Ask any Project Manager what the key attribute they need is, and invariably they will respond: “the ability to communicate”. It sounds nonsense because we all have a tongue in our head but being able to translate thought into speech succinctly and personably is paramount in managing sometimes complex projects with multiple participants and elements.
Take Sarah Whaites, for example. Following a media degree, she landed a role with a top PR company and was well on her way to establishing a career in communications, when she was offered a secondment in an offshoot company as a Project Manager.
“It was a baptism of fire”, said Sarah, who now is a senior PM for a large financial institution in London, “but it was also very helpful for me to have come from a communications background because so much of project management relies on good communication.”
Philip Southward, a senior project manager for Liverpool City Council, agrees and he should know. He was the lead project manager for some of the city’s flagship events over the last decade: Liverpool exhibiting at the World Expo Shanghai 2010; the International Festival for Business 2014 2016 and 2018; and the Liverpool in London embassy project.
“As a PM you might have to speak to every level of person you can imagine, from politicians and CEOs to tradespeople and suppliers who then must work with you closely in order for the project to be delivered.
“You can be the most brilliant PM in the world, magic at managing risk, superb with MS Project, but without communication skills you are likely to under-deliver and God forbid fail! This job is both about being direct and encouraging your team.”
So, what is project management? Phil likens it to the act of making a cuppa: “On the critical path for this simple task, the water has to be boiling to make a brew, so you put the kettle on first and then find the cup, the tea bag, the milk, the spoon etc. You must deliver the tasks in the right order for it to work. If that boiling water is late, the brew is late, it’s all late!”
Projects can be defined and delivered within different contexts, across diverse industry sectors. They can be large or small, complex or simplex, single site or multi-site. Every project needs to be managed to ensure its success. A PM or an Associate Project Manager or a Project Team Leader knows what needs to be achieved, how it will be achieved, how long it will take to complete, how much it will cost and what approach to take at what time will work with the project team to achieve the required outcomes.
In addition to an ability to communicate effectively, the role requires good planning, organisation, leadership and management skills, as well as ‘people’ skills like mediation and negotiation. A Project Manager utilises resources with suitable skills, qualifications, experience and knowledge to work together in a motivated and integrated team, with clearly defined reporting lines, roles, responsibilities and authorities. So, teamwork and collaboration are essential for success.
Both Phil and Sarah believe dipping a toe in the water before diving in is helpful in preparation for the way ahead. Sarah said: “I would recommend that someone who wants to be a PM should secure some work experience first by being an assistant PM or taking a shadowing role to see the kinds of things people do day in day out. It will really help bring the training to life.”
For Sarah, she’s never looked back either: “I have found the work really varied and really quite different from what I had been used to at the beginning of my career. A big challenge of this role is that every new project is like having a new job, because no two projects are the same, so you’re constantly learning, which of course, also makes it very challenging.
“Ultimately this is about managing change and managing people – you have to take them on a journey with you to help you shape it. As a PM you are often outside the core business, so you have to rely on other’s expertise in order to make things happen correctly and be delivered in the right way. Bringing people together and encouraging them to share their knowledge and ideas leads to really good outcomes.”
Phil added: “The people who are on your team and your key stakeholders are key to success because projects are littered with meetings and often complex. Developing a sense of trust, asking a lot of questions and speaking to everyone regularly is vital and helps the journey. And of course, a sense of humour is key, because sometimes this work can drive you all to distraction!
“I’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s still fun. I love the challenge of taking something on that might look difficult, if not impossible, and visualising the outcome. I enjoy the labour and the rigour of it and the immense satisfaction of the team doing well. And at times its phenomenally exciting.”
So, the message is clear: wear your best smile, take a patience pill and enjoy the ride. The qualifications you gain through your apprenticeship to become a project manager will serve you well, but you will learn even more on a job that constantly changes and will see you set for life.