In most electrical contracting firms, project managers are the conduit between the office and field. They are responsible for making sure all the necessary resources are on the job site when needed to keep the crew moving forward. Project managers are responsible for ensuring the project stays on time and on budget, while also making a profit.
The career path to project management can be through the field, working one’s way up the ranks and into the office; through a college degree in construction management or a similar program; or a combination of both, through experience, education and an ability to manage people and resources efficiently.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula that says, “Do these three things, and you will be a project manager.” Everyone’s journey is unique. However, we can identify some of the skills and traits apparent in successful project managers. Whether you are a project manager or working to become one, here are some tips to be more successful in your journey.
Project management varies between companies. Some project managers are responsible for $100 million projects, while others manage $10,000. Some manage one large project at a time, while others work on smaller projects simultaneously. Some work from the office, and others work from a job-site trailer. What we have found is that it doesn’t matter a project’s size, how many jobs are running at once or where they are run from when measuring a project manager’s effectiveness and success. Effective project managers get up each morning and are ready to catch whatever curveball is thrown at them that day and persevere through projects.
What are the essential skills and traits?
Earlier this year, we conducted a survey and asked what are some of the essential traits and skills for project managers. Not surprisingly, skills such as managing the budget, schedule and people appeared on the list. Some not-so-obvious traits such as communication, problem-solving and motivation also showed up.
“Skill” is the learned power of doing something competently—a developed aptitude or ability. So, in short, it is the ability to execute a task effectively due to one’s knowledge and training.
A “trait” is defined as a distinguishing quality or characteristic of a person. One might say a trait is an identifying feature of a group of people (such as project managers). So while a skill defines ability, a trait defines an inherent characteristic or quality of a person. The best part is that both can be developed to improve overall effectiveness.
At the fundamental level, a project manager is responsible for completing the project and making a profit. Sound skills in reading and understanding project financials are essential. Being able to identify potential red flags before they become a significant problem and derail the project are necessary. Of course, some of this comes with time and the experience of having projects under your belt. Having up-to-date financials for the project is a must but more important is knowing how to read them and make informed decisions.
For less-experienced project managers, seeking input and guidance from senior co-workers or peers can be advantageous and enable them to learn from others experiences too. Having a pulse on the actual percentage complete (field observation) compared to the paper percentage complete (financials, timesheets, etc.) is a great way to see potential red flags before they sink the ship.
Understanding the project financials leads to another required skill: managing the schedule. A project manager should have their own schedule that aligns with the overall project’s. It should be kept current to allow for better decision-making and allocation of resources for labor, tracking items with long lead times and preventing unnecessary overtime to finish the project without an approved change order. To be successful, you don’t need formal training in scheduling or to invest in expensive software. What is necessary is an understanding of timelines and how missed deadlines can affect the project’s bottom line.
Being able to think on your feet and solve problems can make a bad day turn bright, while throwing up your hands can make a bad day worse. Problem-solving doesn’t mean having the answer to every question or problem, but rather thinking critically and making the best decision with the information available. In an industry with hard deadlines, the information to make a decision can be costly and create more problems. I’m not encouraging recklessness in decision-making and problem-solving; however, sometimes a decision needs to be made without all the needed information.
According to the survey’s respondents, the top three skills that every effective project manager should have are communication, organization and leadership. Interestingly, these were the same top three in the survey we conducted in 2019. I would venture to guess that these will be the same two years from now and, most likely, would have been the same if we had conducted the survey a decade ago. These top three skills could pertain to general and division managers or general foremen and superintendents. For the sake of this article, let’s just address these from the project management standpoint.
What does it mean to have good communication skills? I have worked with individuals who thought that whoever is the loudest is the best communicator since they are being heard. This mentality is laughably far from the truth.
Being a good communicator is getting your message across and, equally important, listening to others and their input. As the saying goes, this is why we have two ears and one mouth; we should listen twice as much as we speak. Effective communication includes verbal and written exchanges of information, including following up on a phone call with an email to document the conversation, submitting requests for information to get questions answered or crafting a detailed scope letter. Being a good communicator is a complete package: spoken and written, speaking and listening. It is more about being understood and understanding than being heard and hearing.
Organizational skills encompass keeping track of project files to effectively manage time. Many project managers juggle multiple tasks. The more organized they are, the lower their stress, and the less that falls through the cracks. For those seeking to spend time out of the office for a family vacation or Little League game, being organized allows others to help ensure the work gets done and the project moves forward.
As a topic I have written about many times before, leadership separates the good from the great. Not all managers are leaders, and not all leaders are managers, but those individuals who can master both will succeed in the end.
It is easy for a manager to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of getting the project completed, submitting change orders, buying material and keeping the workforce productive. A leader must step out of the weeds and look to the horizon, charting the most efficient course to the results, not the individual steps to the finish line.
Leaders set the goal for the team, chart the course and motivate them to achieve more than they thought. They assume the role of coach and mentor more than manager and disciplinarian. Teams don’t win the championship because of good managers. They win because of leaders who show them the way.
As a vital part of every construction company, project managers can directly affect the bottom line of every project they oversee. Mastering skills as project managers is attainable through education, experience and the drive for self-improvement. There isn’t a quick fix or an online degree that will make you the best project manager ever. Improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but minor adjustments each day or project will be worth the investment in the end.