Project Profitability: How to become a project manager


    One wit described how he became a project manager: “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” For many project managers, this is an apt description of how they ended up in their role. The paucity of project management talent in engineering firms often leads anyone showing even the slightest aptitude into the ranks of these leaders. Very few (some would say no) engineers set out to become project managers. They studied civil engineering, structural engineering, mechanical engineering, or any of a dozen other disciplines because they were interested in engineering, not project management.

    So, how did they end up serving this vital role in engineering firms? Was it because there was no one else to do the job? Did they show a budding ability others lacked? Did they discover an untapped talent for leadership? Were they a victim of their own success?

    Characteristics of project managers

    Few university technical curriculums provide even rudimentary project management training. Necessary skills are typically learned on the job, through seminars, or from self-initiative.

    Engineers are frequently placed in the position of project manager with little formal training or guidance. Many designers have little ability or interest in the business side of architecture or engineering. Often, those who show even the slightest inclination toward management are pushed toward becoming project managers.

    Who should be a project manager? How are they created? What characteristics are important? Few would dispute the fact that the best technicians often make the poorest project managers. The reason for this is obvious. Most individuals with a proven technical ability tend to focus strongly on the aspects of a project with greatest interest to them. With few exceptions, this focus works to the detriment of the broader project needs that a manager must address.

    A project manager should possess the following capabilities:

    Strong organizational ability — The successful project manager must be able to organize a project, the team, and address the many details that arise. He or she must be strong at organizing staff schedules and be able to handle more than one major project if necessary.

    Generalist — While a manager may have an interest in a particular project area, he or she must be familiar with all aspects of the project. However, project managers do not need to know all of the technical details for themselves. Being effective at delegation is important. To be effective as a project manager, he or she must have a strong ability to examine the broad scope of a project without becoming bogged down in details.

    Ability to monitor the project — A project manager must be able to monitor project status and display a willingness to ask for assistance when the situation warrants. Effective communications between members of the project team is vital.

    Communicative — Project managers must have good communications skills for both public speaking and writing. They must be able to communicate to individuals and groups as marketers and as managers of the project team. In addition, they must be good listeners.

    Experience — Successful project managers must have broad experience in a variety of project types. They must have strong skills and experience in project budgeting, negotiating, marketing, and estimating. Their own database of previous project experiences is extremely useful.

    Leadership ability — The strong project manager must be a leader — an individual who can direct and motivate his or her team. He or she should have demonstrated leadership ability prior to becoming a project manager.

    Ability to make decisions — A project manager is a decision maker. The ability to make decisions and to carry them through is vital. In addition, the project manager must be able to admit a mistake, and he or she must be able to say no to a client or staff member when necessary.

    Communication skills

    The key function of a project manager is to communicate. He or she serves as the primary link between members of the project team. Each design consultant, contractor, and client should be represented by a project manager able to communicate their needs, questions, and status to other team members.

    To accomplish this function, project managers must be skilled communicators. Public speaking skills must be learned and polished through extensive practice or with formal training. Writing skills must be developed to a high degree. Project managers should attend university or community college writing courses to learn fundamentals, technical writing, and persuasive writing. Firms should retain, on a full- or part-time basis, an internal staff member to review and constructively criticize written materials and to train all staff in effective written communications.

    Effective writing — Project managers regularly prepare a wide variety of written materials, including reports, letters, proposals, change orders, emails, faxes, and memos. Most are hurriedly written, disorganized, filled with poor grammar, lack coherence, and fail to communicate effectively the writer’s thoughts. Many project managers attribute the failure to write well to a lack of time, little or no training in effective writing, and a disinterest in improving their writing and editing skills. Poor written communication can lead to devastating consequences. Project errors and omissions, disputes, poor client service, legal proceedings, and many other undesirable results can flow from poorly written materials.

    Effective public speaking — “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known, unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But, there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” This quote is from Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at a Pentagon press conference in May 2002, in response to a question regarding a possible link between Iraq and terrorists.

    While it may be somewhat amusing to hear a politician practice obscuration, the goal of a project manager is to communicate effectively and concisely. Unfortunately, many construction industry professionals fail to follow Mark Twain’s advice: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” Effective public speaking is the art of not only what to say, but also of what not to say. Technique can be learned and practiced; discretion cannot.


    In general, most of the qualities and characteristics of the successful project manager revolve around his or her ability to work well with people, rather than technical skills. Certainly, the project manager must have basic technical skills, but overemphasis on these by senior management will not necessarily result in a good project manager. All project managers require regular training to improve skills and to learn new ones. This training must become a regular part of creating effective project managers.

    Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers. He may be reached at 312-664-2300 or