Be a better PM

Nov 28, 2016

A command of soft skills is essential to delivering a project that’s on time, on budget, and with no surprises.

If you’re in the business of infrastructure and you manage projects, staff, or both, you know keeping a team working together and the project moving ahead doesn’t happen by itself.

There is no shortcut for great project management, but there are traits and characteristics you can learn from, says long-time project manager Pete Carlson, chief operations officer at SEH, a multidiscipline firm with offices in nine states.

Look for them in your consultant and develop them yourself. Here are eight characteristics of a better project manager.

  • Active listener. “Better project managers don’t just go through the motions. They listen – attentively,” says Carlson. Is your consultant asking the right questions? Are they responding to you? Look no further than the proposal they submitted for your project. Is your consultant paying attention to your needs and closely following your RFP? A good project manager hears your challenges. A better project manager listens closely to help you make sense of them.
  • Proactive communicator. “You can’t overstate how important communication is,” says Carlson. “It’s the real difference between a good and a really great PM.” A good project manager provides updates when you ask and responds to your emails and phone calls. A better project manager is communicating important updates and keeping you in the know without you asking.
  • Natural facilitator. Yes, you need to keep meetings rolling and on topic, set dates, deadlines and milestones for deliverables. But there’s more to it. “It’s not just meeting deadlines, it’s how you meet your deadlines,” says Carlson. Extenuating circumstances aside, a project milestone shouldn’t be a mad rush at the finish, but a well-paced marathon. The pace of the race? Up to the PM.
  • Quality experience. Good project managers have experience. Better project managers have experience that counts – experience they’ve learned from, says Carlson. Yes, a project manager may have been in an industry for 30 years. But how long have they been working on your project type? “It’s not just quantity, it’s quantity of quality.”
  • Inspiring leader. A good project manager pushes the team forward. A better project manager pulls them toward their goals with a clear vision, says Carlson. Both approaches get the job done. But the latter gets buy-in from the individuals on the team and gets their best – not minimal – efforts.
  • Strong intuition. A good project manager knows the ins and outs of concepts like earned value management, and has the logic, reasoning and mental capacity to keep a project on the rails. A better project manager also has intuition. They trust their gut. “It’s hard to quantify, but sometimes you just have a feeling,” says Carlson. “A great project manager doesn’t ignore it.”
  • Diligence. Everyone feels energized after a project kickoff meeting. Once the newness of that feeling wears off, and that initial momentum turns into daily work, a better project manager keeps everything aligned through diligence. “You have to be persistent,” says Carlson. “And measured.”
  • Big-picture focus. Finally, as a project marches forward, it can be easy to get caught up in the whirlwind and migrate toward daily tasks and minutiae. “There are going to be times when certain activities are louder than others,” he says. “And that’s okay, just don’t let them overwhelm your focus on the big picture.”

Two pieces of advice from Carlson:

  • “Don’t just ask your consultant if your project is on schedule. Ask them to prove it,” says Carlson. In other words, a better project manager is managing all the tasks and getting documented proof that activities are completed. Yes, there’s a level of trust involved in working with your consultant, but you should expect transparency. They should be prepared to show you.
  • “If you are managing a project as a client, align what you need from your consultant with what’s important to your stakeholders,” says Carlson. Hiring a better project manager, and being one yourself, is one step toward professional progress.

Bringing it all together. Whether your project is completed on time and in budget comes down to project management. Good project managers are hard to find. Better ones are rarer. Which do you want to be?

Pete Carlson is SEH chief operations officer, longtime project manager and mentor. He can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.