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Five Must Have Core Competencies for Project Managers

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No matter the industry or size of the project, every project manager is tasked with juggling multiple day-to-day operations. Even small-scale projects can be complex, comprised of hundreds of cross-functional activities that need to be executed under tight timelines with budgets at stake.

As a project manager, you’re a change agent working with your team. Your team is most likely made up of a diverse set of individuals in many different roles. You’re their leader and are expected to be a master at a myriad of skills required to see a project through from start to finish. Because of the large scope of responsibility required for the job, a skilled project manager is vitally important to any project’s success.

But, what makes a project manager an excellent one? Most PMs have a set of basic skills, referred to as core competencies, which are the knowledge, traits, and skills important to carrying out a job. A core competency can be a hard skill, such as technical know-how, or a soft skill, such as strong interpersonal skills.

Here’s a list of five “must have” core competencies every successful project manager should have.

Strong leadership

As a project manager, you’re responsible for not only guiding the project through successful execution and completion but for leading the team that will achieve that goal. A good project manager can motivate the project team when needed and mediate any issues (including interpersonal ones) that may pop up during the project.

While some leadership skills are innate, most good leaders have had some training, mentorship, and/or job experience. All of three of these things help an individual hone their leadership abilities. A good leader will inspire and motivate team members while keeping the project on track. Keeping stakeholders on board is also an important element of being an effective leader. As a project manager, you’re not just managing your team, but the expectations of others invested in the project. Strong leadership skills will go a long way!

Effective Communication

It has been said that 90 percent of a project manager’s time is spent communicating. If you’ve ever served in this role, you likely know that to be true. Project managers must communicate with many groups of people, including the project team, project sponsor, clients, and any other stakeholders, all while tailoring their communication style to speak appropriately with each group.

Good project managers are clear and concise communicators. They provide honest, prompt, and direct communication. When a project manager communicates well, all involved in the project are more likely to be engaged and invested in the health of the project. Clear and effective communication builds trust and lends credibility to project managers, which ultimately increases the likelihood of a successful project.

Negotiation Skills

This core competency goes hand-in-hand with communication skills. A lot of a project manager’s communication has to do with negotiating budgets, schedules, scope creep, and the use of resources.

Whether you’re negotiating for support from senior management, negotiating with 3rd party suppliers, or in conversation with clients, there are always varying interests that project managers need to align. In order to build negotiation skills, project managers should invest the time to understand team and client relationships and the motivations of their stakeholders’ interests.

Once PMs understand the varying perspectives, the key to successful negotiation is to arrive at a win-win solution. Successful project managers know how to find compromises where possible and how to hold a firm line when needed without damaging their workplace relationships.

Risk Management

While this particular competency may be less obviously important than others, it is better to be proactive than reactive when it comes to any risks or issues that may delay or derail a project. By definition, risks are not urgent, so some project managers may not consider risks until it is too late or something has already gone awry. A good project manager can predict and find solutions for potential issues before they arise, which leads to a higher chance of a successful project.

As anyone with experience knows, there are times when something doesn’t go as planned on a project. A good project manager will have developed contingency plans should that occur, and be ready to implement them with precise timing.

Organization and Planning Skills

Strong organization skills are vitally important, too. A project manager must be organized (and that doesn’t just mean having a tidy desk!) in order to manage everything from resources to scheduling and monitoring the progress of the project.

Planning skills go hand-in-hand with being organized as they are synergistic elements to a successful project. Proper planning means having a plan for everything from the big picture (the project plan, creation of meeting plans, statements of work, timelines, resource plans, and project briefs and budget updates) to the smaller, more mundane details (planning out your day, who you’re going to communicate with that week, and how you are going to make time to update your status documents, brief your team, etc.).

The extent to which you’re able to effectively organize and plan will directly impact your project’s success. No matter how good you are at execution, without being able to properly organize and plan a project, the project may struggle.


Project managers are the backbone of any project’s success, but they must have the required core competencies to manage, not just the project itself, but also their team and stakeholders.

Contrary to popular belief, being good at telling others what to do is not among the necessary core competencies to be an effective project manager. Proper education, training, and job experience can enhance these skills to ensure success, and a project manager who has the skills needed will inspire others to follow them as they lead competently, effectively, and efficiently.

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Written by Lindsay Curtis

Lindsay Curtis writes about communications, education, healthcare research, and parenting. She has extensive experience as a Project Manager, primarily in the healthcare and higher education sectors. A writer by day and a reader by night, she currently works as a Communications Officer for the University of Toronto. She also provides freelance copywriting and social media strategy services for businesses of all sizes. Learn more about Lindsay at www.curtiscommunications.org.

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1 Comment
  1. Excellent article, brief and complete. Thanks.


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