There are certain skills that are going to give you the upper hand in every job role – and project management is no different. In fact, there's a collection of specific skills that, if acquired, will make any project manager's life significantly easier, and projects more successful.
Even the most skilled project managers need a helping hand, however – which is why project management software has become so sought after. According to Stanford University, 27% of all days worked are now worked from home. Having a digital space to track to collaborate – as well as the skills to ensure a hybrid team is ticking along – have never been more essential.
Along with useful software well-honed management skills are core to any project in 2023. So, in this guide, we cover seven skills that any great project manager will need. Seeing a complex project through to completion is no small feat.
7 Essential Project Management Skills
Project management doesn't consist of one particular skill set. There are many different skills that can elevate someone's performance as a project manager.
While there are countless skills and traits that can lend themselves to project management, some are more valuable than others. Here are seven of the most crucial project management skills:
Rarely has there ever been a project without at least a vague deadline. Everything worth finishing needs to be completed in a somewhat timely manner, and falling too far behind the deadline can kill a project's momentum.
46% of team leaders claim that hitting deadlines is their second biggest problem, and – possibly as a result of this – time tracking is the second most popular feature of project management software. Still, while time tracking is hugely useful, the ability to mentally map out deadlines and timelines for your projects cannot be undervalued.
Any reasonably sized project is going to be done in chunks, so the ability to sort these chunks, estimate their necessary time resource, and keep yourself and your team on track to hit set deadlines is a great skill.
Alex Mastin, Founder and CEO of Home Grounds, and experienced project manager has this advice: “Every project has a deadline, and each task within the project also has a deadline. The project manager needs to have excellent time management in order to keep the project running smoothly and on time. It is often up to the project manager to create a timeline and make sure the whole team is working to meet deadlines throughout the entire process.”
“Breaks are as important for the team as the working hours are, and therefore it is important to understand how your team functions before you make any time management decisions.”
How to improve your time management
Working on this skill is easy, and can be done in your free time. Even the most everyday tasks like cooking or reading chapters of a book can be looked at through a lens of time management, and practicing keeping to certain time frames in these contexts will improve that skill for your project management needs.
In the context of managing a project, implementing a methodology like Kanban or Scrumban will help you become more efficient with your time.
Any project of a significant scale will be handled by a team, and any team needs smooth communication between members and leaders in order to function at peak performance. Poor communication has been reported to lead to project failure around 30% of the time, while well-connected teams see a productivity increase of around 25%.
Communication is a tough nut to crack for even the most sociable and personable folks. No matter how you word things, you can never be 100% sure if the person you're talking to truly understands what you're trying to convey.
Here's what project manager Andrei Kurtuy, Co-founder and CCO of Novorésumé, has to communicate: “To keep a project running successfully, stakeholders and clients must maintain continuous and effective communication, and new changes must be conveyed to team members to avoid ‘surprise assaults.'
“As a project manager, the most important thing you can do is make sure that the lines of communication between you and your team members are constantly open, so that anyone may approach you without hesitation.
“Project failure is frequently caused by ineffective communication. As a result, you'll want to ensure that everyone gets the information they need to make decisions and move forward with the project. Project status reports are a good method to keep everyone informed about new advances in a project and keep everyone on the same page.”
How to improve your communication
As difficult as mastering communication can be, there are still some easy ways to address communication failures at work, and they don't have to involve you yourself improving your language skills. Firstly, make sure there are consistent meetings, such as premortems, retros, and standups. While meetings can feel like they disrupt the pace of a day, they're good ways for teams to communicate issues or obstacles, and to get feedback on how they should go about addressing those problems.
One of the best ways to ensure that your project management process has optimal communication is to use the various tools that come packaged with project management software. These include:
- Tracked updates: Any change to the larger project or to a smaller task will be broadcast to all affected parties, ensuring that everyone is aware of any changes that might impact their personal work pipeline
- Project history: A broader summation of all the progress made so far, including who's done what, and when it was turned in
- Periodic reports: Reports that come in every day or week that include a breakdown of the project's progress, highlighting any tasks that are falling behind schedule
- Dashboards: Places to view real-time updates, like the overall trajectory of the project, or possible future communication errors
Of the skills on this list, humor is possibly the hardest one to cultivate. In fact, some say it's genetic, so working on it can be tricky. However, having a sense of humor isn't just the ability to tell knee-slapping one-liners. A sense of humor can also be your capacity to keep the mood light and the spirits high, especially when things aren't going as planned.
