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7 Essential Skills for Project Managers

Industry Advice Management

As companies strive to deliver complex projects in hyper-competitive environments, the demand for skilled project managers is higher than ever before. In fact, the Project Management Institute estimates that by 2027, the number of project management roles will increase by 33 percent, creating nearly 22 million new jobs for qualified project managers. 

Organizations, however, are facing talent shortages that leave them at significant risk. As such, career opportunities are abundant for project management professionals who possess the key skills these organizations need. Research shows that demand is highest for practitioners with the necessary mix of competencies—a combination of technical and leadership skills plus business acumen.

Are you ready to meet the demand? Read on to discover the seven essential project management skills you need to succeed, and learn how to refine these skills to stand out among the competition. 


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7 Essential Project Management Skills 

Skill #1: Effective Communication 

From project kick-offs to stakeholder meetings, project managers are constantly communicating. In fact, according to Cesar Abeid, host of the Project Management for the Masses Podcast, project managers spend a whopping 90 percent of their time communicating in some way. As such, project managers must have excellent communication skills in order to successfully lead projects to completion. 

Poor communication, on the other hand, can lead to inefficiency and missed deadlines; according to a recent survey, 28 percent of employees report poor communication as the primary cause of failing to deliver a project on time.

In order to mitigate the risk of this, project managers should prioritize learning how to communicate effectively. This includes knowing how to approach people, create meaningful relationships with co-workers, and articulate a clearly established vision of what you wish to achieve. Taking the time to think about what you want to say—and how you want to say it—prior to communicating is a simple and productive first step toward honing this skill set.

Did You Know: Most companies regard communication skills as extremely important, regardless of department or industry. In fact, 77 percent of employers say that “soft skills” like this are just as important as technical skills.

Skill #2: Negotiation

From managing resources, to engaging suppliers, to dealing with team conflict, leading a project means constantly being involved in negotiations. An effective project manager is often a skillful negotiator with the ability to keep involved parties content and working toward a unified goal at all times.

Unavoidable discussions about budgets, scope creep, resources, and timelines can easily become adversarial if not handled tactfully, and savvy project managers instinctively know when—and how—to apply persuasive techniques that will encourage solutions and avoid damaging workplace relationships.

Depending on the situation at hand, project managers may choose to apply different negotiation styles, and it’s important they have the ability to choose which will be the most effective in each given scenario. Where some may call for compromise (in which an agreement with the opposing party is reached), for example, others may call for collaboration (in which a win-win solution is reached), or competition (in which a project is controlling in a win-lose situation). No matter which style they choose, knowing how to effectively navigate these negotiation tactics is a vital tool for successful project managers.

Skill #3: Scheduling and Time Management

Naturally, scheduling is a core facet of the project management function. However, if you’re adept at juggling multiple schedules and can anticipate roadblocks before they occur, you’ll increase your chances of delivering successful projects.

The most common causes of project failure involve poor planning, and include changing priorities within an organization (40 percent), inaccurate requirements (38 percent), changes in project objectives (35 percent), and undefined project goals (30 percent). As this data shows, time management is clearly a valuable project management skill to attain.

Chris Bolick, lead faculty for Northeastern’s MS in Project Management, says the first step to effective time management for project managers starts with creating a well-defined project plan. At the fundamental level, a project plan captures business requirements and project scope, while sequencing activities and resources—all of which will go a long way in saving time and money. 

Read More: Project Management | Job Growth and Talent Gap Report

Skill #4: Leadership 

When managing a team or project, it’s crucial to have strong leadership skills. By effectively coaching, guiding, and motivating your co-workers, you can help move a project forward and deliver a positive outcome. Strong leaders also foster a productive work environment by communicating regularly with their teams and helping their employees develop important project management skills themselves.

Teams also work more efficiently when employees feel they are making a meaningful contribution to the projectYou can help team members feel impactful by learning how to delegate tasks, provide constructive feedback, set goals, and evaluate individual and team performance. Be sure to recognize the achievements of your team members so they know you value their contributions, as well. Combining these elements with your own unique leadership style will help you to successfully manage projects while also becoming a more effective leader.

Skill #5: Technical Expertise

Successful project managers must not only possess the aforementioned soft skills but also have the technical know-how to move projects toward completion. PMs who can “speak the language” of their organization’s subject matter experts will be able to communicate more effectively with their teams and have a better understanding of a project’s inherent risks and potential roadblocks.

Additionally, a practical understanding of popular project management software can have a positive impact on a project manager’s work. These types of programs are frequently used to plan, organize, and communicate with teammates while simultaneously managing resources, budgets, and schedules. In today’s world, this means project managers must also constantly evolve, learning how to leverage the newest technologies available to successfully lead a project to completion. 

Tools that may enhance a project manager’s ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders range from shared drives (e.g., SharePoint, Microsoft Teams, Google Docs) to more technical programs. Microsoft Project and Jira, for example, are popular in IT settings, while Primavera is commonly used for scheduling in the government and construction industries.

Skill #6: Risk Management

Risk management, which involves identifying and planning for potential risks, is a critical competency for project managers. The most productive PMs are able to identify risks at the outset of a project and develop proper mitigation plans in the event that the risk does, in fact, occur. 

Since risks are, by definition, uncertain events, it’s easy for project managers to ignore them and assume they will not happen. But by knowing—and acknowledging—what positive or negative impacts may happen to the project if the risk does occur, project managers can plan ahead to avoid major problems that might otherwise derail a project.

Skill #7: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

While critical thinking is a skill all professionals could benefit from learning, it is particularly useful in the project management discipline. Rather than being reactive, the best project managers are proactive and use their critical thinking skills to navigate through tricky or ambiguous projects.

By remaining objective, analyzing the facts, and evaluating options without bias, project managers are able to solve complex problems for organizations while delivering results on time and within budget.

How to Develop Key Project Management Skills 

If you haven’t mastered all of these skills, don’t worry. The good news is that these skills can be learned. Here’s how:

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice: Like any new ability, these skills take time to learn. If you’re currently in a project management role, be cognizant of utilizing these “tools” in your day-to-day work. If you’ve yet to break into the project management field, seek out opportunities for hands-on learning that will allow you to harness and refine them.
  2. Attend Industry Events and Workshops: Attending local and online events will allow you to learn best practices and stay abreast of the latest project management trends. For example, at Northeastern, each campus—including both the Boston and regional locations—is partnered with a local Project Management Institute chapter. The university encourages students to get involved with these local chapters, as doing so will give you a chance to expand your professional network to include other skilled project managers from whom you can learn. Always be on the lookout for other opportunities to get involved in the project management community, as well. Consider joining professional associations, which can be another way to meet and exchange knowledge with industry experts. The NUPM, for instance, is a project management student organization on Northeastern’s Boston campus—which will soon be expanding to the Seattle location, as well—and is a great option for Northeastern students looking to get involved.
  3. Earn a Degree or Certificate in Project Management: One of the best ways to refine your project management skills is to earn a graduate certificate or degree. Programs like Northeastern’s Master of Science in Project Management provide students with the practical skills and technical expertise needed to lead complex projects to completion. Not only will you master the above skills (and more), but you’ll also have the chance to obtain hands-on experience through an experiential learning program. Additionally, returning to school will connect you with industry experts from around the globe who can help to advance your career.

For more information on breaking into or advancing your career in project management, download our free guide below.


Download Our Free Guide to Breaking Into Project Management


This article was originally published in July 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.