So You Want to Be a Project Manager

Role of the Project Manager | By Diane Ellis | Read time minutes

Businessman smiling with hands together

You've worked on a project, and you think you'd like to have a try out at doing the project management role. It doesn't look too hard, or maybe it just looks exciting.

So what does it take to become a project manager? What skills do you need?

From my experience of over 25 years in project and programme management, I always look for the following skills in any project manager I hire.

An innate leader - by innate leader, I mean one appointed by their peers, rather than by management. It's not necessarily the one with the title "manager." Look at any team and one person will stand out as being the "ring leader," I want that sort of leadership, leadership that comes naturally and is innate to that person and situation. Someone who can become an innate leader has a certain level of confidence, and most of the other skills listed below.

Well Organised

By definition, a project manager needs to be well organised. They need to be able to determine what needs to be done, in what order, so as to achieve a desired outcome. They need to be like a juggler keeping many different balls in the air at once, without taking their eyes off any one of them.

Focus and Vision

It is vitally important for a project manager to be able to quickly envision what it is that needs to be done to achieve the goals of the project. You need the ability to be able to see clearly that which has yet to be created. If you don't know where you are going, how can you expect others to follow? Part of this skill is the ability to get others to articulate their vision, particularly senior management and executives.

Good Communicator

Which leads us on to our next skill, communication. Whilst it is important for a project manager to have a clear picture of what needs to be done and when, it is also imperative that they are able to communicate this clearly to others in a language that they can understand. And you must be able to communicate to all levels in an organisation, from the most unskilled worker through to the Chief Executive.

Willing to Be the Bad Guy

In order to be a successful project manager, you must be willing to be the bad guy at some stage. Whilst you might be lucky, and get a project that runs smoothly from start to finish, it's more likely that there will be times on a project when you will need to do things or make decisions that not everyone agrees with, in order to get your project back on track.

Calm Under Pressure

It's no good having a project manager who goes to pieces when things don't go perfectly to plan. You've got to be able to think on your feet and remain calm in the face of (sometimes!) hysteria. And you need to be able to focus in on what is important, determine what you need to worry about, and what can wait until later. You need to be able to prioritise quickly and get action under way to restore order.

Some other things that are quite handy skills for a project manager to have are:

Quick Learner

If you are a successful project manager, you will often be moving on to larger and more complex projects, quite often outside your area of expertise. If you are to successfully manage a project, you need to understand what it is you are being asked to deliver. As long as you can grasp key concepts very quickly, and know what questions to ask, you'll do OK.

Common Sense

Common sense, especially when it comes to being able to prioritise effectively, and knowing when to compromise, is a key skill for a project manager. I'd take this over a university degree any day! Give me someone who can sort the wheat from the chaff; who knows not to sweat the small stuff; who knows when they can afford to compromise and when not to, rather than standing their ground just for the sake of it. Knowing when to compromise is a key skill.


Now this is the other side of being willing to be the bad guy. If you care about people, but can still make the hard decisions when necessary, people will respect you. It is important to have respect for everyone you work with, no matter how junior or senior they are.

Love Your Job

It really helps if you enjoy what you are doing. If you enjoy your work, it is easier to stick at it when things become uncomfortable. OK - so there probably aren't too many people who want to run a tax project, but you can still find joy in doing it right! If you hate getting out of bed and going to work in the morning, maybe it's time to move on.

You'll notice I haven't included things such as formal qualifications, such as an MBA or other degree, or methodology qualifications such as PMP. I also haven't included such skills as being a team player, "management" skills, being able to follow rules and so on.

As to formal qualifications, I do consider these, but being able to study something doesn't mean you can actually do it, especially on a challenging project, so I don't give them that much weight.

As for other skills, I also consider these, but I wouldn't dream of hiring someone for a role who didn't also possess the six key skills I mention above. Again, these are weighted lower in terms of importance.

So, can you learn these six skills? I'll cover that in my next article.

Diane Ellis has been a project and programme manager for over 25 years, and has recently released a new simple guide to project management called "Project Management Made Easy." You can learn more about Diane and her new book, as well as sign up for a free course on "Troubleshooting the Most Common Challenges Project Managers Face," at

Recommended read: Is Project Management a Good Career Choice? by Duncan Haughey.


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