91% of US executives consider a sense of humor to be pivotal in their career progression and industry as a whole, with 84% stating that they believed funny people to be more effective workers. Humor is a massive stress reliever, so reassurance from a manager in the form of a joke or a laugh can really take a load off.
It's not always the right time for jokes, of course. If someone makes an error, gentle reassurance may be more appropriate than a sarcastic quip, however well-meaning the quip may be. Either way, keeping a light-hearted and friendly attitude will be hugely beneficial to your team's communication and to the project as a whole.
Using humor to improve your team morale
Showing you have a sense of humor can have a dual benefit. Not only does it make you, the project manager and team leader, a more approachable person (which will ensure your team is honest with you) – but it's also the kind of thing that'll get the people working around you up in the morning.
Crucially, it signals to people you work with that you enjoy being in the same space as them. If you're working in a fast-paced environment you've got to ensure there are times within the day/week when you can have a little bit of fun.
A good example of this is starting your day/week with a “standup” – an informal meeting designed to promote casual chatter about each team member's weekends and kick off the week on a positive. Of course, these sorts of meetings shouldn't occur at the expense of genuinely necessary work-related updates – but they're important to fostering team cohesion.
It's an unfortunate truth that any project taking place over an extended period of time is going to have its highs and lows. It can be very easy to let emotions overcome you when it comes to things like deadlines, important clients, and recurring issues.
However, keeping a cool head and level emotions is critical in making sure that one problem doesn't send the entire project into a nosedive. In fact, it might just be the most crucial ability, as over 90% of top performers were found to be skilled at managing their emotions in times of crisis.
However, just as it's one of the most important skills, it's also one of the hardest to cultivate. It's so easy to let a small slip-up convince you that the whole project's going wrong, leaving you in a state of paralysis. But there are ways around this.
How to improve your patience
Like most other skills on this list, improved patience is helpful not just for project management, but also in life in general. Reminding yourself that an event is not the end of the world, taking 10 seconds to respond to something rather than going with your emotions, or even attending regular meditation or mindfulness sessions can all greatly help you improve your patience and control your reactive impulses.
Something to know before starting any plan (not just in a project management sense, but in a broader life sense) is that an infinite number of things can go wrong. Having the fortitude and mental strength to recover and react to problems is key. It's no secret that New Year's resolutions don't really work, with around 90% of people saying that they expect to drop their resolutions within 3 months of creation.
When a new project or goal is dropped into our lives, the following few days are very exciting. Unless it's something we already know we're going to dread, we typically put our all into doing everything we can. However, as the days go on, people can tend to lose a bit of the fire in their bellies. Maybe they get distracted, maybe they get disheartened by a mishap or mistake, or maybe they just get bored. In any case, it's easy for the passion to slip a bit as time passes.
The ability to look at the road ahead of any given project and persist despite any setbacks or problems is a crucial one. Encouraging this quality in your team by displaying it yourself could mean the difference between a half-hearted project turned in weeks after the deadline and a glowing paragon of what your organization is capable of.
How to improve your perseverance
One way to ensure both you and your team are well-placed to persevere during setbacks is to plan out what might go wrong during your project, and create a roadmap for dealing with such problems.
This is often called a “premortem”. With a plan in place for you to action, you'll be less likely to get bogged down in problems you encounter, and more likely to focus immediately on how you can overcome them. This will clear the path toward your goal, and add clarity to precisely how you'll achieve it, whether things are running smoothly or not.
Another question to ask yourself is how you're holding yourself accountable. Finding ways to make yourself accountable – internally and externally – will motivate you to persevere when times get tough, especially if others are depending on you to deliver.
Leadership is a rather nebulous quality. In a way, it's all of the prior skills mixed together, with an extra something on top. A leader is like the orchestrator of a choir. While each musician has his or her skill set, the orchestrator assigns the instruments and voices according to the composer's intentions.
If you're managing a team, good leadership can be the line between a happy and healthy work pipeline and a crumbling, disjointed project destined for failure. In fact, 8 out of 10 employees quit if they don't receive the appreciative leadership they think they deserve.
