Top 5 Competencies for Strategic Project Managers

A maze and direction

Elizabeth Harrin

I think that managing different types of projects requires different skills. There are a lot of overlaps and the core competencies remain the same. However, having worked on ‘ordinary’ and ‘strategic’ projects I have seen first-hand that the requirements of the project manager are different.

Here are the 5 top competencies that I think are particularly important for project managers in a strategic project delivery role.

It is so, so important that you learn how to communicate effectively at all levels. The types of communication you do when managing small, tactical projects are not the same when you are working on initiatives that are strategically important.

You didn’t get to manage a strategic project through being bad at communication, so you probably already have good skills in this area. But there is always more to develop.

On strategic projects, you will have more need to use your negotiating, influencing and conflict resolution skills – yes, these are a type of communication.

You might be giving more presentations, to more senior people who have a higher expectation of your delivery. You’ll be in meetings with external parties who have significant influence: perhaps government officials, regulators or industry representatives. At this level, there is more exposure, and more possibility to get it wrong.

Learning effective communication skills will help you get heard. And when you get heard, you have more chance of being able to secure the resources you need to effectively deliver your projects, winning the support required.

Having a business-orientated mindset elevates what you do as a project manager from someone who simply delivers what they are asked, to someone who adds real business value.

When you are on a strategic project, this is crucial. You have to understand the link between what you are doing and the wider business. You need to be able to see the implications for other teams. And if you don’t know what they are, you need to know that there probably are some implications and go out and find them.

Business acumen, and being able to think in a business-focused way, will help you communicate in a language that managers understand. It gives you the context for the change. You are better able to share the vision for the project with other people and see how it fits into the bigger picture.

I think this is probably the single most important competency to develop because it’s not often considered or taught on courses in the same way that skills like communication and interpersonal skills are. Yet it has the ability to set you apart from the crowd as the project manager who really ‘gets it’.

You might not have previously considered coaching to be a core skill. However, on strategic projects, it is essential that you have the right people doing the right work. That might mean that you are developing people as you go.

Coaching helps your team find their strengths. On large projects, you can’t always be there to hold someone’s hand. Team members need to be able to step up themselves, act confidently and do what is required. And you need to trust them to be able to do that.

Learn how to coach. It will make a huge difference in your team’s performance. And if you can get a coach yourself, you’ll see big improvements in the way you lead your team too.

Project managers know how to manage a budget. However, that’s typically a short-term endeavour that is separate from the profit and loss accounting of a team.

When you take on a role in strategic projects, you are more likely to need to understand the longer term financial implications of the project. Understanding how budgets are created and managed outside of a project environment can help.

This skill is also essential if you move into programme management, as many programmes involve an element of business as usual activity too. This would involve the day-to-day operational financial management and perhaps being responsible for the P&L for your area too.

Learning how to develop a budget from scratch is a helpful skill for all roles. You can take that further by improving your ability to talk about money, communicating why you need it, sharing the latest financial reporting information and decoding what the statements mean for your team.

Leadership isn’t always given to you. Sometimes you have to step up and take charge because no one else is.

On large projects, it’s unlikely that you’ll find no one in charge from an executive management perspective. All strategic projects should be sponsored by someone very senior in the organisation, so while you are in charge of the project itself, the outcomes and strategic direction will most likely be led by someone else.

However, you will find moments where there is a leadership vacuum. Someone is on holiday. A particular element of the project has fallen through the cracks as it isn’t clear where it sits. These are the times where you need to extend your leadership reach, step up and take charge – even if that is simply in an interim capacity until someone else comes along.

This is a difficult competency to practice, but you can improve your leadership skills for managing organisational change.

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