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What’s The Profile of a Good Project Manager?

profile of good project manager

Management often wishes they had a very clear mechanism for identifying candidates who will turn out to be better than average project managers. They know that having to rely on their gut works fairly well but still feel there must be a better way to evaluate candidates in order to succeed more often.

For over a decade, Systemation evaluated projects managers using their comprehensive Project Manager Assessment. The overwhelming majority of the project managers assessed were part of a larger training and coaching program, where a Systemation coach mentored each project manager for two hours, every other week, for six months. Because of this, Systemation became intimately aware of the project manager’s strengths and weaknesses in performance and was able to reflect back on the management assessment results and draw specific conclusions.

Before we discuss these findings, you first need to know some management background information. The assessment has three distinct categories: knowledge, skills, and aptitudes. The knowledge portion identifies through multiple choice questions the amount of PMBOK® Guide knowledge the project manager comprehends. The skills component targets the softer skills and assesses them using a 360 degree tool. Lastly, the aptitudes evaluate the core characteristics of the individual project manager through a battery of psychological tests. In advance, it was clear that the knowledge and skills categories would improve over the course of the Systemation management program but aptitudes were core to the individual and not easily changeable without a major environmental change and five to ten years of time. Given that, Systemation was not sure what trends would develop in the years to come related to aptitudes and the ultimate profile for a good project manager.

Hundreds of assessments later the profile for a good project manager looks like this:

People Oriented

Good project managers must be people oriented. They must enjoy interacting with people, recognize emotions in others, and empathize with others. Less than 14% of the people chosen to go through the assessment scored low on their people orientation. All of those who did score low in this aptitude struggled significantly in building relationships and getting the most out of their team; they ultimately had to be reassigned to another position. The lesson here is that people orientation is the most important aptitude in project management and those selecting project manager candidates usually have a good feel for the presence of this aptitude too.


The next aptitude in importance is how centered a project manager is. A project manager is centered when they are confident, aware of their own assets and liabilities, desire to achieve, remain calm in stressful conditions, and flex when plans do not go as expected.  If they scored moderate to high, as 81% did, their performance was not negatively impacted by this aptitude. If the score was low they tended to be seen as being emotionally volatile and not safe for their team members to get behind and follow. If this aptitude is not strong enough it can undermine a project manager’s other strengths to the point they too cannot remain in the project management position.

One of the biggest surprises was the remaining four aptitudes (big picture oriented, creative, systematic, and detail oriented) had a distinct correlation. . Let’s look at each of these before we dive into the correlation.

Big Picture Oriented and Creative

Big picture oriented is when one sees the future in high resolution, keeps a vigilant focus on the project’s goal, and acquires the appropriate level of perspective in order to comprehend the whole. Creative project managers think in ways outside of the norm and identify multiple solutions to problems. Project managers always scored high or low in these two areas in unison.  This makes sense since they both come from the right side of the brain. Project managers who scored low in these areas tended to struggle with comprehending the project as a whole, seeing the over the horizon consequences, and coming up with solutions to maneuvering the project to keep it on track.

Systematic and Detail Oriented

Project managers, who are systematic, are organized and structured in their approach to work and accept regimented consistency for the sake of management efficiency. Those that are detail oriented focus on the here and now and strive for breadth, completeness, and correctness at the lowest level of detail. Here again, project managers always scored high or low in these two areas in unison as they both come from the left side of the brain. If project managers score low in these areas, they do not consistently acquire detailed status on the project from their team members, they don’t put in the time to re-forecast regularly with precision, and they generally become disconnected from the current state of the project.

The surprising correlation is that project managers either scored high in the aptitudes of big picture oriented and creative and low in systematic and detail oriented or vice versa. Ultimately, this data resulted in the identification of specific strengths and weaknesses in good project managers. No more than 3% of the project managers assessed scored low on all four of these aptitudes.

Only 6 % of the project managers evaluated scored high on all six aptitudes. All of them remained project managers for only 18 to 24 months and moved on to the next rung on the corporate ladder. They were stellar project managers and excellent in all facets of the discipline.

If you look at the spectrum of poor to excellent project managers, very few people being considered as candidates for a project management position will fail, the vast majority will meet the profile of a good project manager, and very few will be stellar. From this data, management has to realize their chance of finding a top notch project manager and having them around for some time is remote. They have a far greater chance of finding a good project manager who will have a specific set of weaknesses that can be identified and helped using some coping mechanisms. It’s not the ideal dream management envisions but at least it’s a reality that can be managed.

*PMBOK is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

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