People Skills and Project Management

Nothing matters more in project management than having great people skills.

This statement may come as a surprise to those of you working hard on your technical skills of time, cost, quality and risk in project management. You can estimate resources, cost and time to within a 0.5% margin of error; you can use software to produce report after report and chart after chart; you know the technical specifications of your product better than you know the back of your hand; and you love numbers, spreadsheets and Gantt charts. Aren’t these the most important project management skills to have? Sure, they are important and you need these to be successful, but between technical and people skills it the people skills that are most useful to you as a project manager.

Let me start by recounting an experience I had while managing a large construction project. I was working on this project and was proud of the fact that early on it was already ahead of time, ahead of budget and delivering greater quality than expected. I was shocked to be taken aside by the project sponsor and be told that my project was in no uncertain times considered a failure! How could this be, on paper the project was doing well? She explained to me that stakeholders just didn’t know me nor did they trust me. The first because I didn’t build relationships well and the second because I didn’t communicate effectively.

After recovering from the initial ego bruising I saw that she was right. Despite the project technically being a great success I had neglected key stakeholders, my communication was sporadic, ineffective and often sparse; and my focus was too much on the technical aspects of the project. I made a decision within 24 hours to change to focus of the project from a construction project to a communications project. We started building and maintaining lasting relationships with key stakeholders, taking time to find out what was important to them. I discovered that not everyone is interested in time, cost or quality. Some stakeholders judge success by other means. We began regular communications using a variety of styles from face to face, to written. We did all these things regularly, with sincerity and with respect to the different needs and viewpoints of our stakeholders. Within a short amount of time I received feedback that my project was now considered a success.

So what exactly are these seemingly mystical magical people skills?

They are the ability to form and maintain positive professional and personal relationships: this requires you to truly value people and the interaction you have with them and commit to maintaining these relationships

  1. The ability to communicate effectively to a wide variety of listeners – this means understating different points of view, using different styles of communications and receiving feedback positively.
  2. The ability to listen empathically – this requires you to understand that other people think and act differently depending on different viewpoints of the world.

So work on your people skills, give them priority in your project management work and you will be more successful. A final note though, don’t think that you can be just a great people person with little or no technical ability and achieve success. I’m sure we have all come across those people who are exceptionally talented with relationship and communication but have a lack of technical ability. No amount of people skills can hide technical inability, sooner or later these people will be exposed as well

So, as a successful project manager you will need both technical skills, and the softer people skills but it is your ability to form relationships and communicate that will contribute more to your success as a project manager.