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Project Management is People Management

Damien Coffey is Linesight's Director of Project Management in the USA. Having amassed extensive industry experience, he reflects on why People Management is the number one skill needed by a PM.

I was recently asked what the number one skill that a Project Manager needs to be successful was. I initially thought about all the skills that the established educational institutions would say that you need, like Scheduling, Resource Management, Risk Management, Budget Management, Safety and Change Management. I could not rank any of these as the number one skill, as they are all arguably equally important. But then it struck me; the number one skill that a good Project Manager needs is People Management. A good Project Manager will need this skill in order to manage his project team, as they are the essential component to enable successful management of all the other project elements. When I gave my answer, the inquirer was taken aback, having expected me to rattle off Scheduling, Risk, Budget or Change Management. He then asked me why I had answered People Management, and I recounted this story.

I have been in the construction industry for almost 35 years. I started in architecture for about ten years, and then progressed into Project Management before it was even a discipline. I felt more at home managing the whole project rather than just one element, which in my previous case was design. Over the years, I have found that no matter the level of involvement at which you manage a project, whether as the owner’s representative or a contractor, to have a successful project you need a solid team of people around you.

I was recently given the task of project managing a large Data Center project for a multinational IT company. The earlier phase of the project had taken 18 months to complete. But the owner set a target of halving that time for the next phase. For that to happen, we needed everyone from the design team through to the contractor all on the same page. And as anyone will tell you, the relationships between the owner, design, contractor and subcontractor can become fraught, at best, when working on an extremely fast-tracked project that still has considerable budgetary constraints. You also must have a huge focus on safety, as the risk gets higher of an accident as you go faster.

So, we set up a high-performance leadership team, which consisted of me as the lead PM (representing the owner), the design leads, the owner’s Facility Manager (who would be accepting the new facility) and the Contractor. This group was tasked with creating a team culture that would be conducive to success, and to spread that culture down to the craft level onsite. This was a daunting undertaking, particularly as we broke ground while we were still at the design stage. To support the leadership team, we brought in a great consultancy firm, which was well-versed in guiding companies through culture change. There were many challenges, such as a lack of belief that the schedule could be achieved by all parties, a lack of trust/openness between all parties, and the after-effects of those who worked on the first phase. 

So, through a number of workshops, team meetings, and the openness and trust exercised by the client and PM team, the desired team culture prevailed, and all team members engaged with it. When the culture began to take hold, the difference in the project progress was palpable, and all problems, issues and risks were dealt with in an open manner. This was supported by a no-blame culture, and we completed our project on time and within budget, with a sense of pride within all of the team. 

As a result of being involved in this successful project, I found my thinking evolving, from my primary focus being on the obvious project tenets of scheduling, budget, risk and change, to focusing on bringing a good team on board, and cultivating a culture whereby all members feel that they are a part of the team with a valued input. I am now a huge fan of this approach, and will try to bring this type of culture to all of my projects in the future. I think it is the only way to achieve the near-impossible schedules that we deal with in the High-Tech project world.

One last point; the educational entities that teach Project Management should start looking at coaching the up-and-coming young Project Managers in how to manage people as one of the most important skills they will need. While all of the traditional skills are hugely important, this ‘soft skill’ of People Management will undoubtedly stand to them throughout their careers as Project Managers.   

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