Cultivating unicorns

Apr 09, 2023

Justin Smith, SE, PE, MBA

Instead of waiting for the perfect project manager to appear, invest in developing these valuable professionals within your firm.

In the architecture, engineering, and construction world, locating and landing professionals with the expertise, skills, and abilities to lead projects effectively is an ongoing struggle. These ideal candidates, often referred to as “unicorns,” are elusive but crucial to a firm’s success. While attracting, engaging, and retaining the right project managers is essential, many organizations are not adequately developing these professionals internally.

Research has demonstrated that project manager competencies significantly impact project outcomes, with the leadership skills of the project manager being best linked to project success. However, traditional project management training often fails to align with the skills that we know our projects and our firms need to be most successful. Based on studies of project manager performance and project performance, only two of the top 15 most referenced knowledge, skill, and ability (KSA) domains are conventional project management characteristics. Of the remaining 13, 11 are interpersonal and two are analytical/technical. Much of conventional project management training is focused on the reverse, with the content being heavily weighted toward scope, schedule, and budget. No wonder we struggle to find such a scarce resource in the market. We are focused on the wrong things at the early stages of leadership development.

This also aligns well with our research into project management. When asked about the firm-specific training they provide to project managers, the overwhelming majority of survey respondents mention the ability to follow policies and procedures such as time-charging policies, how to open a job number, or proposal preparation, among others.

Interestingly, zero of the top 15 most sought after KSAs are “ability to follow policies and procedures” or “time charging policies.” This is not to say that these are not important to firm success. We must do these things and we must do them well, but we should not stop our development at these stages. There is so much more out there to focus on that packs a bigger punch when it comes to the long-term success of your people.

When we ask survey respondents to identify the greatest needs for project managers, firms and individuals reply with leadership, personnel management, people management, and communication skills, among others.

It is clear from both Zweig Group’s research and the overall body of research into project management that we need more leadership and interpersonal skill development to lead projects, not more scope, schedule, and budget. We have poor supply-demand fit today as much of conventional project manager development is not focused on the skills best linked to success. In some ways, firms are searching for people that exist in the market only by happenstance, luck, or previous experiences that shaped them into the people they are today. This is not surprising. If neither our firms nor conventional project management training is focused on developing these skills, who is?

As artificial intelligence continues to automate mundane and repetitive tasks, the importance of interpersonal effectiveness and leadership will become even more vital. To gain a strategic advantage in this evolving landscape, firms should prioritize leadership development for project managers.

To nurture your own “unicorns,” consider incorporating interpersonal skills as core competencies for your project managers. Four key areas of focus include:

  1. Communication. Develop skills of information gathering, curious questioning, distribution, expectation setting, and high-level briefing to improve communication within the team.
  2. Feedback. Train project managers to ask for and provide effective feedback, and then develop and incorporate actionable strategies to improve based on this input.
  3. Facilitation. Develop the ability to guide discussions, resolve conflicts, and engage stakeholders in a collaborative manner.
  4. Adaptability. Encourage project managers to embrace flexibility and adapt to changing circumstances, ensuring projects remain on track despite unforeseen challenges.

By concentrating on these areas, you can develop skilled technical professionals who also excel in interpersonal relationships. A systematic approach to cultivating these “unicorns” within your organization can lead to increased success and a stronger competitive edge.

In conclusion, instead of waiting for the perfect project manager to appear, invest in developing these highly sought-after professionals within your organization. By focusing on interpersonal skills and leadership, you can create the “unicorns” needed to propel your firm’s success in an ever-changing industry. And once you have cultivated these valuable assets, be sure to secure their place in your organization – the industry will undoubtedly want them too. 

Justin Smith, P.E., is an advisor at Zweig Group specializing in project management and leadership development. He can be reached at

Virtual Project management seminar The need for leadership skills among AEC project managers has never been more critical. This course will help take the guesswork out of leading a project team. It will equip project leaders with practical, science-backed skills so they can empower their teams, optimize their project process, and surpass project goals. Click here to learn more!

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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.