What Successful Project Managers Do Differently

We tend to hear a lot about what makes a successful project manager. Organizational or communication skills, better grasp of processes, etc. Unfortunately, there’s no universal winning formula. Instead, the most successful project managers are masters of their craft because they’ve cultivated useful habits over time. But what are these habits? How do they make the best project managers stand out? Why are they important? 

In this article, we’ve summarized the best practices and skills of many experienced project managers. Without further ado, let’s learn what they do differently to succeed. 

🔑 Let the smart people be smart

Project management is a complex science. It’s not just about keeping track of tasks and due dates. There’s also the human factor to consider – that is, managing people, their knowledge, expectations, and contribution on a daily basis. 

One of the keys to being successful as a project manager is knowing your role – when to step in or back off. 

R. Nick Mullen, ​​a Project Manager in the information security space believes that truly successful project managers “let the smart people be smart”

When you’re leading a project team, it’s probably safe to assume that you are the least knowledgeable person in the room on the topic at hand. Let the smart people be smart. 

🔑 Ask questions

But that being said, admits Nick, you should also not assume that EVERYONE in the room knows what’s going on, because they don’t. 

If you have five people sitting at the table there is a good chance that three of them aren’t really sure what the other two are talking about – the best thing that you can do as a PM is to be the one willing to ask questions.

So on that topic, Nick recommends asking questions to be successful, lots of them. 

Ask “what does that mean?” and ” how will this impact us?” and “what are our other options?” Ask what will go wrong and what will go right, and what is going to keep the project on schedule and what will keep you from meeting your deadlines. This all seems really simple but the reality is that a lot of PMs don’t like doing things like this because they want to be the ones with the answers. Your job as a Project Manager is NOT to be the person with the answers – it’s to help guide the work and drive meaning from the answers the experts give.

🔑 Break down the walls between sales and delivery

Great project managers don’t build the silos walls around them. Quite the contrary, they strive to tear them down. Over the past 10 years, Nicole Tiefensee has worked as a project manager on the delivery side for several digital agencies across the globe. 

One challenge she noticed, despite the vast differences in the agencies’ offering, was the lack of synergy between the sales and delivery functions. 

All too often, I found a lack of shared vision and goals, and rarely did I experience joint accountability to deliver a project successfully, from the sales pitch to project hand-over. 

When the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing, Nicole admits, neither sales nor delivery can hit their goals and ultimately be successful.

Success measures for delivery teams have traditionally included bringing in a project on time and on budget, and making the client happy. In contrast, sales contracts are often commission-based — a successful sales manager is one who brings in sales! Naturally, this leads to the sales team trying to fill the pipeline with more and better paying work and signing on new clients fast. And sometimes, in the rush to fill the pipeline, Sales may not not be taking into account whether the work is a good fit for the agency from a strategic point of view, or whether the team has the capacity or required skills to get the job done. Source

To provide the solution to this problem, Nicole co-founded Runn together with Tim Copeland, who has worked with her on the sales side.

The lesson? Successful project managers foster transparency and collaboration! They’re willing to go to great lengths to make their clients and teams happy. 

On that note, it’s reasonable to mention another strong side of successful project managers.

They understand the power of communication, and how it can make or break a project.  

🔑 Talk to people

In project management, the perfect recipe for failure is poor communication. According to research, 57% of projects that fail do so because of the lack or breakdown in communication. 

It’s “talking to people” that helps project managers be successful, believes Alexander Stauber, a Project Lead at Payback. 

Ferenc Csizmás, a certified Project Manager who delivered 7-figure software projects globally, proves this with an example: 

One of my most successful projects was when I was tasked with delivering navigation software for a large Chinese car manufacturer. We had a lot of issues to solve, just to name a few:

– international environment with different communication style and expectations

– handling a 3rd party vendor change during the project

– time zone issues

– constantly changing environment

And how did I deal with them? Well, in addition to applying the standard PM practices, I have put an extra focus on communication and stakeholder management. During the project, I even started to learn the Chinese language, and learnt about the culture, to better understand the client’s needs. It was challenging, but it was lots of fun and a great opportunity to test and expand my skills.

Through every twist and turn of a project lifecycle, project managers must communicate effectively. And it is not just about sharing information. It is about listening to what others have to say, building consensus around an idea or plan, and then taking action.

Great project managers spend their time asking questions, listening to stakeholders, and finding the best ways to communicate with their team and the clients.