But appreciating hard work is just one part of leadership – one part of many that all work toward the same goal: motivation. In the words of French author Antoine de St. Exupery, “if you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
John Li, Co-Founder and CTO at Fig Loans told us, “when it comes to project management, I’ve learned that it’s as critical to understanding your team members’ individual “why’s” as it is the overarching purpose of the project. Because not every team member will believe in the project, finding a way to motivate them based on their individual values can help bring them into the fold for a stronger collaborative effort. Even if someone isn’t personally invested, there are usually ways you can discover their values tied into some aspects of the project.”
How to improve your leadership skills
All the skills on this list will have dozens of seminars and lessons you can enroll in in order to improve yourself, but leadership may be one of the easiest skills to improve. All you have to do is be open with your team, and be receptive to their feedback and feelings. No matter how sure you are that you're an effective leader, you're realistically the last person who should be weighing in on your own leadership skills. Likewise, if your team is sincerely happy with your leadership skills, then you shouldn't worry (too much) about needing to improve.
It's basic, it's obvious, but it's indispensable. An intimate knowledge of your business, industry, and team is crucial in effectively managing a project. If your project is designing a business's brand but you don't know the first thing about graphic design, color theory, or feedback gathering processes, then your whole process is going to be stunted.
“You should take the time first to understand the current work culture and then start to make any new changes.” explains skilled project manager Eden Cheng, Co-Founder of PeopleFinderFree. “Many project managers have a tendency to want to introduce something new and different based on their experiences, but you must remember to do it with finesse.
“After all, you can't just jump in and start making changes to a team without completely understanding its strengths, constraints, limitations, team dynamic, and work culture. You have to be able to make changes in a way that can be absorbed in the right attitude.”
How to improve your industry knowledge
The good (or bad) thing about this skill is that there's no cheat or hack to get it quickly. You can't be born with it either. It just comes naturally as you spend time in an industry. A report published by Training Industry Quarterly estimates that new employees take between one and two years to become fully productive after being hired.
If you couple that with Malcolm Gladwell's famous estimate that it takes around 10,000 hours to master any given task, it's clear to see that accumulating and retaining industry knowledge is no quick feat. It's just something that needs to be worked on over time.
Why Are Project Management Skills Important?
The best way to answer this question is really to flip it around. These are important life skills that can be applied to project management. Patience, time management, communication – these are all necessary skills no matter what field you're going into , and can make you a more efficient and charismatic individual.
As for why this helps in a project management setting, there are two main umbrellas that these skills fall under: organization and motivation.
Organization is necessary for any big team. It's very easy for details to get lost and for communication to fall through the cracks if the structure of the project is not organized correctly. One unseen message about a small change can spell disaster, especially if it is unnoticed for a few weeks, and the mistake is built upon over time, potentially wasting weeks of work.
Motivation is a less tangible but no less important facet of project management. Depending on the end goal, projects can take anywhere between a couple of weeks to multiple months. If you or your team struggle to maintain momentum as the days tick by, deadlines may be missed, work may be subpar, and the entire project might fall through.
Motivation and organization both comprise the following skills, meaning that any effective project leader will shine in at least some of these categories. No one is perfect, but putting in the effort will lead to a happier team, a happier client, and an overall better product and experience for everyone.
Tips to Improve Your Project Management Skills
As dismissive as it may sound, the best way to improve any skill is just to do it as much as you can. However, it's possible that project management-related business opportunities aren't springing up constantly, and when they do, you'll probably want to take them seriously, not as scenarios to foster skills.
However, if you're serious about improving your project management skills, then a great way to keep them fresh is to implement them into your everyday life. If you're doing any kind of multi-step task, try to keep a project management mindset, and integrate these skills into that process.
For example, every employee requires some aspect of time management to maintain daily routines, so mastering juggling your job, social life, exercise, cleaning, and various other tasks is a great way to train a skill that can be easily applied to project management.
It's also key to communicate with people as much as possible. Many of the skills listed involve understanding people – being able to convey ideas and motivate them. The more you interact with people in real life, the more you'll be able to understand how to inspire them, make them laugh, and push them toward a goal.
Some other project management tips and tricks include:
Do your best to avoid distraction throughout the day. Distraction can kill the momentum behind any project, so channelling all your attention into your project is the best way to stay on or ahead of schedule.
