What Makes a Good Project Manager? 10 Questions You Need To Ask of Prospective Hires

A Project Management Article by Michelle LaBrosse, CCPM, PMP, PMI-ACP, RYT

What qualities make a good Project Manager? Whether you’re in a position to hire a new Project Manager, or are looking to advance to this position yourself, there are a few characteristics common to Good Project Managers (and Bad Project Managers) that I’ve identified over several decades of working with many Project Managers in all industries. What I’ve found is that there are a few telltale signs of Good and Bad Project Managers that prospective employers can identify early in the hiring process. Recognizing these signs sooner rather than later can save employers countless headaches that result from dealing with a bad hire - and help aspiring Project Managers avoid behaviors that can limit their potential for career advancement.

In this month’s column, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned over the years about the characteristics of Good Project Managers, as well as those of Bad Project Managers. These qualities apply to Project Managers in any industry and in any size of organization.

To start, what are the signs of a Good Project Manager? Many of these have to do with their communication habits. Good Project Managers:

  1. Communicate just enough information the right way. Rather than over- or under-sharing about their lives, they share the appropriate information at the right time in the right way. They pay attention to what type of communications work best for all the people involved. They genuinely enjoy the interactions, make communicating clearly their priority and make it a point to be as transparent as possible so everyone has all the information they need to make the best decisions possible.
  2. Are consummate professionals. They avoid disclosing irrelevant information about their personal lives that are not pertinent to completing the project. They keep their challenges not related to the project out of the dialogue with others. 
  3. Provide detailed reports on the project plans, progress, the costs incurred to date, and the cash flow needs for various phases. Essentially, they avoid having the client be surprised by any element of the project.

Good Project Managers also have the technical qualifications to carry out their job efficiently and with a high level of quality. These technical qualifications include:

  1. Having the requisite credentials to do the project for which they are hired – whether it be leading a construction project, installing a new computer system, launching a new course, or building a project management support team.
  2. Attracting, hiring, and inspiring good people to do the project work. They don’t just bring someone on the project because they happen to be a friend, owe them a favor, or want to give them a chance. Likewise, they get bad apples off the project team - fast.
  3. Paying close attention to the quality of the project work, as they know that it is a direct reflection of their capabilities.
  4. Mitigating risks in a timely manner. They offer full disclosure when things are not going to work out as planned, and engage qualified people in troubleshooting creative solutions to the challenges that arise.
  5. Working autonomously without the need for oversight. They can be trusted to complete the project to the specifications, within budget, and on time.
  6. Offering fair pricing for their services. They are clear about the costs, the options for various price points, and order only enough materials to do the job at hand. They are good at reining in extraneous costs for doing the project.

Lastly, and most importantly, Good Project Manager get things done. They recognize that the best projects are completed projects, and keep their project team focused on the end goal in spite of setbacks they may encounter along the way. The final telltale sign of a Good Project Manager is:

  1. A focus on completion. They want to finish their project and move on to the next big thing.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Bad Project Managers are similarly easy to identify from the get-go. Bad Project Managers tend to have ineffective or inappropriate communication, lack the technical qualifications to get the job done, and leave many projects unfinished. Some warning signs to watch out for when hiring a new Project Manager (or behaviors to recognize and correct in yourself) are folks who:

  1. Over-share or under-share about their lives. You never really know which end is up with what you are told.
  2. Make excuses. According to them, it’s never their fault why the project is not progressing.
  3. Claim they do not need the credentials and have all the experience they need to do the project. They may be very enthusiastic and charismatic – yet when pushed, they get quite defensive about why they don’t need these credentials.
  4. Try to engage you in helping them with a pressing, personal problem in their life in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Over the years, I have had Project Managers ask me to help them with personal crises unrelated to work - even helping bail a family member out of jail!
  5. Point out all the projects they “worked” on over the years, but is vague on the details of what it was specifically they did on that project.
  6. Like to design things on the fly, and you only find out about problems when the attorneys show up at the door or some government official shuts down your project.
  7. Either charge far too little or far too much for their services. They tend to order way more supplies than they need, and many times the project space is in absolute chaos.
  8. Are perpetually in a state of “almost” being done with plans and progress reports – but you never actually see them. When challenged about this, they get angry and defensive

