A common expression for describing momentum in a career is that it’s not what you know, but who you know. This implies that you may be the smartest person in the room, but unless you know other people in the room, smarts alone will not help you move forward.
How do you get to know these other people? Have conversations and keep in touch. Show interest, empathy, and concern. Help them out when you can, expecting nothing in return and show thoughtfulness along the way. Not one of these actions has anything to do with personal knowledge. Rather, it has everything to do with social and interpersonal skills. Eventually, they’ll find out how much you know (hard skills) and how tightly those skills couple with your interpersonal abilities (soft skills).
But, why should you care about soft skills as a project manager, what key skills are critical for project management success, and how can you get these skills?
What’s the Difference Between Hard and Soft Skills?
First, let’s define Hard and Soft Skills. Hard skills are measurable abilities. It answers the question, “Do you know how to…?” It’s the skills needed to create a Work Breakdown Structure, find the critical path for a project, or put together a project plan with enough contingencies to account for the unknown. These hard skills are obtained through education, experience, training, and certifications.
Soft skills, on the other hand, are people skills. This is the mix of social and interpersonal skills, professional attitudes, and character traits that your position as project manager requires. Examples include patience, attention to detail, and the ability to play well with others. These skills are acquired through life experiences or are personality traits.
Both are important. There’s a floor of hard skills everyone must meet to be competent. But, it’s the addition of soft skills that makes a project manager successful.
What Happens if You Don’t Have Soft Skills?
In a word, friction. Think about what would happen if your car’s engine ran out of oil. Friction and heat build until the engine can’t take it anymore and blows, leaving you stranded on the side of the road. Oil keeps the friction low, the heat at a manageable temperature, and the engine running smoothly.
If you run your project team without soft skills, you are running your engine without oil. It’s only a matter of time before the friction creates too much heat and your team will start to break down. You’ll start seeing reduced performance, lower commitment levels, increased complaints to Human Resources, and ultimately people leaving your team to find other positions.
What are the Top Soft Skills for a Project Manager?
You must learn and incorporate soft skills into your project management relationships to prevent the above from happening. What are the best soft skills to develop? There will be as many answers to this question as there are project managers. Below is our take on the top soft skills a project manager should possess in order of importance:
- Leadership - Even though ‘manager’ is in the title of Project Manager, you are in reality a project leader. The team, customers, and stakeholders look to you for clarity, direction, and a sense of belonging. Nothing moves until you say go, and you need to be leading the troops to make this happen.
- Communication - If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If you put together a status report and no one opens your email, does it make an impact? Communication is key to a project manager’s success. It’s up to you (the sender) to make sure that they (the receiver) understand what you are conveying.
- Adaptability - Do you remember all the plans you had in place March 2020 for the rest of the year? Then, the pandemic hit. Every plan everywhere went out the window as companies scrambled to figure out what’s next. Hopefully, a black swan event like that doesn’t happen again anytime soon, but it shows the unpredictability of the future. It’s critical for you and your teams that you have the skills to pivot on a dime.
- Resilience - Resiliency is the ability to bounce back when the going gets tough. This goes hand-in-hand with adaptability. Mistakes will be made when pivoting so quickly. Project managers need to have the ability to own these mistakes, fix them, and still hold their heads high for the next challenge around the corner.
- Teamwork - Teamwork is number five on the list? Shouldn’t teamwork be number one? The first four are like putting the emergency oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others (see Is Your Work/Life Ratio Balanced). Your strong leadership, communication, adaptability, and resiliency skills act as a solid foundation–an immovable bedrock–upon which to build your team.
- Problem-Solving Skills - At its core, project management is about solving problems. Every project manager must be able to identify issues, find the root cause, come up with solutions, and then make a decision. Quickly.
The above list is not exhaustive, as there are scores of soft skills to master. But, think about how your reputation as a strong project manager will soar if you start with these six.
SOLUTIONS MADE SIMPLE SUMMARY
How to Improve Your Soft Skills
Want a quick path to improving your soft skills? Follow these steps:
- Review the list above and sort by your weakest to strongest soft skills.
- Remove any soft skills that may not apply (shouldn’t be many).
- Add any soft skills that are important to you or your company.
- Develop your own personal soft skill set curriculum (courses, books, webinars, classes, etc.).
- Review with your manager to receive input, find out what the company can provide, and add accountability.
- Review progress by adding to your regular one-on-ones with your manager or include in your performance goals.
Soft skills are the interpersonal competencies that keep your projects running smoothly. To quote an oft-used phrase, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Develop your soft skills as a project manager and your project team will have no doubt how much you care!
Hard skills are measurable abilities. It answers the question, “Do you know how to…?” Hard skills are obtained through education, experience, training, and certifications.
Soft skills are people skills. This is the mix of social and interpersonal skills, professional attitudes, and character traits that your position as project manager requires. Soft skills are acquired through life experiences or are personality traits.
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