Lauren Cook-McKay, Director of Marketing & Content at Divorce Answers, has experience with this. She's observed that “many projects become overly difficult as a result of having too many tools and functionalities available. So-called software bloat is a severe issue that may easily stymie progress.
“That's why it's critical to pick your tools carefully and avoid all the distractions that come with having a wider software portfolio than you require. You'll want to make sure everyone is using the same software and that you're making use of integrations and syncs whenever possible to guarantee everything runs smoothly.”
Time block at the beginning of the day
While a simple list of things to do is a good start, 41% of to-do list items are never completed. Putting time aside for each task is a better way of making sure that each item gets the attention is deserves.
This is something that resonates with Laura France, Director of Marketing at Think Consulting: “Blocking time on your calendar, especially for deep work/thinking tasks, is a must to produce your best end product. Batching tasks with similar modes of thinking will help save time and mental energy too.
“Know what your time is worth and if it cost more for you to do the task than to delegate or outsource it, get it off your plate and let another resource take on the work. All of these things combined create a streamlined and efficient workday for you and your team.”
Make notes of everything
No matter how small something is, if it's even slightly important to the project at hand, make sure to make a note of it. There are few things more fatal to a project's progression than being halted due to poor communication or record-keeping.
This is a project management skill that Toms Blodnieks, COO of DeskTime, has become expert at. He told us “I’ve found that it’s crucial to note everything that’s being discussed and planned. After each meeting, I draft up a summary and email it to everyone involved, so that we can always find the needed information and see what we agreed on even weeks later. I put Snooze on all the emails I want to return to. I also use Slack reminders to make sure I don’t forget anything.”
Read our full guide for more project management tips.
Project Manager Testimonials
We've spoken to project managers with years of experience honing their project management skills, and scattered some testimonials throughout this article already, but here are a few more words of advice that might hold some nuggets of wisdom for an aspiring project manager.
Mitigate risks before they occur
“We all enter into projects with the hope that they go off without a hitch, but a great project manager understands the risks and pays special attention to them” says David Aylor, Founder and CEO of David Aylor Law Offices.
Aylor adds, “During the planning stages, you should not only identify potential risks but create a risk mitigation plan that minimizes the potential impact of risk events. Plan for the worst-case so you can still turn it into a successful outcome.”
“As a project manager, you should create a plan that avoids multitasking to increase your overall efficiency. With 100 tasks pulling at your attention, it can be tempting to work on several things simultaneously, but multitasking can cause up to a 40% loss in overall productivity.
“Improve project efficiency by discouraging multitasking and modeling the behavior yourself, assigning tasks to be completed in order, not concurrently. Staying sharply focused on one task at a time and reducing your attention disturbances will help you complete your projects faster.” – James Diel, Founder and CEO of Textel
Test as you go
“Test anything delivered to you. Many people in your company have a wide variety of excellent ideas, but not all of them work on a large scale. To make sure everything is in working order, test everything that falls on your desk.
“Make sure your efforts are meeting or beating your expectations. For example, a project to increase the marketing efforts of a cleaning service tests each market. Test the effectiveness of posting cleaning tips on Twitter, business details on Facebook, and images of before and after cleaning.” – Jim Pendergast, SVP of altLINE
How In Demand Are Project Management Soft Skills?
Soft skills have always been important, but the demand for all employees – including project managers – to have them has never been higher. In fact, a 2020 Mckinsey survey conducted amid the pandemic shows that, as the world was turned on its head, skills like “leadership”, “project management” and “interpersonal skills” and “empathy” grew in importance for companies.
LinkedIn data from 2022 suggests that this trend has persisted. Although “hard” skills signal to employers that you're qualified for the role, it's the soft skills – like communication – which will actually secure you the job. In fact, “communication” was mentioned in just under half (45%) of all LinkedIn job listings in 2022.
Well over half (61%) of professionals say that soft skills are just as important as “hard” skills. It makes sense, too – although it's entirely possible to develop skills nested in both skill sets, it's a lot easier to send someone on a one-day course to learn how to use a type of software, than it is to teach empathy.
It seems like there's a good reason for this too – one recent study indicated that “project managers' soft skills can contribute as much as 78.3% variation in the success of a project.”