Building the soft skills of next generation project managers

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Written by Russell Kenrick on 16 August 2016

Project management has only developed into a discrete discipline in recent years. In the past, line managers tended to lead projects. They had management and leadership training but often lacked knowledge of specific project management methodologies.

These days the opposite is usually true. People often take up project management roles on the basis of their technical and project management skills, but lack leadership and management skills. The challenge many organisations face is how to build the soft skills of the next generation of project managers.

Project managers are often highly trained in project management best practice. They may hold PRINCE2®, MSP® or APM Body of Knowledge qualifications in project management, but these focus on the technical skills of project management such as risk, planning, change and progress management.

Training courses for these qualifications assume the trainee already possesses softer skills such as the ability to lead, communicate and negotiate. These skills are often referred to in passing, whereas effective training in one aspect such as negotiation may well require two full days.

Very often project managers are people from a technology background who do not have effective soft skills and have certainly not received any training in them. Self-management, time management and prioritisation skills are an absolute must and these should be additional to project planning competencies.

Assess project manager soft skills in the following areas:

  1. Leadership skills. Project managers’ people skills – or lack of them – are thrown into sharp relief when it comes to managing and getting the most out of events such as stakeholder meetings, workshops and planning sessions. If project managers are failing to display leadership skills in this area and are not facilitating bringing people together effectively this may signal that they require development in leadership skills.
  2. Negotiation skills. Project managers have to negotiate with everybody, all the time. They need to be able to tap into a structured method of carrying out negotiations with peers, senior stakeholders and junior staff and may need development to help with this.
  3. Presentation skills. The need for good communication skills is an overarching requirement for project managers. Within this, a focus on presentation skills is very useful. Good presentation skills allow the project manager to convey information and present his or her ideas and arguments coherently and effectively to a target audience.

Attempting to recruit project managers who have all the required technical, project management and soft skills is expensive and often fruitless. A more effective approach is to look at the people and knowledge the organisation has and develop that.

A person with deep technical knowledge and project management expertise may see great benefit from a small amount of investment in soft skills development. In contrast, it is very much more difficult to train up a manager with soft skills and a portfolio full of project management qualifications, but who simply does not have the technical background to understand the project.

Learning on the job

Perhaps the most effective way of building soft skills in new generation project managers is to enable them to learn on the job at the point of need. It is often not possible to release project managers into two-day training courses.

Instead, give them access to a learning module on conflict management or negotiation and the ability to access that when they need it, even from mobile devices while on the move or at client sites. Backstop this with coaching and mentoring and the learning that results is likely to be even more successful.

Organisations who display willingness to invest in their own people to develop them into effective project managers, rather than attempting to buy in project management expertise, will see the added benefit of higher levels of engagement in their own staff.

If employees feel their skills base is valued and that they are likely to be able to develop these skills in order to be promoted to more senior levels, they are surely more likely to want to stay at the organisation. The organisation will then reap the benefits of a well-qualified and stable workforce delivering successful projects.

Russell Kenrick is the Managing Director at ILX

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