colours than I could hope to understand in a lifetime. However I wouldn’t necessarily ask her to manage the fitout of a hair salon. I have witnessed the realities of appointing technical experts as Project Managers and it does not always result in a successful project. In my opinion, being an expert in their field does not necessarily make someone a good Project Manager. Project Management is a profession in itself.

Project Management Professionals

I have been fortunate to have worked with some incredibly inspiring Project Managers. These are people who I would confidently appoint to project manage the Olympics, a new housing development, the planting of a vegetable patch or a space mission. Their project management skills traverse industry boundaries. What makes them great is not their technical knowledge of a specific industry. Instead, it is their technical knowledge of project management, their people skills AND their ability to adapt. It is from these people (you know who you are), that I have shamelessly compiled my wish list for the perfect Project Manager.

The Building Blocks of the Perfect Project Manager
How to Build the Perfect Project Manager
Understanding Methodologies and Project Controls

In the first instance, being systematic and methodical is essential when visualising the project lifecycle. There are plenty of Project Management methodologies, some of which are prescriptive and some of which are based on principles. A good understanding of them all means a Project Manager can apply the most relevant ones to the project at hand. Similarly, a working knowledge of project controls such as programmes, budgets, resource plans, risk registers, health and safety requirements and contract clauses is unique to the job description. There really is a scientific bent to Project Management and so knowing the tools of the trade is invaluable. Knowing when NOT to use them is also invaluable.

Being Pragmatic

Apologies, ‘pragmatic’ is possibly the most overused word in the corporate world, but it really does describe one of my most valued Project Management attributes. Project Managers need to be realistic, assess all available options and advance the most practical solutions. Ideology really has no place in Project Management although the advancement of big changes sometimes brings out some weird and wacky ideas in certain clients. A good Project Manager will be able to sort the noise from the reality.

Crisis Managers

This one is definitely part of the art of Project Management! Despite the best possible planning, things go wrong, always. When I think back to the most unexpected curve balls I’ve experienced, I can also identify the most heroic Project Managers. They are dependable, calm, able to prioritise the most important factors and able to MAKE DECISIONS. They can coordinate stakeholders, identify dependencies and envisage likely outcomes. I’m not entirely convinced crisis management can really be taught without witnessing and participating in a few crises. The collective experience of these people is Project Management gold.

Approachable and Empathetic

There’s no getting away from it, good Project Managers need the right people around them. Projects are complex. They are a battle between numerous forces, and they involve stakeholders with infinite different priorities. Project Managers need to listen and need to understand people. A good Project Manager understands the value of relationships and what people need to perform at their best. Whereas other functional managers have the luxury of building teams and developing trust over time, Project Managers are often given no choice over who they work with and little time to connect with them. The Project Managers who really stand out understand that the most valuable project resources are people.


This one might be a bit controversial but it’s my list and I stand by it. I have known really great Project Managers who are akin to mad scientists. They are brilliant and charismatic, but they are also disorganised, chaotic and messy. Great Project Managers are strategic, and this very often means they are methodical about how to get from point A to point B. Whilst administration may not be a priority for some (or many!) Project Managers, the cream of the crop are organised. They know what needs to be done, how and when. They can communicate it clearly to their team and they can communicate it clearly to their Clients…in detail!

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is approaching perfection in a Project Manager. Tell us what attributes you value most in a Project Manager.

2 thoughts on “Approaching Perfection in a Project Manager

  1. Mike Eason

    This is fascinating and really incisive.
    It does also highlight those areas of project management that I am lacking. That said I also believe that knowing your own strengths and especially weaknesses ensures you look for the best support. I also believe that assessing your teams strengths and weaknesses and filling in where they struggle makes for better management and allows them to learn without feeling pressurised

    1. Lis Barnard Post author

      Hi Mike, whilst I’m not sure you are lacking in any of these areas, we are none of us perfect! I totally agree that self-awareness is key. So much of project management is about finding information, knowing who to ask, knowing who can help. When we try to do it all ourselves we regress from Project Managers to control freaks. Speaking of self-awareness and identifying weaknesses…there’s one of mine 😉

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