What Makes a Successful Project Manager
I had a phone interview scheduled with Victor earlier this year. I was running between appointments that day and called him from a crowded Starbucks. “Listen, I need 5 minutes to find a quiet place to hunker down,” I said. “Oh, well if you’re nearby, why don’t we just meet in person?” says Victor. Our first interaction is very telling. Victor is someone who will go out of his way to build a rapport with people. Most of us are too busy and wrapped up in our own priorities to do that.
Immediately, I knew I wanted to enlist Victor’s input on what makes a great Project Manager. The way I see it, Account people are forgivable because they’re attached to the client and bring business to the agency. Creative gets a pass because we’d be nowhere without their ideas. But how about the whip-cracking PM? What’s the special sauce that makes them endearing and effective taskmasters?
Eight months after Victor started his new job at G2, he agreed to let me drill him on this topic. Victor is a Group Director, Digital Delivery and oversees the digital CPG work, including Campbell’s, Smucker’s and COVERGIRL. Each client can do 200 or more programs per year – enough to keep a team of 10 digital project managers busy.
JS: What do you look for when you hire?
VE: There are people who do, and people who also think about what they do. Project Managers are sometimes perceived as a big noisy group of coordinators. I don’t want to hire coordinators – or people that just do. The best Project Managers listen, understand, respond and partner with their clients. If something’s not working, they look for a better way rather than merely watch and report an issue from the sidelines.
I appreciate straight answers, honesty, humility and ambition. I want to work with people who aren’t afraid to ask for advice, but who will ultimately take care of business themselves. I can rely on them to manage their work independently.
JS: How do you assess those skills in an interview?
VE: I ask candidates to tell me about a specific scenario where a program went off track and what solution they proposed. I want to know the role they personally played in the solution. If they say “we did this,” I always ask who the “we” is.
The way they tell the story gives me insight into how they address and prioritize risk. Is everything a big deal? Are they overwhelmed by the smallest unexpected change in direction? How they perceive the scope of risk reveals how much I can trust them to run more complex projects independently.
Also, do they take accountability and own a solution? Or do they just wait for someone else to lead the way?
JS: How do you evaluate energy and ambition in an interview?
VE: I probe candidates to tell me details about on the job fire drill situations, and how they present can be indicative of energy. Some people physically relive the experience and others simply generalize or wash over events. Their mastery of telling me about a difficult work experience gives me a good sense of their energy level, confidence and communication skills.
Also, do they drive an interesting and lively interview by asking me stimulating questions?
I ask about their career motivations to get a read on ambition. I look for creativity, pervasive curiosity and a desire to explore all possibilities. The way people structure their resume is telling too. Do they focus on titles and responsibilities, or do they present accomplishments? The achievements are much more compelling to me than a job description.
JS: What skills do you work on developing with your team? What does a Project Manager need to master to move up the ranks?
VE: The ability to communicate up and downstream is a key. For example, the way you convey project plans to your team is different than the way you describe them to a client. You need to consider what really matters to your client, and carefully edit your message so communication is concise and meaningful. When you raise an issue, you quantify the impact and immediately offer a solution or options to fix it. You don’t need to go into the details of how you got there.
I’ve gotten my team in the habit of delivering “period summary reports” to help them be more self-aware of how they communicate. These aren’t status reports. They’re meant to quantify progress and results to Senior Management.
JS: Give me some examples of achievements that Project Managers can own.
VE: Our metrics are delivery, quality and profitability. We can launch something that builds awareness, consumer engagement, and ultimately drives client revenues. We can identify ways to do things more efficiently or cut agency costs. We can sell in a new or expanded project scope that brings the agency additional revenue.
JS: So what is the special sauce that makes a successful PM? What are the key ingredients?
VE: When you boil it down, Project Managers are exceptional listeners and problem solvers. We produce great work by building strong teams, and giving them the resources they need to be successful. We form relationships by knowing and acting on what is meaningful to people given their level, stake in the process and goals. We may not be able to save or prevent every problem, but we’re experts at managing risk and know how to clean things up and get the team back on track.