What Project Managers Need Most: People Skills

I am a regular contributor to the mStoner blog. My post there is cross-posted here.

As we plan web redesign projects with mStoner clients, I am often asked to recommend a structure for the internal team project team. After all, we’re starting a partnership and there is complex and important work to be done. The campus leadership in place for a web relaunch project matters and we have some advice to offer. Ideally, you need everything from an informed web advisory committee to a committed and talented web team to an engaged executive sponsor.

At the start, there is enthusiasm and momentum, so why not capitalize on that by putting together the best internal team possible? During the pre-kickoff planning, we usually ask clients, “Who will be the primary contact for mStoner, the person who will serve as the campus project manager?” Besides working with us, this project manager will usually be a link between the core project team (they do the work of the website relaunch) and a project advisory committee (they review and approve the plan and recommendations). Who would you choose on your campus?

Use this rule of thumb: the individual in the project manager role needs to be positioned high enough on the organizational chart to have the credibility and respect of the campus but junior enough that he/she will dig in and help get the work done. But what else?

The project team, led by the PM, will oversee a broad range of tasks. They will review strategy recommendations. They will figure out how to gather design feedback. They will migrate content from the old site to the new one. Because of this mix of responsibilities, the ideal background for the project manager is certainly a consideration. Clients ask, “Should the PM have an editorial/content background or a technical background?” The simple answer is, “Yes. I’ve seen both work.”

I recommend that the campus choice for a PM focus on leadership ability, not a particular type of background. What matters is the people skills and the personal qualities that the individual brings to the role. So, without mincing words, here are the issues project managers wrestle with lined up with the talents needed to be effective.

The political savvy needed for:

  • handling push back and resistance to change
  • facilitating discussions and achieving consensus
  • knowing when is the right time to involve the executive sponsor
  • responding to opinions about design concepts (usually colors, fonts, photos) that are not grounded in expertise and research
  • articulating web standards and best practices to persuade naysayers
  • explaining why the website is not primarily for internal audiences and not structured like the university org chart
  • controlling scope

A love for detail in order to:

  • review information architecture and recommend adjustments
  • oversee quality assurance on all pages of the new website (e.g., all links work, all formats/styles consistent, editorial style enforced, etc.)
  • manage discrete tasks in a project plan so that you can meet your target dates

A passion for the institution that translates into:

  • hours reviewing photography and copy decks
  • time spent gathering and synthesizing opinions, preferences, and responses during design, usability testing, and soft launch
  • a commitment to building a website that meets the needs of target audiences, not internal audiences
  • action (you need a can-do kind of person) to do whatever it takes until the bitter(sweet) end

The confidence and take-charge attitude needed for:

  • assessing what needs to be done and determining how much time is available
  • assigning and monitoring work for a team of people that he/she does not formally supervise
  • reevaluating and reassigning as things change
  • reminding people about what they are supposed to be doing (with a supportive, but we’re counting on you kind of approach)

Do you agree with this rumination about managing a web project? What other characteristics come to mind for you? What would you add?

For more on my own perspective as I finished out my time as the PM for the William & Mary web redesign project, read this blast from the past: a 2008 post from the mStoner blog written during my client days. Three years have passed since this interview and I stand by nearly all I said.


Author: susantevans

Susan T. Evans is director of corporate and foundations relations at the College of William & Mary. She is a proven strategic leader with deep expertise in advancement, communications, brand management, marketing, digital strategy, technology, administration and organizational development. She is known for creative and strategic approaches to challenges within higher education, nonprofits and business.

2 thoughts on “What Project Managers Need Most: People Skills”

  1. Hi Susan,

    You’re absolutely right, project managers’ primary skill and most important one is people skills, yet very few really have it in them.

    We would like to republish your post above on PM Hut ( http://www.pmhut.com ) where many project managers will be able to benefit from it. Please either email us or contact us through the “Contact us” form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

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