Here are three ways that successful project managers communicate:

  • They’re flexible in their channels. Communication is about connecting people, so use whatever tool gets the job done for your team. Some teams prefer in-person check-ins, while others are scattered across multiple countries and need video conferences or Slack. Find what works for you, and don’t get too caught up on the details.
  • They’re proactive communicators. The best project managers send out regular updates to keep everyone aligned on progress, upcoming tasks, and deadlines. Even if everything is going fine, a quick email to your team or stakeholders will give them peace of mind that things are on track.
  • They set clear expectations from day one. This goes beyond telling people what they’re expected to do. It also means sharing what you expect of them as a manager and a teammate. You can set these expectations in one-on-one conversations or in a group setting at your weekly meetin

🔑 Learn something new from each project

Even with the best planning in place, no two projects are ever completely alike. Every experience brings new challenges, opportunities and lessons learned to take forward in future projects. Project managers who take these lessons and apply them to future challenges are able to improve their performance. So they become better at what they do overtime.

Niki Martinez, Project Manager at Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, advises project managers to adopt the following mindset 

Our most successful projects should always be the next ones we work on. Every project is different so we hope to learn something new from each project that we can apply to the next project, making it more successful than any of the past ones.

As you become more experienced, you’ll start to recognize patterns of success. You’ll see what works and what doesn’t. The most important thing to remember is to keep an open mind and continue to learn from each project.

🔑 Build their own methodologies

In an effort to stay organized, most project managers rely on methodologies that have worked for others. Unfortunately, this approach often falls short because every project is different.

The best project managers don’t just play it by the book. Instead of relying on standard procedures, they build their own methodologies, adapting and combining existing techniques to create a framework that’s custom-tailored to their team and projects.

A methodology is a set of standards for managing a process or accomplishing an objective.  As a project manager, you’re responsible for setting the standard for how your team works together. Including how they communicate, and what processes they follow.

While there are countless methods and frameworks to choose from, the most effective project managers start with an approach that’s proven to work, then adapt it over time to fit their team’s needs. In the same way that a chef creates their own signature dishes based on tried-and-true recipes, project managers create methodologies that are custom tailored to their teams and projects.

🔑 Know their customers

Many project managers have found success understanding what drives their customers and focusing on their goals. This is especially important if you’re working with different stakeholders on a project. Simply because everyone has their own idea of what success looks like. 

Knowing your customers’ main concerns means you can take steps to ensure that these are met in the final outcome. That means knowing your customer’s industry, the current trends in that industry, and knowing how your product or service will fit into your customer’s business.

This way, good project managers make sure that they’re solving the right problem.

🔑 Maximize project profitability

At best, project managers know they need to be more than just taskmasters and delegators. They’re leaders and business people who are responsible for the profitability of their projects. That means knowing how to do more than just manage schedules. 

In the recent podcast “Projects as Profit Centers,” Oliver F. Lehmann and Cornelius Fichtner highlight this skill as necessary in businesses that are project-driven. In project businesses, they believe, every project is an investment, so it’s important to make sure they’re an asset, not a liability at the end of the day.

Note, if you want your projects to be successful, you need to understand how the following areas affects your overall returns:

  • Resources. Resources are the most important part of any project. You can have a great plan, but if you don’t have enough people with the right skills, you’ll still fail. A good project manager knows what resources will be needed and when they’ll be needed — and has the ability to make changes when the plan doesn’t work out as expected.
  • Budget. Most projects are constrained by budget limitations, so it’s critical that you keep an eye on costs at all times. That doesn’t just mean comparing what you’ve spent to what’s allocated — it also means tracking how costs change over time.

🔑 Have a firm grasp of processes

Successful project managers understand what makes a process efficient and effective, as well as how to follow them correctly. They also know when a process isn’t working and aren’t afraid to suggest changes where appropriate, while not looking for an excuse to break the rules.

Now that we’ve described ten things that make project managers succeed in their roles, what would you add or remove from this list? What is a no-brainer, or maybe a revelation? Let’s start a discussion in the comments below!


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

May 3, 2022 at 7:04 PM

Great article!

November 30, 2022 at 5:21 AM

This was a great read. I especially enjoyed the point where you create your own frame work depending on the project. This is very important. Thank you.

December 20, 2022 at 1:26 PM

Iryna, In my project management journey, I have also felt that assigning “roles and responsibilities” plays a crucial part in the project. Especially when the project is agile and project team is big.

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