Oftentimes, these telltale signs of Good and Bad Project Managers will come up when you review their resumes, speak with their former employers, and meet with them for an interview. However, our desire to get along with and assume the best in others might prevent us from telling the difference between someone who just had one case of bad luck from someone who consistently reframes their problems as “bad luck.” Before you bring on a new Project Manager to your team, ask of this person (or of yourself in a self-evaluation):

  1. Are they transparent? Do they let you know their strengths as well as their foibles?
  2. Do they have a history of increasing complexity of their projects? Even if they are young, what is their track record of success?
  3. Can you contact people who have used them in the past who was not listed on their references? Any reference someone provides should say glowing things about them – but what about the ones they don’t provide?
  4. In interactions, do they keep their personal life personal? (This one is HUGE – I can’t tell you how often I hear about someone’s recovering alcoholism, former drug addiction, recent divorce, trouble their children get into with the law, etc.) This is now a big red flag for me on hiring them to work on any project.
  5. Who has worked with and for them in the past, and for how long have these people worked for them? If they can pull from a wide cross-section of skilled people, they more than likely have done a fairly good job managing them in the past.
  6. How well do they communicate the actual work of the project, their decision making processes, and where specifically they will need your input? I can get a sense of this with how they handle themselves in our early exploratory interactions.
  7. How do they react when things do not go their way? Do they stay calm and work with others towards a mutually agreeable solution - or do they get angry, and resort to aggressive forms of behavior? If it’s the latter, take a pass on this person.
  8. What is their approach in bidding for the project? Do they have an established process, or do they simply give you a quote and avoid too many details? If you have an established process for accepting bids, how compliant are they with following your process?
  9. Do they have the guts to tell you what you are asking for may be very hard for them to do, but that they may know someone who could help you? Regardless, they are honest about their abilities to do the project you are requesting.
  10. What is their ability to complete the work they started? You can judge this by assessing the completion of things in their own life – if much of what they need to do the project is in a state of near completion, or needs some type of major repair, you can pretty much be guaranteed that your project could go the same route.

Asking these questions of prospective Project Managers will give you a good sense of whether they’ll be an asset or a liability for your project team. Following these guidelines doesn’t mean that I now dismiss everyone as unqualified. It does mean, however, I have become more discerning and take more time evaluating their qualifications for the task at hand. This needs to be the ultimate concern when hiring a new Project Manager: not how well they say they’ve done on previous projects, how many degrees they have, or how much you like them personally - but how qualified they are to carry out the tasks at hand. By asking pointed questions about their communication habits, technical qualifications, and record of completing projects, you set yourself up to find the right Project Manager to help your organization soar.

About the Author

Michelle LaBrosse, CCPM, PMP, PMI-ACP, RYT

Michelle LaBrosseMichelle LaBrosse, PMP, is an entrepreneurial powerhouse with a penchant for making success easy, fun and fast. She is the founder of Cheetah Learning, the author of the Cheetah Success Series, and a prolific blogger whose mission is to bring Project Management to the masses.

Cheetah Learning is a virtual company with 100 employees, contractors, and licensees worldwide. To date, more than 50,000 people have become “Cheetahs” using Cheetah Learning’s innovative Project Management and accelerated learning techniques.

Michelle also developed the Cheetah Certified Project Manager (CCPM) program based on Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality profiling to help students master how to use their unique strengths for learning, doing projects, and negotiating. CCPM graduates are able to choose the right projects and complete those projects “cheetah fast” based on their personality. They also learn how to leverage others’ strengths which significantly improves overall project team performance. When an employer has a cadre of CCPMs on staff, they achieve whatever they set out to achieve in record time. This is why over 90% of Cheetah's clients experience an increase in both profitability and revenue within the first year of retaining Cheetah Learning for their Project Management training needs.

Honored by the Project Management Institute (PMI®), Cheetah Learning was named Professional Development Provider of the Year at the 2008 PMI® Global Congress. A dynamic keynote speaker and industry thought leader, Michelle is recognized by PMI as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the world.

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